Why Home-Swapping Keeps Coming Back Into Style

From the days of clunky, printed catalogs, to invite-only websites and exchanging homes via TikTok, the appeal of trading your house for free (even with a stranger) hasn’t died.

Last year around Thanksgiving, 25-year-old marketing professional Grace Gagnon did what many feel the urge to do each season, and turned on the 2006 Nancy Meyers film, The Holiday. The film centers around the two main characters, a British woman played by Kate Winslet and an American by Cameron Diaz, who swap homes over the holidays and each find love on the other’s side of the Atlantic. "I decided to make a TikTok in my apartment, and it was honestly a joke," Gagnon says. The 15-second clip pans across her Boston apartment to the sound of The Holiday’s theme song with text that reads: "Anyone want to switch places for the holiday? I have a studio apt on Boston’s waterfront." 

Gagnon’s post soon "blew up," she says. And then, something serendipitous happened. After Flo Patterson, a 22-year-old in Bath, England, saw the viral video, she reached out to Gagnon, and the two coordinated their own transatlantic house swap from late December to mid-January. "I decided to take a leap of faith and just go for it," Gagnon says. "I didn’t realize that home-swapping was a real thing until I went ahead and did it."

While facilitating house exchanges via TikTok is, of course, a newer phenomenon, the home-swapping industry—in which participants join established networks where they can temporarily swap residences with fellow members for no monetary exchange—has been around for decades. In 1953, two of the industry’s leading networks, Intervac and HomeLink, were established in Europe and the United States, respectively; the former organized by a group of European teachers looking for affordable ways to travel during their summer breaks, and the latter by New York teacher Mike Ostroff, who originally typed up a list for a "Vacation Exchange Club" to be shared with educators in neighboring areas. 

In the 1960s and ’70s, the concept’s grasp expanded beyond teacher networks—Pan American World Airways tapped Ostroff to coordinate home exchanges among their corporate employees worldwide, for example—and by the 1980s, home-swapping networks continued to gain momentum beyond professional spheres. Members of networks like Intervac and HomeLink would list their homes and search for potential exchanges in phone book–like catalogs that were printed multiple times a year for international audiences. Of course, at this time, to coordinate with a potential home-swapper, participants had to rely on snail mail.  

In the 1990s, the rise of the internet and personal computers launched home-swapping into a new phase that prioritized digital above analog, and as a result, house exchanges became more accessible to global audiences. HomeLink, for example, created a website translated into 17 languages that allowed members to post their listings and find home exchanges using specific search criteria, such as location. In 1992, tech entrepreneur Ed Kushins launched industry stalwart HomeExchange online after staying with his family at a Washington, D.C., residence he found through a Europe-based house exchange program. Slightly after the turn of the millennium, the more backpacker-oriented Couchsurfing.com entered the scene. The online platform connects members to a global network of other "surfers" who are willing to host travelers to their area in a spare room or on their couch. (From its 2004 launch until early 2020 the service was free, but it now has a roughly $3 monthly or $15 annual membership fee.)

Before the rise of the internet in the 1990s, members of home-swapping networks would list their homes and search for potential exchanges in phone book–like catalogs that were printed multiple times a year for international audiences.

Before the rise of the internet in the 1990s, members of home-swapping networks would list their homes and search for potential exchanges in phone book–like catalogs that were printed multiple times a year for international audiences.

House-swapping became more of a pop culture phenomenon in the mid-aughts when the concept played a central role in The Holiday’s plot. "The movie itself had an obvious impact on awareness when it first premiered, but it has also had a long-term impact," says Jessica Poillucci, press relations manager at HomeExchange, which was acquired by another international home-swapping network, formerly known as GuestToGuest, in 2017. "Around the holiday season when people often find themselves watching cozy romantic comedies, people who didn’t know about real home-swapping opportunities find themselves being introduced to us through the story." 

But it was at the end of the 2000s when the rise of online home-staying and the introduction of the now-dominant vacation rental service Airbnb boosted the home-sharing and -swapping concept further into the cultural zeitgeist, making the idea of staying in someone else’s house, or having someone else stay in yours, a more accepted form of travel—albeit with one key difference: money changing hands. "Where before staying in someone else’s space was a more niche way to travel, now almost everyone has at some point done so, whether via HomeExchange or Airbnb," says Poillucci. "For many years, our member base was primarily families or empty nesters, but in recent years we’ve seen a younger demographic get into home-exchanging as well." 

One such example is 25-year-old Camille Wyand, a New York–based consultant who first got familiar with the concept during her month-long yoga teacher training in Bali in the summer of 2019. "I was part of a women’s Facebook group in the area and a bunch of members would post offering to swap apartments," she says. "I loved the idea and wanted to find a way to do it eventually." A couple of years later, Wyand took part in her own house-swapping adventure inspired specifically by The Holiday TikTok trend, temporarily trading her New York apartment for another user’s London flat. (Wyand’s TikTok also went viral.)

For the growing number of people facilitating their own house exchanges via social media, the home-swapping experience is essentially free, save for travel expenses.

Now, as the seemingly here-to-stay WFH lifestyle has more people looking for places where they can vacation and also work remotely, many home-swapping platforms are taking note. Take Kindred, a members-only network (now in beta) with an aura of exclusivity that led one Curbed writer to call it "the Raya of home-swapping." Cofounders Justine Palefsky and Tas Amina came up with the idea for Kindred after both of their jobs went remote during the pandemic and they each "wanted to take advantage of that flexibility to travel more and work from elsewhere," Palefsky says. Instead of giving up her home to become a full-time nomad or renting her place on Airbnb, Palefsky reached out to a couple she’d previously gone to school with who now live in Lake Tahoe, California. "After video chatting, we decided to swap houses," she says, noting that their shared educational experience provided them with a sense of trust and kinship. "I stayed in a beautiful place for a week, working remotely. When I got home, my plants were watered, my packages were taken in, and there was a lovely thank you note on my dining room table. I felt like I had discovered a cheat code!" 

Shortly after that experience, Palefsky and Amina founded their exclusive home-swapping network, which potential members can apply to join after receiving an invite code from an existing member or by adding themselves to a waitlist. Kindred’s cofounders see their platform as a more sustainable alternative to Airbnb. "By not converting homes into full-time hotels or vacation rentals, our model doesn’t take homes off the market, inflate local housing prices, or encourage people to buy up multiple properties," says Palefsky. (Kindred isn’t the only home-exchange platform to lean into exclusivity; Behomm limits its community to visual artists, designers, and other creative professionals and requires an invitation from an existing member—as well as a particularly stylish residence.)

Notably—and not unrelated to its more recent rise in popularity among young people—home-swapping tends to be a more affordable way to travel. Most platforms have an annual or monthly membership fee, and signing up is often free or part of a free trial. Love Home Swap’s standard plans, for example, starts at $13 per month with a free two-week trial, while HomeExchange asks $175 a year, and both operate on a points-based system that allow hosts flexibility around when they travel. "You can spend upwards of $300 a night at an Airbnb," says Gagnon. "Home-swapping is cost-effective and renter-friendly." And for the growing number of people who are facilitating their own house exchanges via social media, the home-swapping experience is essentially free, save for travel expenses. Maybe that’s why it feels like new generations continue to "discover" the concept, even though international house exchange networks have been around for decades: The fundamentals of home-swapping remain the same, but the ways participants can facilitate the experience are ever-evolving. 

Top illustration by Siiri Väisänen-Forsyth.

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How Adaptive Reuse Can Help Solve the Affordability Crisis


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