House Swapping: Life in the Hamptons—Free European Vacations!

Lough Derg, Ireland.
Lough Derg, Ireland. Photo credit: Annette Hinkle

I have a confession to make: My husband and I enjoy a rather unconventional lifestyle … and not everyone is comfortable with it.

We’re house swappers.

When I tell people this, some love the idea and say they can’t wait to try it themselves (few ever do), while others say they will never go there.

“What about your stuff?” ask the naysayers.

“What, you mean my diamond tiara?” I respond.

In fact, most of the homes we stay in abroad have far better “stuff” than our own. Granted, the U.S. has it over Europe when it comes to plumbing and pillows, but we’ve been in homes with some pretty cool artifacts—a framed Émile Zola letter and an authentic Roman vase are the first that come to mind.

Still, I understand. The notion of letting complete strangers have the run of your house can be unsettling, because unlike rentals, house swappers leave their lives intact—down to the kid’s artwork on the refrigerator and the clothes in the closet (incidentally, giving up a drawer and a few hangers is all that’s required).

Yes, many are uncomfortable with the idea. But the fact is, house swapping has served us well.

It all started in August 2006 when my husband and I opted out of the insanity that is summer in the Hamptons by swapping our modest home in Northwest Woods for an apartment in Paris for a month. The apartment was a three-story industrial space owned by a fashion photographer who used it as her home and studio. It was steps from where Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo and around the corner from the café in the film Amélie.

And it was fabulous. The apartment came complete with toys for our then 5-year-old daughter and rooftop views of the Eiffel Tower. During our time there, we came to know the ins and outs of Paris like tourists never do. We got to know our cheese purveyor, our produce guy and the wine seller. We learned side streets, found hidden cafés, and discovered a quiet park where my daughter mastered a two-wheeler (courtesy of our swapper’s own young son who had a bike just her size).

For us, what began as an experiment to escape Hamptons madness has since become a way of life. We have used the website for all our swaps and have spent every August somewhere great—a beach bungalow near the Mediterranean, a rambling house on an Irish lake, and a villa amidst a grove of olive trees overlooking the Tiber River near Rome, to name just a few.

We’ve never gone to the same place twice, and from Sweden to Spain have come to know both big cities and small villages. Along the way, my daughter has had first-hand experiences in places many people only read about in books.

Just a few weeks ago, we returned from our latest swap—a quaint apartment in the center of Amsterdam, which came with a garden, museum passes, bikes and Bibi and Lulu, the two cats we agreed to care for. We also swap cars—they got my 2004 Camry and we got their Porsche Cayenne. Never mind that a car is a ridiculous thing to have in Amsterdam, it made for a great day in the countryside nonetheless.

Do things go wrong with house swaps? Yes. Glasses break and drains clog (swappers always leave notes detailing problems). One summer, the back bumper of my car got crunched while parked in East Hampton—a hit and run. Our swapper emailed a picture of the damage while we were still overseas and gave us the money to fix it within a month of our return (by the way, most insurance policies cover guests driving your car for short periods of time).

But none of these issues have been deal breakers, and now we have a list of people all over Europe who have stayed in our home and are happy to give us advice on our next destination or meet up for a drink when we’re in their neighborhood.

We don’t always get to meet, but this summer, our Amsterdam swappers arrived in New York a week early to spend time in the city before heading out to our place. On the day we flew to Amsterdam, we met at a restaurant near Kennedy Airport to hand over our car and get a lift to our terminal.

During lunch, talk inevitably turned to travel and Karin, our Dutch guest, noted that when she talks about house swapping, friends always ask, “What about your stuff? Don’t you worry people might be having sex in your bed?”

“Well I certainly hope they are!” responded Karin adamantly in an example of Dutch laissez-faire liberalism I would come to witness many times over during my stay in Amsterdam.

And let me tell you…that’s not something you’re likely to pick up from any guidebook.

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