House-swapping is the ultimate credit-crunch holiday – free accommodation and the chance to live like a local in a foreign city. Juliet Kinsman and family took the plunge last month, trading their British home for a funky Brooklyn brownstone
Published in The Guardian, Sunday 17 August 2008
Juliet Kinsman exchanged her Victorian terraced house in north-west London for a 2-bed flat in leafy Brooklyn. Photograph: Anna Schori Anna Schori/Anna Schori
Exchanging a Victorian terraced house in north-west London for a two-bedroom garden flat in leafy Brooklyn may not sound like the craziest plot for a summer holiday adventure - until you mention that it's with total strangers you met on the internet. Cue images of a psychopath naked but for your underwear, cloning your identity from your home computer and diverting your mortgage payments to Colombian paramilitaries.
Mercifully, there was only one real Hollywood-style jaw-dropper storyline in our four-week trade-off with the New York family of four we met via the Craigslist website - and that was discovering that our tradee had written and directed the blockbuster movie we went to on our first date. Well, that and a scene during our sojourn where we walked in to find the apartment had apparently been ransacked. Savour that as a cliffhanger.
Craigslist, the online listings community, played Cupid in our search for fellow property swingers. My notice requested a child-friendly home in Brooklyn and, to widen the net, I mentioned that we didn't mind cat-sitting. This proved to be the clincher. Serendipity perhaps - although my other half felt we might have attained somewhere a little more deluxe had I bothered to hold out beyond the first application and ditched the pet reference. The feline care offer may have been over-generous - heatwaves, housebound kittens and litter trays proved a heady combo, especially when teamed with a 10-month-old baby. But it was nothing a few tetanus jabs back home on the dear old NHS couldn't sort out, I assured him.
Courtship consisted of a handful of emails and, at our new American friends' request, a conference call (I think our handing back and forth of the handset may have been rumbled). We were inviting each other into our private worlds and hadn't held hands, let alone shared a romantic dinner, yet already we'd metaphorically thrown our keys in the bowl. Sounding like a corny Hallmark card, a friend suggested that I stop thinking of them as strangers, but friends we'd never met. We went with the gut feeling that these were good people.
Just as you'd ask a pal for the lowdown on your new locale, the cornerstone to our life swap was providing fully road-tested blueprints on how best to enjoy our new neighbourhoods. Who does the best cappuccino, where you can find free wi-fi, and what's the best corner to catch a cab from? We scribbled all these tips, gleaned over years of trial and error, into a manual even the most experienced hotel concierge could not match.
The week of the swap arrived. Would we leave the key under the doormat? How would we feel racing from the plane to the home of strangers? OK, hold the drum roll - we cheated. We picked the keys up in person, as we had decided to begin our holiday with a night in a top-notch hotel in the heart of Manhattan. If the next four-week stretch was going to be gratis, why not splash out on a little treat at the get-go?
This proved fortuitous: as well as helping us stock up on a few free toiletries, it enabled us to meet our hosts for lunch on their patch, which I thoroughly recommend. Photos can put a face to a name, but meeting made our friendship feel real. We actually wanted these people in our house. It also meant that when a challenge popped up we didn't feel resentful, but able to approach them by email or phone to find a solution. And be honest: the odd stain on a towel or tube of used wart cream in the bathroom cabinet is a lot more palatable when you feel like old pals with its owners.
After a tour of the apartment and its idiosyncrasies ('Wiggle the toilet handle like this; slap the TV on this side if it goes fuzzy') we felt better about the fact we'd got the slightly less winning side of the property bargain. With hindsight, perhaps we'd have upped the mod cons requirements: no dishwasher is a bit of a drag when you're used to one; and fully functional aircon in 40C is borderline mandatory, but hey, which is more eco? And it was fun stepping out of our comfort zone: simple activities like the laundrette became an outing. (As for whether it's preferable for someone else to wash and fold your laundry for the same price as buying detergent back in Blighty - that's a no-brainer.) Embracing America's convenience-obsessed culture, we felt it our anthropological duty to get to grips with the national cuisine too: take-out. Peruvian, Japanese, Italian, Thai ... we tried tastes from every corner of the globe, all on the table in minutes. Like room service but more cosmopolitan and cheaper - God bless America.
Cereal inside or out? Hardly high-drama decision-making. But one of the real treats of the house swap was experiencing banal domestic life as a totally off-duty family in exciting new surroundings. Enjoying a big bowl of something corny/puffy you'd never contemplate for breakfast at home feels exotic in a flower-filled garden with a backdrop of brownstone buildings previously only familiar from imported cop shows.
As for the soundscape, mundane snippets overheard from open windows somehow seemed more scintillating when delivered in juicy
Brooklyn catchphrases. 'Didjeet the sangwich yuh mutha left yuh? No? Yuh mamaluke!'
Our introduction to the immediate neighbours was a hello over the fence - followed by the offer of a paddling pool loan. To parents of an infant in the sweltering city heat, this ranks with a private hotel infinity pool. Imagine our delight when they reappeared brandishing guests passes to MoMA, a mountain of toys and fresh-from-the-oven New York Times recipe cookies. We hadn't been there 48 hours and they'd already made our holiday.
Fleeting visits to this city, however regular, don't let you savour off-the-beaten-track parts of town like this. A reconnaissance of our new manor, Carroll Gardens, revealed an extensively gentrified but still eclectic and architecturally rich (as attested by a plaque on the street declaring Winston Churchill's mum a native) area. On our block, a pizzeria, social club and deli highlighted its Italian heritage. And there was the obligatory post-yuppification badge - a spa. Thanks to a friendly-for-us exchange rate, I booked a massage without a glimmer of the guilt I would feel about an equivalent treat at home. The week before, I'd forked out the same amount for the congestion charge and two hours of parking outside an organic supermarket. As for the corresponding eco retail here, we had a health shop on our doorstep. My cart buckled with food, vitamins and toiletries yet, thanks to the exchange rate, there was no in-store arithmetic and no inner debate of the 'should I get that gourmet organic pasta sauce or put the equivalent money in my child's education fund?' kind.
