Trade-offs prove to be minor during house swap in Paris
December 7, 2013 9:09 PM
Brady MacDonald/Los Angeles Times
Hannah, left, and Nancy MacDonald relax with their iPads in the living room of the home swap apartment in Paris.
By Brady MacDonald / Los Angeles Times
Ah, Paris. The food. The art. The sights.
The hotel bill.
It was the little matter of finding a place to stay that kept an international vacation off our radar, especially in the wake of a recession that had put a king-size crimp in our international travel plans. As we discussed a European getaway, we realized that a hotel stay for my wife, Nancy, our daughter, Hannah, and me would cost us as much as our airline tickets.
I had read about house exchanges, but Nancy was hesitant to let strangers into our home, despite my continuing campaign about the savings.
But the prospect of staying for free in a Paris apartment with a car at our disposal proved irresistible.
I began investigating the better-known house-swap websites before settling on HomeExchange.com, thanks to the advice of Marla Fisher, a friend who had used it to take her kids to such places as Escondido, Mexico, and Italy.
But, why, I asked Marla, would anybody want to stay in our house? We're halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego in suburban Orange County and 20 minutes from the closest beach. The best thing going for us: We're near Disneyland.
"That's why," Marla said. "Listen to yourself."
You can find home-swap organizations by Googling "home exchange," but exercise caution and seek the opinion of a trusted source. Reports of apartment rental scams (especially in Paris) abound. A personal recommendation, as we had, helped us feel comfortable.
The organization we used and a couple of others we considered:
■ Trust is essential in any exchange. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, keep looking.
■ Communication is key. We exchanged more than 80 emails before, during and after our trip.
■ Photos are important. Their house looked as beautiful and well appointed in real life as it did in the photos.
■ Make life simple for your guests. Spell it all out, from the TV remote to the microwave oven to the tricky doorknob.
■ Make a plan. Figure out where you'll leave the house keys and who can help in an emergency.
Convinced, I signed up, paid the $119 annual membership and wrote a description of our Old Towne Orange home and neighborhood, playing up Southern California's attractions, celebrity connections and brand-name beaches. It sounded so good I wanted to visit.
Meanwhile, I trolled the HomeExchange website "favoriting" homes in places on our wish list: Venice, Italy; Paris; Athens; Tokyo; Prague, Czech Republic; Berlin; Amsterdam. A professional photographer friend offered to make our home look good for the photo gallery.
Fearing rejection and feeling smugly confident, I decided to let others make offers rather than send out inquiries about places that looked good.
I kept knocking on the computer screen, asking, "Is this thing working?" Not one of the 46,000 members wants to trade with us? This must be what online dating feels like.
We consulted Marla, who told us that we might have to make 10 to 20 offers just to get one successful exchange. I was worried about getting rejected or leading people on. What if we started talking to one family and a better offer came along?
"That's how it works," Marla said. "Most people will be flattered you want to stay in their home."
After getting an automated -- automated! -- rejection on an inquiry to Venice, I iced my bruised ego and focused instead on our top three choices in Paris: an architect's duplex, an interior designer's loft and a young family's apartment.
The next day, I heard back from the young family: Iris, who was hoping to come to Southern California for three weeks with her husband, Julien, and two young daughters before heading up to San Francisco for another home exchange. After a few messages, we set up a Skype video meeting.
Julien, a professional musician who is more comfortable speaking English than Iris, did most of the talking. We hashed out the details, discussed a car swap and gave each other virtual tours of our homes.
We quickly began to feel as though our families were already friends.
Three weeks in Paris sounded like a dream vacation. We estimated we would save $5,000 or more on accommodations and live like locals, affording us a more intimate view of the City of Light.
That weekend, I bought Iris and Julien's preschool daughters matching car seats. Iris was thrilled. A few days later, Julien made us a Google map of their favorite places to eat and drink. I reciprocated. Our virtual bond grew stronger.
Other inquiries continued to roll in, usually one a day and more than 50 in all. I finally crafted a kind and personal thanks-but-no-thanks response for all requests.
Soon after we touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport, our taxi dropped us off in front of the double green doors I knew so well from Google Street View. Iris greeted each of us with kisses on both cheeks, and I felt as though we were finally in Paris.
The contemporary two-story, 900-square-foot apartment in the 11th arrondissement was big by Paris standards. What once had been two apartments had been remodeled with a kitchen and living room on the lower floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor. Although it was about half the size of our house, it felt like a penthouse suite compared with the size hotel room our budget would have afforded us.
While Iris gave Nancy and Hannah a tour of the place, Julien showed me around the neighborhood, pointing out where the car was parked and taking me to the nearest ATM and Metro station.
Then they said goodbye -- and we were on our own. When I plugged in an American power strip using a plug adapter, I blew out the electricity in the entire apartment. I was reminded of what one home swap veteran had told me: You're going to have to fix something. Don't sweat it. Soon, I found the breaker box, deciphered the French labels and reset the power.
Our new home sprang other surprises on us: The compact combo washer-dryer took five hours to complete the tiniest load of laundry. The digital stove worked only when a pot or pan was placed on a burner. The bag of flour hiding at the back of the fridge broke open and created an enormous mess.
Minor problems, especially considering the ideal location of our apartment, which was just on the fringe of Paris' tourist areas. If we harbored any doubt, an overnight trip to London reminded us of how spacious our place was (and how claustrophobic a hotel room can be).
Using social media, we followed our swappers' adventures. It was a bit surreal to see photos of someone else sitting on your front porch, but surprisingly reassuring to know they were enjoying our home as much as we were theirs.
Iris and Julien had a great time at our place. The kids attended a birthday party across the street. They made lemonade with fruit from our tree. The neighbors even came over for a party one night.
I'd hoped for a similar neighborly reception, but we barely saw the neighbors. Our only real interaction was with a downstairs resident who knocked on the door one morning to tell us we were making too much noise. Fortunately, she left on holiday a few days later.
My biggest regret of the trip had nothing to do with the house. I wasn't interested in driving, but I felt compelled to because we had swapped cars as well as homes.
After struggling to unlock the 19-year-old Renault Twingo, find reverse on the stick shift and escape the subterranean garage, I got to experience the nightmares of Paris' virtually invisible street signs, maddening roundabouts and throngs of motor scooters.
And then there was the heat -- or maybe it was the humidity. Highs crept into the 90s, and so did the humidity. Air conditioning is the exception here. I swore never again to visit Western Europe in July or August.
But it's hard to complain about a three-week vacation in Paris. One moment stands out vividly: The three of us eating around the kitchen table, munching on bread, cheese and pastries from our local boulangerie, fromagerie and patisserie.
When we returned home, we found our house largely as we left it. A few things were out of place. A clothes hook had come off the wall, and a few cables had been switched around on the TV.
But I'm happy to make those trade-offs.
Would I do a home swap again? Yes. It took a lot of prep work to get our home ready for the exchange, but now that we've laid the groundwork, we know what to look for in a good match. We definitely lucked out with our first match.