House-swapping can give you the opportunity to try different areas of France before you buy. We ask a veteran house-swapper about her experiences in the south of France
Written by Darcy Ryhno
Fifteen years ago, Patricia Sands was a teacher in Toronto, with five grown-up children and two still at home. Today, she’s a part-time resident of southern France where she hosts tours based on her second novel, The Promise of Provence. Patricia was able to realise her dream of living and working in France, partly because of home-exchanges.
Also known as home-swapping, home-exchange is exactly what it sounds – two homeowners swap houses for a set period of time. Often, homeowners agree to swap cars as well, and homes often come with bicycles, barbeques and even pools. Organised house-swapping started in the 1950s when Swiss and Dutch teaching unions were looking for a way to improve cross-cultural understanding. Since the rise of the internet in the 1990s, house-swapping has increased an estimated 15-20% annually, as more and more exchange sites come online. Usually, the goal for exchangers is to enjoy a rent-free holiday in another part of the country or abroad, but exchangers may want to explore an area as a place to live, whether part-time or full-time.
For Patricia Sands, her experiences with home-exchanges in France were so inspiring, she wrote a novel, in which house-swapping is a major plot device. She wrote the first draft in 2011 during a five-month rental in Antibes.
Through a series of home-exchanges, her 60-something protagonist falls for the Côte d’Azur, and – of course – for a Frenchman. “My inspiration for the book was our home-exchanges and my love of the south of France,” she says.
She and her husband Maher had been coming to France for some time before she wrote the book. “Our first home-exchange in France was 12 years ago for a month in Menton,” says Patricia. “Friends were living there, and we looked at properties, thinking we might join them.”
That first exchange to France put them in one of six units in a villa once used by Queen Victoria as a holiday home. “It was just a one-bedroom apartment but with very high ceilings, a lovely marble staircase and a terrace, overlooking the old town of Menton.”
At the time, Patricia was looking into the fledgling practice of exchanging homes over the internet. There were a few websites around, but most home-exchanging was still through printed catalogues. When she told her friends what she was up to, they suggested skipping the catalogue and simply exchanging with each other.
Patricia recommends a home-exchange to anyone thinking of living in France. “What better way can there be than to do a home-exchange and check it out?” says Patricia. “One of the things about a home-exchange is that you live like a local. You’re in a neighbourhood. You feel what it’s like to live in a country.”
Patricia adds that those who offer their homes for exchange usually alert friends who drop by and welcome visitors. In addition, home-exchangers usually get to know each other. Patricia and her husband have made many new friends this way. “You simply can’t have the same experience staying in a hotel,” she says.
Patricia joined several home-exchange websites, including HomeLink, Home Exchange and Home Base Holidays, and began shopping around. In 2003, they exchanged to the Var area, near Toulon. “We knew properties were less expensive there,” says Patricia, “and we also wanted to see if the lifestyle suited us.”
Patricia says they realised they wanted to be in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and as they narrowed down their favourite locations, Patricia’s attachment to the region grew. “We just loved the south of France, the visual beauty, the weather, the Med, the lifestyle of going to the market and spending a lot of time walking around. I joke I was born in France in another lifetime.”
Their ease and familiarity with exchanging homes grew. “We saw it as a way of spending extended time there,” says Patricia. “Exchanging homes makes travel affordable. This isn’t the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Even if you have a small apartment, you can find somebody who has a studio apartment in Paris. If you have kids, you can find a family who offer a kid-friendly home with toys.”
The idea doesn’t always appeal to everyone, however, and those unfamiliar with house-swapping are often taken aback by the concept. “When I mention it to others, they look horrified,” Patricia says. Often they can’t believe Patricia hands over the keys to her home to perfect strangers. “You have to be smart. You’re not going to leave your jewellery lying around. I take mine to my daughter. I have a desk I keep locked.” Patricia has never had a problem. “The bottom line is, home-exchange reaffirms that most people are honest and trustworthy.”
Patricia and her husband still haven’t purchased a place in France, though it’s not for lack of love for the country. “I would live in Antibes forever, but my husband prefers Nice,” she says, and then adds, “I certainly wouldn’t shut the door on that. We might be over there one of these times and say, this is it.” Patricia and her husband are taking their time. “For now, we can do home-exchanges and rent. Next year, we hope to go for four or five months.”
Thinking of doing a home-exchange? Learn about the basics from an expert