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

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

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

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

D.G., Virginia