Eating at home was all the more fun thanks to a wall of CDs begging us to sample new sounds. Jazzfunk, prog rock classics - we felt like teens again, dipping into the vast collection of albums, and undoubtedly upsetting a carefully catalogued system. 'Let's have friends over tonight,' suggested my other half, by now revelling in our adopted abode and the knowledge that supper can be delivered for less cash than it'd take to have Marks & Spencer do the graft in Blighty.
One condition of such a lengthy escape was being able to continue working. A coffee shop on our block became my office. Each table was occupied by a person on an iBook. It was like a modern-day Bohemia. The earnest-looking tattooed chap tapping away next to me? No doubt an aspiring Kafka penning a homage to Metamorphosis. The fact that he was actually tagging photos on Facebook came as a small disappointment. A couple of high school kids came in to put up a poster for what I expected to be a political rally. Turned out they were selling benches - but for Barack, at $40 each: $25 goes to the cost of building the bench and $15 to Obama's campaign. We bought one for a friend. Can't see the apathetic youths back in NW10 getting quite so busy for Brown.
Despite the lattes, laundromat on tap, sweet-as-pie neighbours and politically active schoolkids enhancing our experience, it wasn't all domestic bliss. A tiny kitten taking frequent swipes at our baby's face was a pain. A mildewy door-jamming shower was a downgrade from our bathroom. And the small matter of returning from lunch one Saturday to find the landlord and friends doing major renovation was a vibe-buster. We had been warned this might happen, but assured they would ring us in advance. They hadn't - and we had no idea it would involve ripping out units, tearing up the floor, and stacking all furniture in the tiny lounge area, leaving a half-tiled gluey floor. As they left, they casually remarked they would try to get back the next day to finish off. Booking a hotel seemed our only option.
We revealed our dilemma to our new best friends next door, and they invited us to stay there. Could they be any nicer? As we sat in their kitchen, a cousin of his dropped by and we got chatting about the local area. A Carroll Gardens native, he gave us the skinny on a few familiar faces. The big guy who seems like a character out of The Sopranos, who sits on a bench a few buildings down? He's a top dog in one of the five Sicilian families who run this part of town. The week before a friend overheard him chuckling on his phone: 'Yeah, the Post says they found a body wrapped in a carpet.'
This is where that old cloud/silver lining thing steps in. If we hadn't had the building-work drama we might never have had this conversation. So, given the choice again, would I prefer a house that didn't require us to rely quite so heavily on the neighbours? It's a bit like pondering whether, second time around, you would choose a partner who was tidier or a better cook.
Admittedly it was more social experiment than conventional holiday. But thanks to our trade with the Brooklynites we could afford to stay for a month and get under the city's cultural skin in a way we've never done before.
Over the weeks it became clear that once you've chosen to swap, you have to approach the situation with an open mind and a relaxed attitude. It really is all about the experience, good and bad - although hopefully in unequal measures. Our experience was mostly good - until we got home and discovered that our back doors had been wide open for days, having not been shut properly. Luckily, the only ones to take advantage of the invitation to step inside had been a few cats - though they had definitely left their scent. Had we been burgled we wouldn't have been insured, a situation that doesn't even bear thinking about.
Yet even that hasn't put us off, and we are already planning our next exchange. Buenos Aires? Vancouver? We may even be brazen enough to beg a swimming pool. Aim for the sky, but best to keep it a touch more real than this posting we saw on Gumtree: 'Big flat in Solihull for flat or house in Kensington or Chelsea - Kew or Richmond considered.'
It's a bit like internet dating. You can seek tall, dark and handsome, just allow for a bit of information massaging, and make sure you see lots of photos. Ultimately what deems it a success is luck and chemistry.
And even if all doesn't go to plan, it's one for the anecdote bank.
· Go onto one of the home exchange websites listed below. Most require you to pay a fee before you can browse and contact all live listings.
· When it comes to creating a page to 'sell' your own house, upload the best photographs possible; if the external frontage of your house is not particularly attractive, go for stylish internal shots.
· All sites have helplines - if you are unsure how much detail to put in your page, talk it through first.
· Be realistic: your bedsit in Southsea may not earn you a seaside villa in the south of France. Try to trade like for like.
Before you go
· Honesty is the best policy: point out any of your home's weaknesses and manage expectations.
· Clean and clear: empty refrigerators, declutter surfaces, scrub bathrooms.
· It's best to book afternoon flights at the start and end of the trip. Trying to race out of a house at 6am and leave it all shipshape is no fun.
· Write an idiot's guide to running your house, with details on everything from how to use a temperamental oven to the TV remotes. Also include details of chemist, doctor, eating out highlights, best bars and supermarkets and public transport.
· If you have children, find a household with ones roughly the same age so you don't have to lug paraphernalia. This is especially useful for baby equipment.
· Talk to your insurance company. According to the British Association of Insurers, the issue is more about length of time away than having strangers in your house. If its longer than two weeks, your cover may be reduced or you may need to increase your premium.
· Have a back-up plan. Look into cheap-and-cheerful guesthouses in the area should you have to evacuate.
When you get there
· Don't be shy; meet the neighbours. When you set the alarm off at 2am and can't turn it off, you'll be glad you did.
· Walk as much as you can and use local buses and trains - you'll get to grips with the area far faster than taking taxis.