Rising trend: House swapping

Due to limited options for vacationing overseas and outrageous holiday rental prices, many more families have decided to try out house swapping for the first time.

‘SEEING WHAT it’s like to live somewhere else is an amazing feeling.’ (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
‘SEEING WHAT it’s like to live somewhere else is an amazing feeling.’
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
As we go in and out of lockdown due to the novel coronavirus, with the economic crisis affecting almost every household in the country: house swapping has become a popular new trend here in Israel.

For the most part, the families that usually end up swapping houses are people who enjoy vacationing in different areas around the country and relish the opportunity to see how other people live. For years, families have been taking vacations this way, and this past summer – due to limited options for vacationing overseas and outrageous holiday rental prices – many more families have decided to try out house swapping for the first time.

The Leichner and Turgeman families, for example, who hail from Tel Aviv and Moshav Kanaf in the Golan Heights respectively, recently returned home from a successful house swap vacation at each other’s house. “I’d been thinking about trying this out for a long time now, but I wasn’t sure we’d be able to find another home that could accommodate all of us, since we have four kids,” says Michal Leichner. “But then I noticed that the Turgeman family’s house in northern Israel was perfect for us.” The two families began communicating and ended up swapping homes.

“It ended up being a smashing success,” continues Leichner. “Their house was spacious, it had a nice garden, and my five-year-old daughter told me she felt like we’d gone on a trip overseas. She actually loved the idea that another little girl was sleeping in her bed back home. I’m an architect, so I notice little details, such as the dimensions of the kitchen counters or the layout of the bathrooms. Some of the instructions I’d given the Turgemans were things like how to lock the doors, and where it was safe to ride the bikes and scooters in the city. Their instructions, on the other hand, included things like how to feed the chickens and how to take care of the dog and cats. It was quite a refreshing change for us. My kids had so much fun running all over the back yard, inspecting the mango tree and going out each morning to pick a few fresh tomatoes and herbs for breakfast. It was really special to see how other families live and to experience moshav life firsthand.”
Unlike the Leichners, this was the twelfth time the Turgemans had swapped houses with another family – sometimes more than once a year. “Each year we look for a house in a different area of the country, mostly in cities, so we can enjoy urban culture that we don’t get at home,” explains Mali Turgeman. “I don’t care as much about the house itself or if it’s big. It just needs to be good enough. It is important, though, that we feel a connection with the owners. We’ve returned to Jerusalem a number of times. We love having so many interesting things to do each day that are walking distance or a short drive from the apartment. This is how my kids have grown up, and they love going to a new home each time. We clean our house as if we were preparing for Passover and fix anything that we’d been putting off.” SINCE THE outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, the number of active members on the Facebook group has grown exponentially, and is expected to rise even more during the upcoming holiday season. One of the basic tenets of the website is that no one is allowed to charge any money for the house swaps. That’s part of the reason why thousands of Israelis have joined the site and have really benefited from this experience.

Nine years ago, Keren Goldner founded the Holiday Home Swap Facebook group, which includes homes in Israel as well as abroad. “There are currently over 4,000 members, 1,500 of which joined in just the last few weeks alone,” explains Goldner. “The site always sees much more traffic in the summertime than the rest of the year, but recently there’ve been around 60-70 posts a day. In the past, an average day would see only 10-20 posts.

“One of the biggest differences between house swapping and renting a bed-and-breakfast is that with the latter, you never know how many other people will be staying in the vicinity. With house swapping, you have a better idea of what the surroundings will be like, since you spend lots of time talking with the owners ahead of time. Of course, the biggest difference is obviously the money savings, but being able to live in someone else’s house for a while, and see what it’s like to live somewhere else is an amazing feeling. The kids prepare their own toys and things so that the other kids can use them – of course, they put away anything they don’t want touched – and it’s good for them to learn how to share. And they also learn to take good care of the other family’s things just like they want them to be taking good care of theirs.” “I can’t even begin to tell you how much money we saved,” gushes Leichner. “Last year, we took the kids on a trip to Greece, and it cost NIS 10,000. We took them to a water park one day, but the rest of the time was kind of the same every day. This year, all we had to pay for was food and outings. It’s true that it’s not the same feeling as staying in a hotel, since you need to cook and prepare your meals, but it’s totally worth it.

