Our holiday/vacation House Swap in California
It’s not, usually, as simple as grabbing a coffee, jumping on your computer, choosing a house you like the look of and agreeing a deal before your drink’s even cold. It can take some time – and effort – to get seal a deal. So, we went through the process that helped us get two weeks’ “free” accommodation in San Diego.
After spending weeks organising the swaps, flying thousands of miles to California and relying solely on the swappers for shelter when we landed, the big questions everyone asked us when we got home were: was it worth it and what was it like?
You’ve probably watched the video above, which gives you a snapshot but we can go into far more detail in an article.
It begins at home
The House Swap began before we’d even left England. We were in contact with our two swappers through our Home Exchange service (we went with Love Home Swap – you can find out why in this article) but it had been a few months since we’d arranged the exchange.
A few weeks before we were due to fly, an email came in from the family whose home we were going to stay in when we first landed.
Emily and Dan Palmer own their own mortgage planning service (check them out if you want to buy a house in California!) so it wasn’t a surprise when we received an ultra-efficient, and professional looking, attachment from them.
The little booklet had everything we needed to know about staying in their home in Encinitas – from how to get into the house when we arrived, what day the wheelie-bins needed to go out, contact numbers and, how to turn the Home Theatre system on – to the most important piece of info: how to get the Hot Tub going and what temperature it should be!!
This re-assured us that the people – and the house – were genuine and that we wouldn’t have to look for a hotel when we all stumble, jet-lagged, off the plane.
I mean, would criminals go as far as choosing a nice font for the booklet and leaving phone numbers (that we could check), just so they could steal our car and spending money when we arrived at the address they gave us? Don’t answer that!
Anyway, this allayed a lot of fears and we were now starting to get very excited about the trip.
Our La Jolla swappers – the Ferguson family – took a different approach and said they’d love to meet up with us in person to show us around.
It was also their first swap, so I think it was good way to reassure them that we weren’t “crazies” that were going to steal their home, identities and never let them back inside!
Time to fly
One of the perks of Love Home Swap was the promise of free Airport Lounge passes when take on their Standard and Platinum level membership levels. This wasn’t a deal breaker for us but it was that extra bit of luxury – a word that doesn’t usually mix with young children – that we could all enjoy before our long flight.
In the main Departures Lounge, the food is always really expensive and seating is cramped so it is always a treat to eat a “free” hot meal, grab some “free” snacks and magazines for the journey and prepare yourself for the storm that’s about to arrive. I’m not sure why I added free in inverted commas, as we didn’t pay for the passes, really!
Unfortunately, despite arriving at the airport three hours early to enjoy the food and facilities in the No.1 Traveller Lounge, we got stuck checking-in for an hour-and-a-half so we were close to not even bothering to go inside!! And believe me, forget having two toddlers waiting in a queue, there’s nothing worse than a delay at check-in when you know there’s sausage and bacon waiting for you on the other side of security! We did, however, manage to get 20 minutes in the Lounge and stuff a bacon sarnie down our throats before we had to board.
Arriving in California
We survived the Trans-Atlantic flights with our two kids (click here for our tips on flying with babies and toddlers) and were now hugging and greeting Alicia’s family in San Diego Airport’s arrivals lounge. The sun was setting across the bay and we now had a 30 minute drive north to Encinitas where I only had one thing on my mind: “Please let the house exist and not be a scam. We’ve been travelling for 20 hours – I don’t care if the house isn’t that good, just let it be there.”
The nerves really kicked in as we drove into the street. What if there was a family in there, unaware that someone else had put it up for a swap? There were no lights on in the house when we did arrive. The whole road was really dark. This could be good or bad. I got out of the car by myself and slowly walked up to the door which had a tiny, matchbox-style safe where we were told the key would be. I put in the code. It didn’t work. I tried it again. Nothing.
I knew it must be the right house – and why would all of the other instructions be correct, even down to the location of the key? If we did have to get a hotel for the first night, I was confident we’d be able to get in the following day. I tried the code one more time and then slid the button down instead of up, and off came the top of the safe to reveal a shiny silver key!!
I opened the door and turned on the light. This didn’t look like the house that we’d seen in the pictures…it was twice as big!! I ran excitedly back to the car to get the others.
The first swap
American homes are always bigger than English ones but when you’ve seen the photos of a house you think you’d know what it would look like.
Let’s just say the house was so big that I’d often get annoyed if I left something in the bedroom and I was in the kitchen because it was such a long walk back to pick it up again!
