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Mutual exchange as a means of moving home for tenants

In the last five years, a quarter of a million tenants have moved homes by mutual exchange.

Written by:
Michael Jones and Frauke Sinclair
Date published:

Doing it for themselves considers how mutual exchanges affect mobility in social housing, and how people overcome the difficult problem of looking for and finding an exchange. Based on research with over 1,000 tenants who had mutually exchanged homes, the study begins with an overview of what is known about mobility within social housing, before going on to consider the characteristics of both those who had successfully exchanged and those still seeking an acceptable exchange partner.

The authors review how these two groups searched for an exchange. They also compare differences in the types of property involved in mutual exchanges with those involved in landlord transfers. They explore the effect of changes in location and the impact rent levels play in decisions to go ahead. The research found that the lack of an accepted, readily available and transparent process for marketing mutual exchanges may be inhibiting not only the number of exchanges which could potentially take place, but also the distances over which they occur.


Mutual exchanges occur when two tenants swap homes by legally assigning their tenancies to each other. In the last five years, nearly a quarter of a million social housing tenants have moved home in this way. To date, little has been known about the characteristics of tenants who exchange homes and the outcomes of their exchanges. The research team (Michael Jones and Frauke Sinclair of the University of Cambridge) have carried out the first detailed study of mutual exchanges. They found that:

  • Mutual exchanges were an important source of movement within the social rented sector, and offered a route to mobility for groups with relatively few other housing options. Lone parents in particular were more likely to move home through mutual exchange.
  • In common with most moves by social housing tenants, most mutual exchanges took place over relatively small distances. Around 75 per cent of exchanging households moved within five kilometres, and over 10 per cent moved less than 500 metres. Only 5 per cent moved more than 50 kilometres.
  • Tenants used a range of search strategies to identify their move partners, although advertising through the landlord was the most consistently used method. Use of the national HOMESWAP scheme increased with the distance moved. Word of mouth predominated for short-distance moves.
  • Employment-related reasons for moving were of marginal significance, even for longer-distance moves. Less than 2 per cent of exchanging households moved for work reasons, and only 5 per cent of the few who moved more than 100 kilometres did so for this reason.
  • Tenants' decisions to move by mutual exchange did not appear to be influenced by the difference in rent between their old and new homes. This applied equally to households whose rent was met by Housing Benefit and to those meeting the full costs themselves.
  • Differences in the degree of legal security of tenure offered by the various types of social landlords did not seem to affect the decision to move from one type of landlord to another.


The past few years have seen growing concern over the long-term implications of bureaucratic letting systems, typically based on housing needs, whereby prospective tenants are 'allocated' property rather than exercising choice over their future homes. A small but increasing number of social landlords have begun experimenting with schemes for choice-based lettings. Here, applicants for social housing are able to exercise a wider choice over properties, with more transparent 'market' style information. These initiatives have been taken up and extended in the Government's housing policy statement Quality and choice: a decent home for all - the way forward (Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 2000). Housing allocations, and their alternatives, are firmly on the policy agenda.

Little research has been focused on the long-established means of moving within the social rented sector whereby tenants 'swap' homes by assigning their tenancies to each other. Mutual exchanges are housing choices that reflect the spontaneous and largely self-organised activity of tenants. The outcomes of mutual exchanges thus shed new light on the choices that tenants make for themselves, rather than those offered by landlords.

This first detailed study of mutual exchanges sought to identify the characteristics of tenants who exchange homes, and the outcomes of such exchanges.

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