MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Swapping houses

For budget travelers, keys to a borrowed home open a lot of doors.

A Lincoln Park condo.


Beth and Torsten in their borrowed condo in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

It’s a leap of faith, letting strangers stay in your house.

But if you take that leap, you can land in some pretty nice places.

The home-exchange concept is simple: You vacation in my house, I vacation in yours. It was pioneered in 1953 by teachers in Europe, and it got a big boost by the 2007 movie “The Holiday.’’

Unlike movie characters, however, few of us have a Hollywood mansion or English cottage to exchange. And most people who have nice homes to exchange want to go to tourist hot spots: California, New York, Hawaii, France and Italy.

Still, a few people want to come to such relative backwaters as Minneapolis and Milwaukee, mainly to visit family and friends. My husband and I have listed our home at HomeExchange.com, and one year we had inquiries from people in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cozumel, Germany, Pasadena, the Bay Area and Asheville, N.C.

It’s still hard to arrange an exchange unless you have a lot of vacation time or a second home that’s always available to guests. High air fares are an obstacle, too. But finally, we made it work.

Visitors from Washington, D.C.

One spring, a young couple from Washington, D.C., asked if they could spend Labor Day weekend at our house in Minneapolis. They wanted to see a Twins game, ride bikes to the State Fair and visit friends.

We couldn’t manage a stay at their apartment near the Capitol before they moved to Kentucky, so we turned them down. But they persisted. Would we like to trade for a stay at the homes of friends in Boston? New York? New Hampshire?

Finally, we agreed to let Daniel and Ashley stay in our house in exchange for three nights at a Chicago condo whose owner, Elvis, had stayed at their D.C. home and owed them eight nights. (Yes, this is known as a three-way.)

Elvis is a serial exchanger, traveling with his girlfriend, Jill, and he cheerfully offered us a choice of dates.

Home exchangers in Minneapolis.


Ashley and Daniel at their borrowed home in Minneapolis.

“I discovered home exchange while watching 'The Holiday,’ " he wrote via email. “I joined the same day, and the rest is history. Now we travel all the time, and for peanuts!’’

A few weeks before they arrived, Daniel called to ask if it would be okay if his brother came along with a couple of his college friends who, he assured us, were the clean-cut type.

Um, sure. The week before Labor Day, Daniel said his brother would like to  bring three friends, not two. Hmm . . . four college boys in our house. Oh, okay.

We met the four polite young men, who drove up from Kentucky, but not Daniel and Ashley, who flew in and went straight to Target Field for a game.

Then we went camping. We returned on Monday to an immaculate house, a plate of Sweet Martha’s chocolate-chip cookies from the Fair and a nice note: “Thank you so much for having us here!’’

Whew. Then it was our turn.

Exchanging in Chicago

On Halloween weekend, Elvis and Jill welcomed us to their home in Chicago. It was a small unit in a plain 1970s building, but it had a great location in Lincoln Park, near restaurants, shops, blues bars and a train stop.

It turned out that they hadn’t spent a weekend at the place since July; when someone wants to stay there and they’re not traveling themselves, they stay at Jill’s place or with Elvis’ parents.

So far, they’ve exchanged for a beachfront cottage in San Diego and homes in San Francisco, New York and Savannah, Ga. For their February birthdays, they traveled to Paris.

Often, through exchanges of emails and phone calls, they get to know their hosts well. They stayed twice at Daniel and Ashley's home and now consider them friends.

“I love Home Exchange, the people we’ve met and the experiences we’ve had,’’ Jill said.

They haven't loved every guest; once, a couple from Memphis arrived at the one-bedroom unit with three extra people, unannounced, and left melted candle wax on the countertops and muddy linens on the floor.

“But that’s just one out of probably 20 times,’’ Elvis said. 

South Pond in Lincoln Park.

© Beth Gauper

Lincoln Park is named for the park that separates the neighborhood from Lake Michigan and includes a zoo, conservatory and two large ponds.

We barely used their place, because there was so much to see and do nearby. We liked Elvis' neighborhood so much, we wished we lived there ourselves.

We can't, but we can keep our foot in the door — at least another dozen families offer homes in Lincoln Park. The price is right, too.

Arranging an exchange

I also exchanged homes in 1991, when I traveled to Sweden. That was a mixed experience, and I learned a lot.

For more about that, and a how-to guide to arranging an exchange, see Trading places.

Some people use Craigslist to arrange an exchange. Elvis did twice, and says they  went well, but he won't do it again.

"I like the security of exchanging with a member (of HomeExchange),'' he says. "Plus, they have to pay to be on it, and there's a screening process.''

Elvis says he once asked a Craigslist host for identification, because people have been known to offer homes they don't own.

"I think he was a little offended, but you have to do it,'' he says.

Making it work

Once you've arranged an exchange, you have a responsibility to make your guests' vacation in your home go as smoothly as possible.

At a minimum, that means cleaning and tidying. We also left our guests juice, milk and cereal for breakfasts and maps of the city and bike trails.

But we failed to check our bike tires, and Daniel and Ashley couldn't figure out how to use our fancy bike pump. Luckily, one of our neighbors lent Ashley her bike, and they had a great time riding around.

Then the 2-year-old deadbolt lock on our front door inexplicably failed, and poor Daniel and Ashley thought they'd broken it.

Next time, we'll write up a little user's manual for guests as well as some reminders to ourselves (check bike tires and toilet-tissue supply). And we'll include phone numbers of neighbors and friends who can help with problems.

In Chicago, Elvis and Jill left maps for us, too. They also had a little caddy filled with coupons and menus and two guidebooks on a coffee table I dubbed their "concierge corner.''

They exchange so frequently — and also rent through Airbnb — that they're pros, even using dedicated sheets and towels for guests.

"Now we're in the rhythm, so we know what we've gotta do,'' Jill said.

A cabin in Mercer, Wis.

© Beth Gauper

Our lakefront house in Mercer, Wis., came with kayaks to use.

Even so, we had trouble with the dial on the motel-style heater-cooler in their bedroom. And the shower handle came off when I pulled it.

But those were minor annoyances. Mostly, we were relieved to find that other people's houses, like ours, aren't perfect.

More exchanges, good and bad

We've also had wonderful exchanges for a townhouse near Boston's Copley Square, a lakefront house in Mercer, Wis., and another condo in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

But when we made our home available for five nights over a holiday to an extended family of five from Madison, Wis., we had a hard time scheduling our own exchange for even a long weekend.

Tip: If you agree to a non-simultaneous exchange, get your hosts to agree in advance to the dates for your future stay.

And we pulled our listing after an exchange with a family from Oak Park, Ill., that included two teen-age girls. During their stay, someone spilled something on our custom-cut, supposedly impermeable 3-year-old Silestone countertop that created a fist-sized stain.

We still don't know how they did it. But if we ever exchange again, we will either avoid families with teen-agers or ask for a security deposit.

Last updated on September 17, 2015