I belong to a home exchange program, and I’ve had pretty good luck with it in the past. I’ve exchanged with a delightful couple from York, England, who have a pied-a-terre on the Thames in London, directly across the river from the Globe Theater and within walking distance of Borough Market. And I’ve traded with a man who owns an apartment building on the upper west side in Manhattan and keeps a cute studio to rent or exchange.
A home exchange is just that -- people trade domiciles, usually while vacationing, to have all the comforts of home, albeit someone else’s, without having to pay for a hotel. It was the subject of a Kate Winsdlet/Cameron Diaz movie called “The Holiday” a few years ago, which helped boost its popularity.
Most exchanges are simultaneous and require coordination of travel dates for both parties. But I usually seek out exchanges that are non-simultaneous, the deals for people who have multiple properties or second homes who needn’t synchronize their holidays. In fact, those are the only exchanges I’ve done.
There’s a tremendous amount of trust that takes place in a home exchange, on the part of both parties. You have someone coming into your home and you expect to return to find all your electronics on the shelves and all the artwork on the walls. Some people even make their vehicles available. I’ve never been quite that trusting, but I’ve never found a reason to distrust.
I just experienced the home exchange from hell. Or maybe that should be in hell. Certainly in the most hellish looking apartment I’ve ever stepped foot in.
I had arranged an exchange with a New York couple who live in Chelsea but have a second apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s a part of town I had never stayed in before, so I was looking forward to experiencing a different part of the city. It had been arranged as a non-simultaneous exchange with the NY couple and their two children visiting Orlando first. But as the arrangements were being finalized, the couple said they had decided to do an exchange with another Central Florida family. But they offered to still make their apartment available for us for an “exchange” of gift cards and certificates for them to use during their stay in Orlando. It was still going to be cheaper than a Manhattan hotel, and we were still intrigued about the neighborhood -- the flat was just around the corner from Katz’s Deli -- and its current state of transitioning from tenement to trendy.
Alarms should have gone off when, during another visit in May, I made a special trip to the Lower East Side just to scope out the apartment’s location. The entrance was next to a tattoo parlor and the security gates and walls were splattered with graffiti. But, hey, that’s just the outside. The inside could be completely different, right?
But when we arrived for our recent trip and finally got inside, we discovered that we could indeed judge this book by its cover. In fact, what awaited us inside was pretty much the definition of squalor.
It was a third-floor walk-up, the stairwells an institutional green with the occasional graffiti tag. The apartment was a typical New York two-room -- kitchen and sitting/sleeping area -- studio. As was common in such older buildings, the bathtub was in the kitchen. I knew that going in and it didn’t bother me; I thought it could be quaint. I’m fine with quaint. And I can do rustic. I can even do spartan. But I won’t do seedy.
The bathtub and the kitchen sink were connected somehow, and we were admonished to be careful if we were using the kitchen sink not to get anything in the drain or the bathtub would back up. And, the kitchen sink had a leak and there was a plastic tub under it to catch the drips. The toilet was in a small closet, too small to have a sink in it, so the commode had been outfitted with a toilet-top sink. Flush the toilet and water to refill the tank flowed first through a faucet for hand washing and then through a drain to the tank. Actually a rather ingenious little device -- but if I washed my hands using it I wouldn’t want to dry them on the dirty towels that had been left hanging there.
Not that we’d be preparing any meals, but there was only a small patch of kitchen counter, covered with plastic sheeting. Above it was a small window-unit air conditioner, which could only cool the bedroom area if fans were used to draw the air in. Above the AC unit was a power strip and a rats nest of wires that looked like a fire hazard.
Maybe that’s why the owner insisted that we be shown how to open the grates on the windows to the fire escape before we were allowed to be alone in the apartment. (There was a trick to it, and I’m not even sure I’d have been able to master it in an emergency.) A double bed was pushed up against the windows; next to it was a “loft bed,” which is sort of like a bunk bed but without a lower bunk. We were welcome to hang clothing from the loft bed, we were told, but we may not use the one closet in the flat because it was filled with the owners’ belongings. I didn’t even bother to peak behind what appeared to be a shower curtain covering the closet.
Here and there were large bookcases with shelves absolutely crammed full of books, games and children’s toys. (In the photos for the listing on the home exchange site, these bookshelves are virtually empty.) In fact clutter would have to be a major part of any description of the place. It was everywhere, and it included the sorts of things one would put away in one were expecting guests. One would also think the trash cans would be empty or that a laundry hamper hanging on the wall in the living area would be empty of soiled items.
We arrived at the apartment in late afternoon, and because we had theater tickets that evening we had little time to fully comprehend or deal with the situation. Returning after the show, we realized we could not possibly spend the five nights we had planned to in these wretched surroundings. I grabbed my laptop to search for a hotel.
I also grabbed the Internet device the owner had given me to use, a sort of antenna that plugged into my usb port. But when I tried to log on, my browser warned me that the connection was not secure and continuing might be a security risk. So we searched for hotels using iPhone and iPad over the sort of weak 3G signal that plagues apartment dwellers.
We found one near Washington Square, but we wouldn’t be able to move until the next morning. We were stuck there for the night.
In the morning we removed the bedding, as we were requested to do at the end of our stay. That’s when I saw that the pillow I had just slept on was about as filthy looking as anything, stained with God knows what. If there had been any second thoughts that maybe the clutter and dilapidation could be “toughed out” they disappeared that moment. We got the hell out of there.
Has this soured me on doing another home exchange? No, not entirely. But it will certainly make me more cautious. In retrospect, there were red flags that I should have seen but missed or simply chose to overlook. I’ll look more carefully next time. And if the place is next to a tattoo parlor, I’ll think twice about it.