Successful Swaps: Build a Free Home, Swap Skilled Labor and More

Learn readers best tips for bartering, including how to build a home for free, how to refine your own skills and more.


If you are a skilled craftsman, why not put that to use with a valuable trade?


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Successful Swaps is a monthly feature in MOTHER EARTH NEWS where readers share their ideas for bartering and skill-and-labor exchanges. 

Build a Vacation Home For Free

My family used the old-time practice of bartering to obtain the mountain cabin we'd always wanted but didn't have the cash for. We had managed to save $500 to buy a small patch of mountain land, and then collected used lumber from my father's remodeling jobs. However, we just didn't have time to build the cabin and clear the land ourselves (and hold down full-time jobs to boot), nor could we afford the cost of hiring a construction crew. We suspected, however, that some of our handy acquaintances would fairly jump at the chance to exchange a little labor for the use of our cabin as a vacation hideaway or a hunting camp — and we were right! Four of our friends were quick to take us up on the offer.

Before we could put those people to work, though, we still had to find a way to transport the salvaged building materials from our present home to the land (a 150-mile trek). So, we decided to try barter again, and soon traded the promise of a free week at the cabin-to-be to a fellow who owned a trailer truck. He was able to haul all the lumber to our site in one trip.

The use of our little dwelling has since been exchanged for a mattress, some venison, several pieces of used furniture and help in constructing a boat dock. And best of all, we're bartering away only cabin use during periods of time when the building would otherwise be empty anyway!

—  J.M. Pennsylvania 

Swap Skilled Labor in the City

Many people seem to feel that swapping is pretty much confined to the rural areas of the country. Well, as a confirmed city slicker, I'd like to help put an end to that notion.

You see, my husband and I have — for years now — been swapping our skilled labor for that of others. For example, my spouse fixes friends' automobiles in exchange for such services as help (from an accountant) in preparing our income tax return, or — in another instance — the installation of a new sink and a garbage disposal in our home (a plumber buddy did that one). In addition, I've traded tutoring in the three R's (I’m a former teacher) for music and art lessons for my children and me. Our 9-year-old son has gotten into the act too, by offering his babysitting services to a neighbor who has several small children in exchange for cross-country skiing lessons.

We've recently begun trading for products as well. Our two most successful deals resulted in our owning a boat and motor! First, I swapped a no-longer-used washing machine for an older-model boat which was still in good condition. Then we exchanged a riding lawn mower (we didn't need it on our small lot) for the outboard motor.

So, as you can see, bartering is alive and well in both urban areas and rural realms . . . and we intend to keep at it!

— A.C., Washington 

Trade a Craft For a Plan

Not long ago, when I was in need of professional help with the design for my dream house, I happened to meet a MOTHER-type architect who, like me, is also an enthusiastic amateur astronomy buff.

As our friendship grew, I invited the designer to my home for an evening of stargazing . . . and discovered that my new buddy didn't own a telescope. He eyed my homemade 'scope with obvious admiration, and complimented me by saying that it was comparable in quality to some of the commercial models he'd coveted.

Well, that was all the encouragement I needed! I suggested a trade, and — as I'd hoped — the resulting deal furnished my wife and me with a set of top-notch house plans while my friend can now "visit" nearby heavenly bodies, aided by his home-built telescope, whenever the mood strikes!

H.R., Texas 

Figure Out What You Can Offer

As recent refugees from city life, my wife and I were quick to discover that we needed all the help we could get while fixing up a small cabin and starting a garden on our few acres in the California mountains. Our neighbors were so willing to pitch in, though, that we were soon well on our way to becoming successful homesteaders. In fact, our only "problem" was to find some service that we could perform in exchange for all the help our new friends gave us.

The first opportunity for a "thank you" swap arrived with our neighbors' new baby. The couple intended to have a home birth, and we thought that they might enjoy a vacation from their three active boys for a few days before and after the delivery. Furthermore, the expectant parents needed a fill-in person to answer the phone, order parts and keep up with the paper work at their family-run garage during that time.

Well, the exchange turned out to be fun for everyone involved. My wife and I had a wonderful time being foster parents to those energetic youngsters (it gave us a chance to feel like children again ourselves), and the few days of relaxed, country-style office work were a snap compared to the full-time labor we'd been accustomed to in the city.

— C.B., California 

Play to Regional Needs

Barter, in one form or another, has long been a way of life in this part of tidewater Virginia. Many of our deals are little more (or less!) than informal neighborly assistance and don't involve actual agreements about reciprocation. We might, for example, give a truckload of manure to a green-thumbed friend, and — at some time in the future — be presented with a bushel of fresh oysters, a tubful of herring for salting or a few rabbits for the stewing pot.

We do, however, have one ongoing "official" trade — involving soft crabs and land ownership rights — that could only occur in a tidal area. The crustaceans, you see, need to shed their hard exoskeletons in order to grow larger . . . and our area's ready-to-molt shellfish move along the shoreline looking for a safe place to "disrobe." During this search the wary crawlers instinctively avoid all obstacles, and head into deeper water (where they are better able to maneuver) if they do encounter a barrier. Crab hunters use this response to their advantage by running a wire fence (called a "peeler run") perpendicular to the shoreline from the high-water mark to boating depths. A trap is then placed at the underwater end of the fence to catch the sea creatures. (The boxes are checked once or twice daily, and the crabs — which by this time have begun their molting process — are put in holding tanks until they are completely free of the outgrown shells.)

Just how does the swap work? Well, the crabbing traps must extend to the high-water mark and all of the beach above the low-water mark is private property. (The distance between the tide lines is about five feet.) So it's customary in these parts for crabbers to give a small portion of their harvest to landowners in exchange for permission to run fences on their property.

The results are enjoyed by both parties, too. Freshly shed soft crabs are an expensive delicacy which we couldn't afford to buy . . . and our exchange provides the local fisherfolk with a less hassled way of earning a livelihood.

D.G., Virginia