In the 2006 romantic comedyThe Holiday, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet's characters swap homes- from a mansion in LA to a cottage on the outskirts of England-with just the click of a button. Although it seems too good to be true, this method of vacationing in someone else's abode while they (sometimes) stay in yours is nothing new. People have been traveling through home exchange for decades, and some Chattanooga locals swear by it.
"My husband and I have been home exchanging for years. I think we started in the 90s," says Miki Boni, a local artist who is known for her pet portraits. "It's a very culturally rich experience if people are willing to turn their home over to strangers. And it's an inexpensive way to see the world."
There are three main types of home exchanges: You can stay in your exchange-partner's home while they stay in yours (a simultaneous exchange). You can stay at a home-swapper's second home or vacation home (a non-simultaneous exchange). Or you can stay as a guest in a swapper's home while they are there (a hospitality exchange).
Either way, the benefits largely remain the same, says Boni, who began offering a separate apartment space on the lower level of her and her husband's home as a vacation rental/home exchange option in 2009. "There is the front room which is my showroom and Tom, my husband, built a bed that disappears into the wall in there, and there's the bedrooms," she says. "It's like living in a gallery for them, and it helps to support us. A life of an artist in our economy isn't the best."
For Boni and her husband, allowing people to stay in their home wasn't a big deal, but for others, there is a lot of fear that comes with opening up their home to people they don't know.
"At first, you wonder how you are going to find things when you get home," says Joan Barnes, a retired teacher from Signal Mountain who recently returned from a home exchange in Australia. "But we feel really comfortable that no one is going to do anything they aren't supposed to. They are trusting you with their things, too. And the people that we have exchanged with left our house better than we did. Our cars were washed and everything."
For Joan and her husband, Ray, the secret to overcoming the initial fear of inviting someone to stay in their home is opening up a line of communication with the people with whom they plan to exchange and slowly building that trust by asking them questions and learning more about them. "For both our trips to Denmark and to Australia, we communicated quite a while before we exchanged," says Ray Barnes. "You post a picture of your house and people browse the photos and if they like the looks of your house, they say, 'What do you think about an exchange?' If you like where they live and want to go there, from there you talk and finally settle on something that is agreeable for both."
After talking and planning the exchange for more than six months via email, Ray and Joan say that they all feel like they really know each other. "The people from Denmark still stay in touch, and I'm sure that the ones from Australia will, too," says Joan, gesturing to a two-inch thick folder with paper copies of their correspondence. "We even made friends with their neighbors. They are kind of expecting you, and they go out of their way to make you feel welcome."
Of course, there are some hurdles that have to be overcome before someone can have a successful swap. "If you don't have a separate property, you have to work out a time that works out for everyone. You have to find someone who wants to come exactly the same time that you want to leave-that's the one drawback," says Boni. "You also have to figure out transportation. Some people will exchange cars, some won't. I guess if they had a Rolls, they might not want to exchange it."
Beyond figuring out transportation-some home exchange websites offer pre-formatted insurance forms to ease that process-you have to make arrangements for your pets (the Barnes' cared for the homeowners' chickens during their swap in Denmark) and you have to make sure that the homeowner you plan on exchanging with has your same views on home upkeep.
"I traded one time with somebody and I wasn't impressed. The cleanliness wasn't good," says Jo Beth Kavanaugh, a local artist who has several vacation rental properties she bought and flipped in the Scenic City-some of which have been featured in Southern Living and on HGTV. "I look for someone who is on the same page as me and has the same aesthetic. That's really important. People want to stay somewhere that they feel is really nice.
"They appreciate that there's been a lot of love and a lot of attention to detail in a home. That's what people are drawn to. If you look at furnished rentals, a lot of them look like they are decorated with grandmommy's hand-me-downs and most people want something nicer than that," she adds.
For vacation home owners, there is another option available for exchange where members of a network allow other members to stay in their vacation rental (generally during off-peak times) in exchange for points. Acquired points can be used to rent other vacation rentals within the network and unlike home exchange, it's unnecessary to find someone who wants to "swap" the same dates and location. "The benefit of vacation rental exchange is receiving points towards future trips when your rental would otherwise sit empty," says Tetia McMichael who owns three vacation rentals in Chattanooga, as well as the Lakeview at Fontana resort spa in the Smoky Mountains. "They may stay in my house and if the dollar value is $500, I get 500 points. It makes it much broader ... I could go to Mexico to use my points or anywhere else on the network. I have stayed in San Miguel in Mexico, Fort Walton Beach, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina."
The biggest advantages of staying in someone's home, whether that's by swapping or finding a vacation rental, is having all the conveniences of home, says McMichael. "It's great to have the outdoor spaces, and if it's a pet-friendly property, you can bring your dog," she says. "You have fully equipped kitchens and living rooms, and they are often cheaper than hotel rooms. Not to mention, you can really save on eating out."
Joan Barnes says that going somewhere-especially to an entirely different country-and feeling like you are home is what makes the experience. "The fact that we've got a home base is great. When you do an exchange, their home is home to you for the time you are there," she says. "It's nice because there are no schedules, you aren't in a rush to get in or get out. You can go at your own pace."
Although there are a lot of details that go into planning a home exchange, Boni says that for her and her husband, the experiences are entirely worth it. "I love travel, that's part of who I am. You get that addiction-'I have to go somewhere and see such and such'-and this gives us the opportunity that we might not have had or been able to afford to have," she says. "We've met people from all over the world through renting and home exchange ... Australia, England, Switzerland. Everywhere. And all of the places we go are interesting in their own ways.
"We stayed in a restored schoolhouse once in the south of France and we've gone to Florida to the home of a couple from Southhampton, England and it turns out they were a Lord and Lady. It was the most unlikely meeting of people."
And the icing on the cake, says Joan Barnes? Not only are you able to go experience another part of the world, you get to share your hometown with visitors as well.
"The Dutch family loved the area. A friend of ours who works at the Aquarium was able to take them behind the scenes there, and they got to go to The Mountain Opry. They actually went there twice they loved it so much," she says. "They told me they went to the blue hole in Soddy Daisy to swim, and I said blue hole in Soddy Daisy? I had no idea where that was. It was so funny to me that they found that, and I live here and didn't even know it was there."