We also decided to put Samantha’s Travel Cot (Pack and Play, for Americans) in one of the walk-in wardrobes in the master bedroom because it was the same size as her room back in England – and it meant that we were less likely to wake her when we went to bed!
The ultra-modern furnishings made the house feel like a boutique hotel but it was still comfortable and very family friendly. It was super-clean and tidy but there were family photos up, which you kind of felt bad looking at, at first because it felt nosey, but it was actually really nice and – I’m not spiritual or into those weird aura things – but it did feel like we were staying in a very happy home.
The trust in the house was amazing: clothes were still in the wardrobes, instead of being hidden somewhere else. Their expensive appliances and even their home office was all open and accessible. There was even loose change left around the house. It felt great that they trusted us so much!
We were always going to treat the house better than our own but the faith they showed in us, made us even more determined to make this happen: to minimise mess/accidents we kept the kids out of the formal lounge area. We also made sure that one of us was with them all of the time, which we wouldn’t do at our home.
Not only was the house much bigger than we thought but we’d forgotten that the website showed pictures of the garden, which had a play structure and zip line. It was awesome!
We also forgot about how important toys are for kids. We had brought Dylan and Samantha’s favourite Teddy Bears with them but that was it, really. This house had everything a four-year-old boy could dream of: infinite lego sets, Star Wars toys, dressing up clothes, full pump-action Nerf guns with fully-stocked sponge ammo. The list – and the toys – could go on, which is one reason we ended up only letting him play with certain sets to minimise things getting lost or broken.
In the end, it was Samantha who did the only damage during the swap after she decided to eat Nerf bullets for breakfast. They were quick and easy to replace from the local Walmart…it could have been a lot worse!
Living in Encinitas
We’d visited Encinitas on previous trips to San Diego but we didn’t quite find its charm. We stayed at Alicia’s sister’s house just north of the town and went surfing at a quiet beach which had some steep cliffs watching over us. It didn’t feel like the usual beach towns that were lucky enough to be on Route One.
This time, we saw it through totally different eyes. We were a couple of minutes away from the main street of Encinitas, with its cool cafes and surf-themed shops. We also found the “real” beach, which had car parking, a playground, volleyball courts and lots of space to spread out and enjoy being next to the ocean.
Encinitas is around 40 minutes from Downtown San Diego but the Palmer’s house was just a few blocks from the freeway, so it didn’t hurt that much when we did a long drive.
At first we tried to get out of the house as much as possible so that we didn’t “over-use” the house and so there was less chance we could break anything. But, after a few days we realised that was silly and we were really lucky to be living in such an amazing house so we started trying to use the Hot Tub once a day and invited Alicia’s family over for a BBQ.
We also got talking to the neighbours, who were really friendly – one had just had a baby. We really enjoyed chatting and meeting up with them every day – we did feel as though we fitted in and it began to feel like our home by the time the week was up. The neighbours said that we reminded them of the Palmers and that we would really get on with them, which was nice to hear.
We had been left instructions on how to leave the house – and how much to pay for a cleaner who would return the house to the exact state that we had left it in.
At the end of the week, we were really disappointed to be leaving but we had a fun trip to Northern California planned – and we knew that we had another swap waiting for us when we came back down to San Diego.
School report One
Emily and Dan Palmer have two boys. Hudson, who’s 8, and Wyatt is 4.
They had taken their two kids and RV up to Canada for an extended trip of their own while we were in Encinitas.
We only had to contact them once while we were out there: San Diego had 100 years of July rainfall in one day when we were out there and there was the tiniest leak (an egg cup of water, at most) which we wanted to make them aware of.
I didn’t want to scare them with a phone-call, so just texted, and they were so relaxed and nice about it all. I was so glad that I told them all about it rather than leaving it until they saw a note, no matter how minor the problem was.
This next bit, I’ve left for the Palmers to write about their experience of having us stay at theirs. Fingers crossed they say nice things!
Emily said: “I felt really comfortable doing the House Swap, especially after we chatted via email.
“Our house is kind of built with an indoor/outdoor feel so it’ very tolerant with lots of people and little ones. I’m from a big family and I’ve always thought the more the merrier with friends and entertaining!
“We stayed at a beautiful home on the cliffs, right outside of Vancouver, on an island called Bowen Island. We had one of our best, most memorable trips ever – our boys still keep asking when we can go back.
