Make Yourself at Home

Your house may be humble, but in the swapping market it could be worth so much more: a houseboat in Sausalito, a manor in Wales, or a Parisian flat

The reward was clear: a free homestay in a foreign city, enjoying life like a resident, not a tourist. But to get there, you first pored over a catalog that had been printed months earlier and saw a villa that caught your fancy. You carefully wrote an elaborate, three-page letter describing your own home or apartment, attaching a half-dozen photographs. You mailed the heavy packet to the villa's owners, offering to exchange your place for theirs during your respective vacations. And then you waited two, three, four weeks for a reply. Too often, the news was that the house had long since been committed to an Australian family.

Today the Internet has so reduced the work of exchanging homes that more than 20 organizations are active in handling the increasing numbers of swappers.

And you'll be amazed at what you can get. "A while back my wife and I exchanged our 2-bedroom Florida condo for a 17-bedroom manor house in England," says Bill Barbour, a long-time swapper. "We had the entire 27-acre estate to ourselves, with a live-in maid, full-time gardener, indoor swimming pool, and our exchange partner's new Mercedes thrown into the deal!" Barbour, who now swaps multiple times a year, became such a fan that he and his wife wrote a book on the subject.

So where's the catch? You have to feel comfortable placing your home in someone else's care; the fact that they're doing the same is a fairly faint guarantee. Still, nearly all frequent exchangers insist that mishaps rarely occur. They also claim trouble can be minimized by requiring (and checking) references from would-be exchangers. In a sense, swapping can even increase security when you're on vacation--after all, at least someone is looking after your residence.

"We run into two types of people," explains Karl Costabel of Homelink, one of the three main house-swapping organizations in the U.S. "Those who say, 'Great, where do I sign up?' and those who say, 'Give my home over to a stranger? You've got to be kidding!' Initially, people become interested because exchanging homes is a low-cost vacation solution, but they stick with it because it's a lot more than that." A few months ago, another site, , had a family in Kauai that sent out 20 e-mails saying that their son in Southern California was undergoing a liver transplant two days later, and they needed to be with him, fast. The family received five or six offers. "The community of home exchangers has a trust and camaraderie," says Ed Kushins, HomeExchange's co-owner. "They're just a really good group of people."

It's a community that's growing, says Homelink's Costabel. More young families and singles are joining in--the bulk of swappers are retirees--and swappers are becoming more creative. Some are bartering use of RVs and time-shares, and even hosting each other at their respective residences.

The three largest exchange clubs in the U.S. are HomeExchange, Intervac, and Homelink (each has more than 5,000 listings), and there are many other smaller ones. The execution is simple: Join a club (basic annual club-membership fees run from $30 to $70), log on to its Web site, type in where you live and where you'd like to go, and await a response. Although you should give yourself a decent amount of time to work it out, swaps have been done in a couple of hours. Printed directories do still exist--they remain useful in countries that aren't as wired as the United States--but some companies don't publish them at all anymore.

Location is the most important draw for swappers, and you should sell your area accordingly (and truthfully). You never know what will appeal to someone: You may live in a small studio apartment, but the fact that it's in the downtown area of a major city will be attractive to many people. The most popular exchange locations here in the United States are warm-weather destinations such as Hawaii, California, and Florida; most Americans swapping overseas aim to do so in Europe.

To increase your chances of finding a suitable swap, list yourself with more than one organization. Once you're a member, begin planning your exchange at least six months in advance (three months at the minimum)--not only to find a fulfilling trade, but also to work out all the details. Ask pertinent questions about the size, ages, and interests of the group you're swapping with; the destination's neighborhood, location, and weather; space and storage issues; whether a car is involved (and whether you can pick it up at the airport); auto and home insurance policies; smoking versus nonsmoking; whether you have to care for pets and plants; and any quirks about the property. Think about how you live now and what you'll need to be happy elsewhere. And while house swapping is all about trust, it doesn't hurt to get and check references, and to store things such as priceless vases or wines. One last suggestion: Hire a housekeeper at the end of your stay; it's a classy touch.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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