Very Rear Window,” says my other half approvingly. We’re admiring the view from our New York sitting room through huge, floor-to-ceiling, fourth-floor windows over a yard into scores of other apartments. Next we doff our caps to the vast wall-mounted plasma television, the stack of movies on offer, an Apple Mac with wi-fi and a first-class music system. Nosing further reveals two smart bedrooms with white linen sheets, stacks of pillows and ensuite bathrooms. But we’re not in a hip Manhattan boutique hotel. Instead, we’ve borrowed a strangers’ apartment in Brooklyn, and it’s not costing a cent.
This is our second stab at a house swap. We know New York well but for round two we wanted to experience a different part of town, somewhere grittier than our leafy north-west London locale, a place of street artists and mustachioed men serving cocktails in jam jars. Ah yes, Williamsburg, in the borough of Brooklyn, home to hipsters, musicians and wannabes. The bigger ask: how to get a fashionable flat here for free?
For our exchange in 2008 we surrendered our recently refurbished four-bedroom terraced house in Kensal Green for a cute, slightly cramped, garden flat in Cobble Hill. It came from weeks of trawling free-listings site Craigslist and eventually finding a Brooklyn family up for a fortnight’s swap. It was successful – to a degree. Both parties enjoyed city breaks free of accommodation bills. But halfway through our swap, their caretaker made a surprise visit to do building work. As he ripped up the kitchen and stacked all the contents on the one double bed, on the other side of the Atlantic our oven was dying and our guests were getting frustrated by the Tube’s late-night limitations.
We decided to give it another go after hearing about Luxe Home Swap. This new property match-making website isn’t free but its £100 fee seems a small price to save time filtering out crackpots offering glitzy palaces in return for money wired to a bank account in Africa. Plus there are some seriously gorgeous properties on offer – from an eight-bedroom Long Island mansion to a modernist villa in the Dutch Antilles and a 19th century chateau in Brittany. The site’s managers insist you don’t need a multi-million pound property to use it, stressing that people want different things at different times. A user might own a palatial St Tropez beach house but be happy with a cosy cottage on a trip to the Cotswolds, or a central apartment for a city break.
Fast forward a few weeks and we are browsing Michelle and Manolo Campion’s DVD shelf, and visiting the Vietnamese takeaway they have recommended for our first supper.
“I’m sorry, how much is this place costing you?” asks a friend who has joined us for dinner. My reply – “Nothing!” – makes her eyes boggle. As does the elaboration that we don’t even know the beautiful couple and cute toddler visible in the photos.
“A house swap?” she ponders cynically. “Ah, so right now some strangers are rooting around your laundry basket.” However, after scrutinising the stylish living space fit for a magazine shoot, she has to concede that underwear snooping isn’t likely to be a penchant of our hosts, a photographer and beauty writer.
A trick for a winning swap is to meet the people whose shoes you’re stepping into. Put faces to names and it feels more like staying at a friend’s house and not “strangers you met on the internet”. Having briefly met the family whose place we were hijacking – apart from them being as lovely as can be – we also knew they were on holiday in Mexico. Another great cheat in a stress-free exchange is a non-simultaneous swap. Our landlords-of-sorts headed for the beach, banking a week in our London house for the summer.
When our hosts showed us their pristine home before heading to the airport, I scoped their spotless designer apartment nervously. Michelle shrugged her shoulders, saying: “Oh, don’t worry. Make yourselves totally at home.” Grilling them quickly on where to get the best cappuccino, their favourite foodie rendezvous, nearby child-friendly activities, and reliable babysitters, we waved goodbye feeling a little odd shutting their front door to them. Clocking their luxury hotel-standard bathrooms, I winced at what this Williamsburg poster family would make of our PVC front door and not-so-fashionable bathroom tiling, hopefully offset by the fact it’s a pretty house with a garden on a peaceful street.
Domestic routine remains on a similar schedule with a different backdrop and a new cast of characters. Sample day: early Empire State and Brooklyn Bridge walk for my husband and daughter; window-shopping design wares between Bedford Avenue and Roebling Street for me. Lunch: a bargain set meal from Supercore, a Japanese canteen a block away where we befriend a Californian life coach on granddaughter duty. An unconventional afternoon play date ensues; her daughter’s a set designer and we’re invited to a celebrity-studded film shoot in SoHo. After delicious soup dumplings in Chinatown, it’s home for our (vetted) babysitter so we can hit Maison Premiere, a hot new oysters-and-absinthe bar that’s just opened on Bedford Avenue, steps away from our abode.
The plot for our Williamsburg life swap thickens when two of us come down with a bug. Convalescing in the comfort of a private two-bedroom home, rather than all three of us crammed into a hotel room with only a pricey minibar, proves a triumph. As my other half whips up meals tailored to each of our tastes, our three-year-old is kept entertained by age-appropriate toys.
Our spell in New York proves a headache- and extravagance-free holiday. Sure there’s a frantic end-of-stay three-hour clean-up (washing and drying loads of towels and sheets isn’t the most fun you can have on your last morning) – but you can always follow our lead and round off the trip by blowing some of what you’ve saved with a night or two in a luxury hotel. We head back to London as house swap proselytes. Poised to clean out cupboards and plump pillows, we can’t wait to welcome our visitors from Brooklyn. Here’s hoping that our place lives up to their expectations.