A Brief History of Home Swapping

The phenomenon of temporarily trading houses with a stranger has come a long way since the early days of “vacation exchange clubs” and printed catalogs.

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A few years ago, two TikTokers coordinated an apartment exchange inspired by Nancy Meyers’s mid-aughts rom-com The Holiday. It sparked a viral trend on the platform and brought the concept of home swapping back into the zeitgeist. But the phenomenon of temporarily trading houses with a stranger for free has been around much longer than social media. In fact, the practice of home swapping traces back decades. Here, Dwell charts its evolution, from the early days of phonebook–like printed catalogs to the emergence of invite-only online platforms.

Intervac agents pose for a picture in the 1970s.

Intervac agents pose for a picture in the 1970s.

1950s through ’70s

For Teachers Who Travel

In 1953, two of the home-swapping industry’s leading networks, Intervac and HomeLink, were established in Europe and the United States, respectively. The former was organized by a group of European teachers looking for affordable travel setups during summer breaks and sabbaticals, while the latter was spearheaded by New York teacher David Ostroff, who typed up a list fora "Vacation Exchange Club" to be shared with other educators. Over the next two decades, the concept’s grasp expanded beyond teacher networks: Pan American World Airways, for example, tapped Ostroff in 1970 to coordinate home exchanges among the international air carrier’s corporate employees.

A flyer for Trading Homes International from the late ’80s or early ’90s.

A flyer for Trading Homes International from the late ’80s or early ’90s.


Swapping by Snail Mail

As home-swapping networks continued to gain momentum, their services extended outside professional spheres. Prospective house exchangers could pay to be members of established networks like Intervac and HomeLink—or ones newer to the scene like Home Base Holidays—and have their homes listed in directories that were printed multiple times a year for international audiences. When potential home swappers received these flyers and catalogs, they could peruse the listings and coordinate exchanges with other members by phone or via snail mail.

Intervac’s January 1999 catalog

Intervac’s January 1999 catalog


Exchanges Go Digital

The rise of the internet and personal computers launched home swapping into a new phase that prioritized a digital approach over catalogs, which were becoming increasingly thick and difficult to print at the pace home swapping’s popularity grew. In the mid-’90s, HomeLink created a website translated into 17 languages, allowing members to post their listings and find exchanges by using specific criteria, such as location. Tech entrepreneur Ed Kushins launched industry stalwart HomeExchange.com, with listings similarly searchable by amenities. These web platforms not only reduced production and distribution costs and made communication between members more efficient but also allowed for more color photos and longer listing descriptions.

Airbnb employees and cofounders having lunch in San Francisco in 2009.

Airbnb employees and cofounders having lunch in San Francisco in 2009.


Dot Coms and Rom-Coms

Slightly after the turn of the millennium, backpacker-oriented Couchsurfing.com entered the scene, connecting members to a global network of other "surfers" willing to host travelers in their area in a spare room or on their couch. In 2006, home swapping became more of a pop culture phenomenon when the concept played a central role in the plot of The Holiday, even later inspiring the points-based exchange network Love Home Swap (which has since been acquired by HomeExchange). The following year, the introduction of Airbnb boosted the home-sharing and -swapping concept further in the mainstream, making the idea a more accepted form of travel—with one key difference: money changing hands.

Two Airbnb guests at a rental on Fire Island, New York.

Two Airbnb guests at a rental on Fire Island, New York.

2010s and 2020s

The Airbnb-ification of Home Swapping

The existing lines between home swapping versus sharing—the former originating as essentially free lodging exchanges and the latter more like short-term rental setups—have blurred as many home-swapping platforms have evolved to adopt compensation models. Most have an annual or monthly membership fee. Some newer platforms are also carving out niches: Behomm limits its community to creative professionals and requires an invitation from an existing member or an online application approved by the founders, as well as a particularly stylish residence, while members-only network Kindred launched in 2022 with an aura of exclusivity that led a Curbed writer to call it "Raya for home-swapping." Still, if an apartment exchange can go viral on TikTok without all the bells and whistles, it seems the lasting allure of home swapping hasn’t strayed far from its origins.

Top photo courtesy Airbnb

The text for this story was adapted from a September 2022 Dwell.com article by Angelica Frey titled "Why Home Swapping Keeps Coming Back Into Style"




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