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Uneven Exchange in House Swap

<i> Specht is a Malibu free-lance writer. </i>

We wanted to spend August in London and take our teen-age daughter and her friend with us. After totaling hotel and air fares, we realized, sadly, that we couldn’t afford it.

A friend offered hope. She had exchanged her home for a cottage in the English Cotswold Hills the previous summer. She had a wonderful time with all the conveniences and comforts of home, including a car, and no hotel expense.

She showed me a booklet published each spring that listed thousands of people all over the world desiring to exchange their homes. The advertisements described the locations of the accommodations, the attractions in the area and the owners’ preferred destination. For $15 we could list our house.

I decided to try it. My husband and I spent an evening composing our ad: “Large, sunny, family home, within walking distance to beach, plus use of car and van.” We sent it off.

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She Found It

Several months later the booklet arrived with our ad among all the others. We spent hours studying the listings. Many appealed to us, but one seemed to be “it.”

In Central London, Daphne King was offering a “converted villa--walk to Metro station, Portobello Road, exotic restaurants. . . .” Fearful of someone else getting to Daphne before us, I telephoned her. She was charming, reserved, cultured, and she wished to spend five weeks in Malibu. She would be arriving with her baby and a friend and was also delighted to leave her car at our disposal. We made the deal.

When she mentioned that she too was a writer, I knew this exchange was made in heaven. Writers exchanging homes with writers. What a common bond, what compatibility of interest!

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In the three months until our departure, my husband and I fantasized about our converted villa. Surely a quaint, historic mansion, updated and charmingly modernized, Laura Ashley fabrics covering the Victoria furniture, lace curtains at the French doors and windows.

Planted a Garden

We busied ourselves preparing our home for the English visitors, relining drawers, buying linens and housewares, painting rooms. I even planted what I hoped was an English country garden near the front door. I wrote reams of notes about the operations of the appliances and the cars, where to shop, eat and hike, and left physician’s and dentist’s numbers. Friends and neighbors promised to call and assist our “guests” in any way possible.

On the morning we left I put a welcome bottle of champagne and a light dinner in the refrigerator, along with milk for Daphne’s baby. With a last appraising look around, we kissed the cat goodby, ushered my daughter and her girlfriend into a neighbor’s car and set off for Los Angeles International Airport.

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Fourteen hours later, exhausted but exhilarated, we arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. In less than an hour we pulled up in front of our villa in a handsome, polished London cab.

It looked as inviting as the photo Daphne had sent. Four stories tall, gray-blue and white, with massive stone stairs leading to the heavy oak door. Someone would be there to let us in. We rang the bell.

A pale young man admitted us, led us down a musty hallway to a blue door and motioned us inside.

We entered what Daphne had written was a “spacious living room, dining and sitting room.” My husband’s face fell. The room was dingy and small. Hoping to placate him, I made attempts to “oooh and ah” over the pseudo Art Deco decor, the worn carpets and the faded slipcovers.

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A Collection of Keys

The young man was fumbling with a variety of keys. “This one is for the parlor, these are for the upstairs bedrooms, this one. . . .” A key for each room? Apparently so, as each of our rooms, like the one we were in now and the ones on the floor above, opened directly onto the hallway, which was used by tenants on the upper levels.

The light dawned! Our “converted villa” was a rooming house. We had been had.

My husband was outraged. I was upset and guilty. The young man was embarrassed. The girls were fascinated.

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It was pretty bad. The dark rooms had not seen a vacuum cleaner in a long while. The kitchen was so tiny that one person made a crowd. Its main feature was the smallest clothes washer and dryer manufactured: one sheet and a bra were a full load.

Competing for size was the tiny refrigerator under the counter. It had adequate food capacity after I spent several hours chipping the frost off the interior.

Upstairs, the bedroom closets and drawers were overflowing with a colorful disorganization of clothing and accessories. There was little room for our belongings.

A phone in the living area could be carried upstairs and plugged into a jack in our bedroom. If you could lift it. It was a red steel box that sat on the floor and weighed 30 pounds. It was a pay phone.

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Riding in the Triumph

We now knew what “converted villa” meant.

That evening we had a date to meet my husband’s English publisher for dinner. We decided to use Daphne’s car, a Triumph convertible. She had told us it was shocking pink, so we had little difficulty finding it parked half a block away. She’d said it was “old, but serviceable.”

Ancient is what it was, and its workability was on a par with everything else.

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It was impossible to reach the minimum speed of the other vehicles on the road, which was just as well. Anything over 20 m.p.h. and the wind threatened to whip the disintegrating canvas top off. I was forced to travel with my arm out the window, holding the top on.

My husband and I made a pact: We would enjoy this adventure to the hilt and would avoid thinking about what might be going on back home.

In the succeeding days, as we journeyed up and down, parlor to bedroom to bathroom, on our communal stairway, we met our fellow boarders--gentle, eager-to-help young designers, shopkeepers and musicians.

A Terrific Neighborhood

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If the villa was a disaster, the neighborhood was terrific. We frequented the famed Portobello Antique and Flea Market as much for the spectacle as the irresistible bargains. On weekends, shoppers begin arriving at dawn. Several hours later the thronging street bazaar represents virtually every ethnic group in the world, many in native dress.

Within walking distance were several lovely parks, intriguing Indian restaurants, unusual boutiques and the much-visited pubs.

We knew that our friendly neighbors back home, true to their word, were including Daphne in dinner parties, exercise classes, tennis dates and beach events. What we didn’t know, at the time, was that her entourage had grown to include a number of her friends on vacation in the United States. She turned our home into a boarding house away from home by inviting them to stay with her in Malibu.

Still Standing

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But to our great relief, when we returned home we found our house still standing and in good repair. One matter that required immediate attention was our van. It was in San Francisco, abandoned by Daphne when it developed engine trouble. My husband flew to Northern California, had the impounded vehicle repaired and drove the 350 miles back.

I agreed with the wisdom of a pay phone in the living room when we were confronted with several hundred dollars of long-distance calls on the next phone bill.

Would we risk a home exchange again in view of the frustrations that arose from this venture? Absolutely. But with less willingness to assume that other people share our values and with deeper investigation into the applicant.

There are organizations that specialize in arranging successful home exchanges. These agencies have firsthand knowledge of the lodgings and individuals involved. They cost a little more, but peace of mind has its price. That would be our approach next time.

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As for the little English garden I had planted--Daphne let it die.


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