Intrigued by the idea of a home swap holiday, but want to know what it's really like? Here, best-selling author Tina Seskis spills the beans.
It seems to me there are two main reasons why people swap houses: to lend out their beautiful home so they can live in someone else's beautiful home, or else to have a holiday on the cheap.
In the case of me, my husband and our seven-year-old son, it was quite firmly the latter. When I gave up full-time work, to focus on my first novel, One Step Too Far, we knew we would have to make some sacrifices - meals out, a new car, shopping trips, and of course holidays (and besides we had a tent, we liked the New Forest, hey, holidays didn't have to be expensive).
But when I saw the home/life swap rom-com film, The Holiday, house swapping seemed like such a great idea I decided to investigate how people did it in real life. I soon found the website Home Exchange, looked at some of the places available - and was instantly hooked on the concept.
My husband, however, was less keen at first - have people sleep in our bed, he said, rummage through our drawers, potentially break, or even worse steal, our stuff? Was I mad? But I was persistent because a) I'm a sucker for a bargain, and b) I loved the idea of living in someone else's home instead of in a hotel or rented apartment. Our house is ideal, I said - it had been recently refurbished (thanks to subsidence and the insurance company), it was in a nice part of North London near to a tube, and I liked to think its decor was sufficiently appealing to attract interest.
I pestered my husband to at least give listing our house a go - we didn't have to actually go ahead with an exchange if nothing's right, I said - and so at last he agreed to give it a try.
There are a number of home swap sites, but we joined HomeExchange.com, as it seemed to be the biggest and most reputable. Be warned, there's some expense and a fair amount of work - you pay a joining fee (currently £71.40 a year), take some photos, write up a description of your house and the area, say where you want to go to ("Surprise Us" being one of the options), and then set your listing live. The best ads are generally the ones where the most effort has been put in. To try to stand out from the many listings in London we made the lead picture one of our garden (at its absolute best of course).
Within hours we had offers coming in from all over the world. A place in St Lucia looked perfect - until we realised how much the flights would be, which rather defeated the object in our case. So the next thing we did was research places where the flights were inexpensive, and we came up with a shortlist that included Sardinia. My husband got more interested at this point, and trawled through all the potential houses that fitted our criteria, ie looked like an equitable swap, had the right number of swapees (we were three, our maximum was four), and most importantly, who wanted to come to London.
I can't say this part was easy - it was time-consuming and often frustrating. The website, although it has improved since, was not great on filtering, which meant a lot of tedious trawling, and often people wouldn't respond. Plus we were trying to keep up with all the requests coming in, doing our best to turn down places without causing offense (no-one likes to hear that people don't like their home).
We persevered, and when we finally managed to arrange a swap to Porto Cervo in Sardinia we were beyond excited. Even my seven-year-old son got over his terror at the thought of having his Lego Imperial Star Destroyer broken by the other family's kids, and agreed that if we put it on the top shelf in his bedroom it would probably survive.
For our first swap we did everything by the book - we and the other family drew up a contract (available on the Home Exchange site), informed our home insurance company, put the other people on our car insurance (although you don't have to do a car swap). It was quite a headache, especially as the insurance companies were not remotely geared up for it. We also set to work fixing all those annoying little things that you never get round to doing - the broken towel rail, the sticky front door, the bagful of jumble under the bed. We cleaned the house from top to bottom, emptied drawers and wardrobes to give the other family space for their clothes, put our very personal effects (basically underwear and bank statements etc) in the loft, and set up a guest account on our computer.
And that's where the wheels fell off our preparations. Setting up the guest account managed to crash our Mac, and we lost ALL our photos and videos, as well as all my work files. I felt sick. My husband spent two days trying to retrieve them (which he eventually did), two days during which he'd meant to be helping me. We ran out of time to get everything done, and by the time we left for our holiday we weren't talking to each other, and we both swore we would never do another exchange in our life.
When we arrived at the pristine Olbia airport, I was still in a foul mood. So imagine my horror when out of nowhere our exchange family appeared to say hello to us - they were about to get on the plane we had arrived on, and we'd exchanged photos so they knew what we looked like. They were a beautiful family, top to toe in designer clothes, whereas we all looked scruffy and worn out, and my toe nails were chipped. I was mortified.
When we arrived at their house I realised it wasn't just the people in this swap who were mismatched. Their apartment was large and stunning, the entrance nestled between Gucci and Armani (Porto Cervo being a world away from Archway), overlooking both the main corso and the harbour, filled with antique furniture and hand-painted frescoes and gorgeous bed linens, whereas much of our stuff was from Ikea. It was spotlessly clean in a way that I've only ever experienced in Italy, and as it was their holiday home it was entirely free from the detritus ofday to day family life.
The only downside was that my son's room was slightly too pink for his liking, and the toys were a bit girly (his words, not mine), but once we'd taken the bedspread off he was fine. There was an underground car park housing a top of the range Landrover for us to use, free private gym membership opposite the marina, and free parking at all the best beaches. In return, we had left them our ancient Rover 75 and our resident's parking permit.
At this point, despite being absolutely wowed by the place, I must confess that I was worrying about what they would make of our house. It felt a bit like George Clooney swapping with 70's comic George Roper, and if I'm honest, all the way through the holiday it did nag at me a little. But (especially after a thumbs up from our neighbour that they seemed to like our place) not enough to stop us from having the most amazing holiday. My son made friends with an Italian boy on the beach, learned to snorkel, and even took his sunsuit off and went a beautiful nut brown, like the local kids.
Find out how to make the most of an exchange experience, with Tina's 10 home-swap commandments.
Porto Cervo and the Costa Smerelda is perfect if you like Italian style, luxury, the most sensational beaches, with white sand and turquoise sea, bougainvillea-lined avenues, pink rocky outcrops, if you love ogling super yachts and expensive cars and beautiful stylish people, and dressing up to the nines for the evening passeggiata. Avoid it if you don't like paying €20 for a beer (I kid you not - consequently, we ate nearly all our meals on our wonderful balcony, and bought beer and wine from the local supermarket), prefer wetsuits and crocs to bling, aren't keen on packed beaches, and feel easily intimidated.
Price: You pay an annual fee (currently £71.40) and then you can arrange as many swaps as you like. Look out for their free obligation 14-day trials, which they often run.
Where we went: We stayed in Porto Cervo on the Costa Smerelda in Sardinia. Budget flights are available via easyJet from London Gatwick to Olbia, from £50.
Tempted? There are loads of home swap sites, including homelink.org.uk and intervac-homeexchange.com, but we have always used Home Exchange. Exchanges are available throughout the world, and you can swap your main home, or your second home if you have one.Read more home swap holiday reviews, by Family Traveller's Mark Hodson.
Tina Seskis started home swapping with her husband and son five years ago, and has exchanged with houses in Sardinia (twice), the Loire Valley, Paris and Whitstable, in Kent. Tina is a full-time writer; the author of the number one bestseller One Step Too Far, a gripping psychological thriller which was one of The Bookseller's Books of the Year in 2013.
Tina started her next novel A Serpentine Affair whilst on her second home exchange to Porto Cervo, Sardinia in 2011, and part of the novel is set there. Tina lives in North London with her husband and son.
Tina can be found Tweeting at twitter.com/tinaseskis