“And since you’re saving so much money by not staying in a hotel, you can spend more than you would have on shopping and attractions,” adds Turgeman. “We love going to new places and fun restaurants. We never would have been able to afford these outings if we had to dish out so much money on a hotel in addition.”

“Five years ago, we fell in love with the idea of house swapping, and ever since we’ve been swapping with other families twice a year,” says Raviv Meidan from Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. “We’ve stayed in houses all over Israel: Tel Aviv, Sde Boker, the Golan Heights and Beit Zayit. Our house on the kibbutz is not very fancy, but people love the idea of experiencing day-to-day life on a real kibbutz. There’s something so awesome about stepping right into someone else’s life. It can be kind of addictive, actually. And of course, you save so much money, it’s ridiculous. And for us kibbutznikim, getting to live in the city for a while is so exciting. Since we save so much money, we can afford to go on vacation a few times a year.” THAT’S NOT to say that sometimes there aren’t glitches. One of the most common downsides of house swapping is that families aren’t always on the same page regarding cleanliness. “When you arrive at the other family’s house and realize that it’s nowhere near as clean as you had expected, it’s pretty depressing,” admits Michal Or from Kfar Hess, who has been swapping houses for years. “One year, the place we got to was so dirty that my husband said, ‘that’s it – we’re never doing this again.’ And we didn’t for the next two years.

“I’m very particular about keeping our home clean, and the house we’d arrived at was so dirty that we couldn’t fall asleep. We decided to pack up and return home the next morning. The other family was quite angry and did not understand what we were so upset about. I work extremely hard to keep our home clean, including cleaning in the corners and keeping the garden tidy.

“What we learned from that experience is that we have to be very clear and extremely detailed with the other family – to an extreme. Now I request lots of pictures via Whatsapp and since then we haven’t had any more surprises. I still prefer this over staying in a hotel, since here we get an entire apartment with a living room and fully equipped kitchen. There are plenty of toys for the kids to play with, a full bathtub, and a balcony or a yard. It’s much more comfortable than staying in a small hotel room. This year, we even managed to swap with other families on two separate occasions. And we have a third swap set up for the upcoming holiday when the kids will be off from school.” Another downside of this method of vacationing is that sometimes the other family cancels at the last minute. This can really be frustrating. “For example, in August, the family we were going to swap with changed their mind two days before we were set to swap,” continues Or. “We were so disappointed. We’d already bought tickets for shows and planned out our entire itinerary. Luckily, we found another place.”

Lior Student, 46, manages six house-swapping groups: one is for homes in Israel, and the rest are for homes in Europe and the US, which are seeing less traffic these days, due to the epidemic. He also handles sublets and accommodates families that keep kosher. “I began managing the sites overseas first, since I didn’t think that Israelis would be so into it,” explains Student, who lives in Tel Aviv and works in hi-tech.

“I’d swapped houses many times overseas, and I wanted to see if I could find someone in Israel who was interested in swapping with families from overseas,” continues Student. “I thought this would be a great Zionist opportunity for non-Israeli families to get to see what it’s like to live Israel. When you stay at a hotel, you get a very sterile experience, and don’t get to learn anything at all about the local culture and community. For me, hotels remind me of work. When I swap houses in places I’ve never been to before, such as a little town in Spain or rustic village in Thailand, we get to experience so much more than we would have had we stayed in a hotel in a large touristy city. The Israeli Facebook house swapping group has grown so much over the last few months now that fewer people are traveling overseas. Most of the people signing up are hoping to find a house in northern Israel or in Eilat.” “We’ve met so many nice and interesting people since we began swapping houses,” concludes Meidan. “I really enjoy the whole experience. Lots of people leave information about concerts, hiking trails, restaurant recommendations and fun stuff to do with the kids in their area. It’s a great feeling knowing that everyone is really into helping each other and making the other family’s stay as enjoyable as possible. It’s a really supportive community.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.