A Long-term House Exchange in New York - Ten Tips!

For the last few years we've been renting our California home out for months at a time and traveling. We started with "Our Small Adventure" - four months in Paris in 2012 and haven't stopped since, with various trips including the self explanatory "Mad Dash Across Too Much"  in Asia, trips to Rome, Lisbon, Cuba  and Colombia as well as several months in London. I've written a lot about our travels but also about Sabbaticalhomes.com  which we've used frequently to find both renters and places to stay. Here's spring in London a few years ago.

We've been lucky because our home is closed to a university and therefore desirable to visiting academics. We have a close network of neighbors who have welcomed the visitors and we've met extraordinarily nice, reliable friendly people. Most have been academics in their 50's & 60's but we've welcomed cats and dogs and a young family with a baby too. Everything has worked out just fine. Once you open up your life to living in a different way and trusting others to share your home your options increase, particularly when you can work from anywhere.

I don't want to sound too hokey but sometimes you have to be able to imagine something different in order for it to happen. Here's what I wrote a couple of years ago...

"We will be heading to London next spring where we've sublet a two bedroom flat from an American cultural historian. It was available for three months and we jumped on it. You have to be flexible and take things when they are available but that works for us. Ideally we'd exchange our home which is something we're looking into next. So, if you live near a university you might want to think about exchanging or renting your place, it's a great way to kickstart a more mobile life."

This photos was taken in Paris on "Our Small Adventure" .

Well it took a couple of years but as any of you who follow me on Instagram know the  exchang idea has worked out wonderfully. Again it's all about flexibility and grabbing things when they come around - which is of course much easier for us as we work from home and don't have pets or children. I do get that this isn't an option most people  have but it's certainly something to consider for retirement! I saw a Sabbatical Homes post from a New York  academic looking for a nine month rental or exchange right in our neighborhood. They both had doctorates from Berkeley and  knew the area well enough to know exactly where they'd like to live. We had returned from New York two days before and had been talking about how  to spend more time in the city. Over the previous year we had rented two apartments for a couple of weeks in Manhattan and loved our time in the city. However, it's expensive  and difficult to sublet and we couldn't see how we could turn our desire into opportunity, but  then, right there in the ad was a possibility.

Nine months, the entire academic year from September - June, was longer than we had anticipated staying and we had been looking forward to spending some time at home in California. However, the exchange meant moving fast, rescheduling visitors and  making a quick decision. Sometimes when you're given what you've hoped for you still have to stop and question yourself, "is this really what I want right now?" However, when an opportunity comes you also have to just jump into the uncertainty and we went ahead because we couldn't imagine this opportunity coming again.

This wasn't just an exchange with great, friendly people it was also to our favorite neighborhood in New York, the Upper West Side. Though the apartment is a fourth floor walk up which means there are a LOT of stairs and the shared laundry is in the basement, it's elegant and light and even more astonishingly it came with a beautiful private roof terrace, which is almost an  inconceivable luxury. There were photos of the deck in the original advert but we had no idea it was as beautiful as you can see above! 

The photo above and the ones below should give you some idea of what they found at our house. I haven't included pictures of the interior of their home out of respect for their privacy. One of the things to remember is that exchanges are non-commercial. No money changes hands and they aren't about swapping "like for like" they're all about swapping for what people want, thus location, size and amenities rather than value are central. Can they bring their pet? Is there parking or is your car available? Is there outdoor space, a study or a spare bedroom?

I'm delighted we jumped at the possibility when it came up and we've been very lucky to meet such personable, decent people. I'm a keen follower of  General Lafayette wonderful motto "Cur Non" or "Why Not", it's a great way to live and it pretty much summarizes our thoughts going into this process!  As when you rent your home, flexibility and generosity is key. We've given the exchangers our car and none of us  made a fuss when small things have gone wrong. When the house next door  to ours sold unexpectedly (right before the exchange  started) we disclosed everything immediately and gave them the option to back out when it became clear that there would be a lot of construction noise.
Central Park was at the end of the block and the Central Park Reservoir  was where I walked multiple times once a week.

So, here are my ten tips for making your exchange work:

  • Do a Skype walk-through of the house in advance. This gives you a chance to present your home, see their place and to evaluate each other. We had several Skype meetings. Be honest about any drawbacks or challenges in your home. Trust your instinct, decline the possibility if it doesn't feel right.
  • De-personalize your house, clear things out to give the exchangers some space. This may not be an issue for short term exchanges but on a longer term exchange it means a lot. Lock away any financial documents or valuables.
  • Leave a comprehensive document detailing requests, resources  emergency contacts, suggestions  on all topics including wifi, garden, what do do when things go wrong etc. I recommend sending this to the exchangers or renters in advance. This gives them an opportunity to ask questions and suggests what they might leave for you too.
  • Make sure things are in reasonable condition before you leave. We made sure the car had it's regular tune up and I replaced the washer and dryer which we had been meaning to get around to anyway.
  • Be realistic. Do sign a simple contract, it enables you to consider all the ramifications and it's easy to do. You can find a sample on Sabbaticalhomes.com  
  • Let your neighbors know about the exchange so they can welcome the exchangers.
  • Stay in contact and make sure you're available if they have questions, particularly at the beginning. 
  • Don't expect them to do regular maintenance. If you want to return to a reasonable garden hire a gardener.
  • Try to take any accidents, breakages or problems in your stride - remind yourself everyone is doing their best. If you would be heartbroken if that vase, pot or plate was broken then put it away before you leave.
  • When you arrive wait a week before making your mind up about whether it is working or not. First impressions are often unreliable. Initially I was disappointed by the place we rented in London  but within a few  days had I change my mind  and  I had a better sense for the advantages of the neighborhood!
Here's our breathtaking  New York rooftop in the snow. While I loved it all I must confess I did miss our friends, the weather and our beautiful bedroom in California. However, I highly recommend trying a home exchange, it's unusual to find one for as long as we did but it's a great way to see something of the way people live elsewhere and an affordable way to relocate your life, or to travel - why not give it a go!


Unknown said…
Hey Gidday 😃. Well written - I really enjoyed reading this post and seeing the photos. As you know, I'm already a fan and can't wait for our chance to do another 😉. Hope all is well, Lea
Thanks Lea - I appreciate the comment and I'm so glad this resonates with someone who has done lots of exchanges. I'm sure we've got lots more to learn about exchangeing but like you we are looking forward to the next one!