keysA house-swapping vacation match made in heaven: two years of vacation success. In 2005, our family, through a mutual friend, swapped houses with another family.  The house-swap was a success. Aside from the drama of a missing bunny slipper, there were no major breakages or losses. I did learn some valuable lessons, however.

The family we house-swapped with had swapped with a family in Utah in the past, however, we were first-timers. The wife, we’ll call her Sue, had a good operator’s manual for her house (see here) as well as basic rules for the territory. Anything of value was placed out of sight (we both have kids under 10).

Benefits: toys were in full supply. Bikes, rollerblades, scooters (they had an electric one!) and beach equipment. Movies, games, towels and condiments were available. Sue’s supply of crackers saved me one night when I had starving guests over and dinner was not ready. Lots of space for our family of 5 plus au pair to move around.

A huge benefit of house-swapping is the resident’s recommendations of where to go and what to see outside of the usual tourist attractions (see Hermosa Beach – Raves & Faves ).

Sue went all out when she created our “to do” list. She clipped local papers for events, surf and volleyball camps, summer concerts, restaurants (one place had a magician on Tuesdays and kids ate free). She also provided coupon books and her neighbor supplied AAA books and maps. The amenity I loved most was access to the neighbors. We felt like part of their neighborhood. The operator’s manual included details about trash pick up and how to work the oven as well as neighbors’ phone numbers (which came in handy one night when I could not find a deep pasta pan).

Issues: Losing a toy or other item. I hadn’t planned for my 7 year old daughter to play dress up with our swapping-family’s daughter’s shoes and then, like at home, leave them scattered all over the house. We lost a bunny slipper. It was eventually found but the agony of looking for the blasted thing was horrible.

It was great having a central location for friends to visit us. However, that meant entertaining them and watching over them. The only time I was not relaxed was when we had friends over. This was not my house and it was not a hotel. I wanted to make a good impression on our swapping family so we could swap again next year so I was neurotically concerned about spills, breakage, whatever. It had been 10 years since we were last in LA so there were a lot of friends we wanted to see and after one day on the 405 (local freeway) we were thrilled that most of them were willing to come to us.  And they all did.

On one occasion a friend was visiting with his daughter and she fell while riding a scooter. She got a few ugly cement burns on her knees and she let everyone know it. She was screaming like someone stabbed her in the eye. My stress level raised to the max as I imagined the neighbors, phone in hand, ready to dial 911 or worse, the host family.

I was horrified when a couple of neighbors commented on the number of different cars they kept seeing in the driveway and I was worried that they would tell on us and what the host family might think. It was great to see old friends but in the future I would have only one or two days for visitors and the rest of the time, meet them at another location.

We did not swap cars. My husband knew how hard 6 of us could and would be on a vehicle so he opted to rent a car. This turned out to be a good decision because we spent a lot of time in the car thanks to traffic deluxe in LA. We hauled stuff to the beach and hauled it back, full of sand. We had snacks in case of unpredicted traffic which resulted in sticky spills and crumbs in the car. My husband was also concerned about liability. Luckily this was not a deal breaker for our swapping family. We rented a minivan from Advantage which was so cheap I called them 4 times for reassurance that they were a real company. And they were. They are off the beaten path from the airport but offer a frequent shuttle and newer model cars. The vans did not offer DVD players because they were too easily stolen and they could use more counter help but the wait was worth the savings.

I kill plants. I was concerned that if our swapping family had a lot of house plants, they would return to just potted soil. Luckily Sue’s only plants were hanging outside. I managed to remember to water them and they were alive when we left. I am equally bad with animals so we opted not to care for their iguana, bird or fish. I have also killed more than my share of pet fish and knew that pet-sitting could turn in to a disaster.

Our favorite local tip in Hermosa Beach was Rocky Cola Cafe, a great diner within walking distance of the house. We also loved Good Stuff, a divey restaurant on the Strand. We rented bikes and blades from the incredibly nice crew at Hermosa Cycles and pedaled and skated up and down the path. I am bummed that we missed the concerts in the park but am determined to see them next year.

Luckily we knew “Bike Path Etiquette” from living in CA years ago, which I would recommend including in Sue’s manual for future swapping families. There are serious (and fast) bikers on The Path. We had to train our kids to look both ways when crossing or turning onto the bike path. Sudden stops and whining were also discouraged.

Our experience was a good one. Our personalities were well matched and that was thanks to our mutual friend. I plan to house swap again – let’s hope they do too!

Read Year 2 here .