“From our end, the swap was wonderful – you guys were excellent guests.
“I loved communicating with you, before and after and our home looked perfect when we arrived back. Our neighbors loved you – and you brought us thank you gifts – everything went better than expected!
“I love house swapping and we’re planning on being gone even longer than the 30 days we were gone last summer!”
Phew, I think we got away with it!
The Second Swap
As I mentioned before, the owners of the second home in La Jolla wanted to meet up and show us around their house in person.
If you’re not from the UK and don’t follow Very British Problems on Twitter, you might not know how much Brits hate awkward social situations. The idea of having a stranger show another stranger where they were going to eat, sleep and relax in their own home sounded very cringey on paper but in reality, it was really good.
We were all put at ease within seconds when we all quickly realised that everyone was nice and normal and our kids started playing together straight away.
Bob Ferguson owns a successful Building Contracting business, while his partner, Mary, is a Fitness Instructor. They have two children who were the same age as ours when we were out there, which worked really well.
This was Fergusons’ first swap, so they were – quite rightly – anxious about having strangers live in their home so they asked us to sign up to Love Home Swap Security Deposit scheme, in case of any accidents.
The home exchange service recommends $100 per night, so we were happy and ready to hand over an $800 refundable deposit for our stay. What we weren’t happy about was Love Home Swap’s 10% fee for the privilege of holding our cash – you know how much I like to save money – which was a good percentage of our annual membership fee!
So, when we arranged the swap, we also agreed to hand over our deposit via cash or a cheque in person – everyone was happy with the outcome. Bob tried to give the cheque back to us that day when he realised we were normal but I insisted he kept it until we had left, for everyone’s peace of mind.
Our visit finished really well – even after Dylan whacked their daughter in the face with a light sabre just as we were about to leave – and we were given the key and told to invite family round to enjoy their amazing outdoor entertaining area.
Living in La Jolla
La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya, Brits) is just 20 minutes from Downtown San Diego and is home to some of the most expensive homes in the world. It all becomes obvious when you see the Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lamborghini showrooms next to each other. This isn’t your normal beach town.
It’s also very special for its wildlife and village style living. It’s one of the rare towns in California that you can walk everywhere and you don’t need a car. From our house we could walk 15 minutes and be at Windansea beach, which has some great rock-pools to explore. If we walk 15 minutes north, we were at La Jolla Cove, famous for its seals and beautiful wildlife.
At the end of our road was La Jolla Village, which had a supermarket, plus lots of coffee houses, diners, restaurants and the famous Comedy Store (the only one outside of Hollywood).
The house was smaller than the previous one in Encinitas but there was much less to break so we felt as though we could relax a tiny bit more there. Their children were a little smaller, so the toys were also harder to break, which was also a plus! I’d definitely recommend trying to swap with people who are the same age as yours.
The outside areas of the house were stunning. The sofa area on the decking area was perfect for reading a book, with a coffee, while the rest of the family pop to the shops.
The outside kitchen had industry-standard appliances, including a searing grill for steaks and fish. There was a Sonos system to make it feel as though you were in a beach bar. The pizza oven looked great and Bob encouraged me to use it, but it looked waaaay too complicated, even after watching a few YouTube videos. (He’s promised a demo and family pizza night with them, the next time we’re in San Diego!)
It was the perfect base for visiting friends and family, who live further north and south of us, but it also gave us our own space to hang out and have “chill days” where we just hung out, grabbed a coffee and walked around La Jolla, before watching the sunset at the cove.
School report Two
We were Bob and Mary’s first house swappers but they’ve now swapped three times in six months, including San Francisco and an upcoming trip to Mexico.
They basically won House Swapping with the Points they used from our swap. They recently travelled to Colorado where the resort they stayed at would usually cost $10,000 a night and has some very cool perks.
Mary explained: “We had a blast in Colorado. In Breckenridge, we stayed at a place called One Ski Hill Place. It’s located right on the mountain and had a private bowling alley, which we reserved for just the four of us. It also included ski valet and a private movie theatre where we watched Toy Story!
“If that wasn’t enough, it also had a rollercoaster ride, right in front of the hotel, which takes your around the mountain!”
Bob said: “I have to say, I love this house swapping gig. I just wish I didn’t have to work!”
So, there you go. It all went a bit too well. We saved so much money on our trip – and had the “living in another country” experience with all of the comforts of home.
We’re up for House Swapping again soon, and we’ll be sure to let you know how we get on in the future!