That Time I Swapped Houses and Learned to Let Go
Remember the movie The Holiday? Cameron Diaz plays a big-time movie-trailer producer living in an L.A. mansion, and Kate Winslet a struggling journalist in a lovely Tudor in the Cotswolds. Both are having some guy problems at home and, lo and behold, they swap houses for Christmas, and end up finding exactly what they both needed: Jude Law and Jack Black. Hijinks and romantic comedy ensue.
Well, I did something very similar over Christmas break this year. My New York-based family and I swapped homes with a family from Los Angeles.
A few months ago, I came across the invite- and creatives-only house-swapping site called Behomm, which was recently written up in The New York Times. It was still the early days for Behomm, so I put myself on a list to be invited and submitted all the photos and necessary information proving that I worked in a visual field. The application process was thorough, let me tell you.
In your profile, you can list the places in the world you want to visit, the times that are the best for you, etc. Almost immediately, I started getting offers to swap homes. Many of them were for places that would be impractical for me to visit with my whole family—like, say, Ibiza. But pretty early on, I got a request to swap houses for the holidays with a family in L.A. We love L.A, plus it’s really easy to travel with kids within the U.S., and Christmas vacation is notoriously expensive. The house had the right number of bedrooms and was centrally located, the owners sounded nice, and the place was so cool looking.
Soon we were on the phone talking dates. Eric Alan, his wife Rhonda Voo, and their three teenage daughters would swap homes with me, my husband, and my two kids.
The impending arrival of visitors in my apartment forced me to do so many things that I had been putting off. Fix the coat closet handle, replace all the dead light bulbs, buy new towels for the kids’ bathroom (to replace the baby towels with hoods). I also took loads of art supplies back to my studio where they belonged, and donated or threw out loads of old toys.
I was nervous. Nervous about a lot of things. Nervous about being judged by strangers—although from our many conversations on the phone, the Alan-Voo clan seemed super-sweet and non-judgmental. I was nervous about my stuff, of course. From seeing their home, I knew this family would treat my things with respect. But would they know which vases, bowls, and tchotchkes were important to me, and which were crap? Would they know which plates I use for what, which are for every day, and which I save for special occasions? Of course they wouldn’t. Would having other people touch and use my most personal things put me off of them, like when a mother bird senses someone has been messing with her eggs?
My husband asked me at some point: “How come you aren’t attached to our house?”
"Not attached?!” I replied. "I’m too attached.”
This was kind of why I wanted to do the swap. It was like a mental exercise in detachment. I have a propensity toward collecting and imbuing objects with meaning and importance, so doing this was a philosophical challenge to myself. People are going to use your stuff. Get over it.
We excitedly chatted on the phone, sent over keys, left each other fruit bowls and chocolates, instructions, a few empty drawers, fresh bedding, and sundries, and the swap began.
The Los Angeles home had been updated in 2007 with a space-age addition by the then up-and-coming architect Neil Denari. Alan and Voo had tracked down Mr. Denari after seeing his first-ever built project, an L.A. Eyeworks store. They became fast friends and their home was Mr Denari’s first-ever residential project.
With the new architecture, the family embraced a completely minimal lifestyle. You might think you know minimal; you do not know minimal. They told me they had 10 yard sales to sell off all their belongings. “I’ve never seen people so relieved to be spared from distractions,” Mr. Denari said in an article about the home in The New York Times.
They have one set of silverware; I have five. They have one amazing chef’s knife; I have about six crappy ones. They have a few lovely towels; I have 30 that I can’t seem to keep fluffy. There is one frying pan. They are a family of artists, and there are only two pieces of art hanging in the entire home. They only have four chairs at their dining table!
Everything is of the highest standard and completely functional. The cleaning supplies are in labelled bins. All the appliances are Miele. They have the whole house wired with Nest, Sonos, and Apple TV, and absolutely no clutter.
All I can say is that I felt the incredible lightness of being that comes with releasing attachment to material possessions by spending time in their home. My husband was in heaven. We loved the easy L.A. lifestyle. Throughout the swap, we were in a group chat, sending each other restaurant recommendations, tips on the houses, and more. We left feeling like family.
When I got home, I was incredibly happy to be amongst my stuff again. I will say, I did learn a lot about running a functional household—and decluttering. Most importantly, we had an absolutely lovely vacation with our family, as did the Alans. And when I got home, my house was in perfect order.
So, would I recommend house swapping? If you are the right type of person for it (i.e. not completely neurotic), and you find a nice homeowner to swap with (trust your gut), then YES, definitely.