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House swapping

A low-cost alternative to typical hotel- or resort-style vacations.

Posted: March 18, 2008 7:00 p.m.
Updated: May 16, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
With the economy suffering and the price of everything from gasoline to groceries rising rapidly, a vacation is the last thing many people can afford right now. But what if you could stay for free in your chosen destination? Well you can, if you are willing to stay in someone else's house while they stay in yours.

The phenomenon is called "home exchange" or "house swapping," and though it has flown largely under the radar for years, it is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to conventional vacation accommodation.

Home exchange got a burst of mainstream exposure in 2006 thanks to the film "The Holiday" starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. Though she could afford to stay in a swank hotel, in the film Diaz chose to swap her mansion in L.A. for Winslet's cozy cottage in the U.K., and each had a fabulous trip, complete with romance and a happy Hollywood ending.

Though the average person engaging in home exchange is not guaranteed to stay in a mansion or fall in love, there are several pros - as well as cons - to exchanging rather than renting a room in your chosen destination, whether it be Boston or Budapest.

How it works
Most home swappers use one of the three major internet-based services to search for exchanges: Intervac, Home Exchange and Homelink. These sites allow members to access large databases of home swappers from all over the world who are willing to exchange their house for yours.

The first step is to post a description and photos of your house, then search for someone to swap with. Most sites allow you to narrow down exactly where you want to go, for how long, and what your preferences are in terms of house size, distance from a city center or other attractions. You can also find out whether a car is included in the swap, or if pets live on the premises.

The site will then match you with homeowners in your desired destination who are seeking to vacation where you live. After finding a swap partner or two, e-mails and phone calls are exchanged to firm up the deal, then it's time to pack your bags and go.

Though no one knows exactly how many people worldwide participate in home exchange, Jessica Jaffe, the owner of Intervac USA, a popular home-swap service that has been around since 1953, thinks that it numbers in the tens of thousands, if not more. She said that she did not know of any organizations that track statistics on home exchange, but that it is probably on the rise.

"In the days before computers, we used to print catalogs of our listings, and people would contact each other by mail," Jaffe said. "Now the Internet and e-mail has made it much easier and quicker for people to link up." It's a no-brainer to conclude that this probably explains much of the growth in home exchange, although Jaffe suspects that a lot of her clients come to Intervac via word-of-mouth.

Like most of the other reputable services, Intervac charges an annual membership fee, which gives members unlimited access to listings and ensures that they stay committed and keep their profile current. Most sites charge a fee between $50 and $100 a year.

Several smaller Web sites allow users to list and search homes for free, as do bulletin boards such as Craig's List, which contains a whole section just for house swapping.

Where can you go?
Jaffe said that home swapping has traditionally been more popular in Europe than the U.S., but that it is catching on in America. She also noted that in some places, particularly Japan and other parts of Asia, it has not really caught on at all.

Jaffe said that within the U.S., certain locations such as Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Florida and Hawaii are the most popular, and Italy is the most popular destination abroad.

However, even if you don't own a house in one of the more popular destinations, you can still participate in a swap.

"People ask me all the time, if I don't live in a big metro area, can I still list my house?" said Ed Kushins, president of Home Exchange, Inc. "The answer is, absolutely!" Apartment-dwellers can also swap, provided they get the necessary permissions from their landlord.

According to Kushins, there is always someone wanting to spend a week or two exploring your small corner of the world, whether you live in rural Acton or in Oslo. His Web sites describes how one client in unremarkable Modesto, California has made more than 10 successful exchanges with people from all over the globe.

Home Exchange, which has been around since 1992, has about 14,000 members on its books, about 40 percent of whom are based in the United States, and 60 percent abroad. Their Web sites is translated into six different languages to cater to its international clientele.

Kushins said that the type of people who do home exchange has shifted somewhat in the ten years since he's been in the business. "The demographic used to be primarily married retirees and teachers, but now it's a mix of everything - young couples, families with children, and singles," he said.

Home exchangers also tend to be very committed to the practice. Kushins said that many of his clients do multiple swaps throughout the year. "The trend is for people to do one long trip abroad, usually for two weeks or so, then do shorter weekend trips within their country at other times of the year."

What's good about it
According to Kushins, house swapping is a great idea for people who want to visit a country or a region, but don't want the impersonality and expense of a hotel, which can run into the thousands of dollars for a two-week trip.

"It's like being at home when you're away," he said. "You can make your own meals instead of eating out all the time, and you have more room to spread out." Instead of living out of a suitcase, you can hang your clothes in a closet.

For those traveling with small children, house swapping offers benefits in terms of space and stuff. For example, if you have a couple of active, rambunctious youngsters, the idea of lugging all their toys and supplies across an ocean, then being cooped up with them in a small hotel room can strike fear into the heart of even the most patient parent.

But if you were to arrange a three-bedroom home swap with another family with kids, you could spread out and take advantage of each others' toys, backyard playground equipment, car seats, or whatever else is available to keep the little ones safe and entertained when they inevitably get tired of museums and other attractions.

About half of all swappers trade cars as well as houses, which saves parties on both ends from having to rent one or navigate public transportation in an unfamiliar place. However, you must have insurance on your vehicle and be aware that damage could occur, though the chances are slim.

Aside from the logistical benefits, home exchange provides some intangible pluses such as making friends, and being able to experience an area as a native would, not a tourist.

"You're meeting people in a different way, and you're meeting people who live locally," said Bryna Weiss, a home exchange aficionado from Canyon Country. Weiss has kept in touch with many of her former exchange partners from her 10-odd years of house swapping.

Several years ago when she traded with a young couple from France, she arrived in their town the day before they left the country. They spent the day showing her and her husband around, and took them out to dinner.
"They were an adorable couple," Weiss recalled. "I had a lovely new friendship after that."

Is it safe?
If the idea of letting strangers into your house makes you uneasy, let the statistics reassure you. Kushins says that out of more than 25,000 exchanges done through his site every year, he gets on average less than a dozen complaints. And the grievances are rarely serious.

"For every 10 complaints I get," said Kushins, "about eight are for minor housekeeping issues, where maybe one party felt the house they stayed in wasn't clean enough for their standards." He said he has never had a report of serious damage or theft from a client, and no one who uses his service has ever found an empty lot instead of a house at their vacation destination.

The reciprocal nature of home exchange offers a built-in safeguard, since you are entrusting your home to a stranger who is conversely trusting you with theirs.

"The general rule is to leave a house exactly as you found it, and to take care of the home as you expect your partner to take care of yours," Kushins said.

For those who need more assurance, Kushins said that contracts can be signed that enumerate the dates, times, and house rules involved with the exchange. His site even offers contract templates that can be downloaded and copied.
However, most people go without a contract, knowing from experience that there is very little need.

Weiss said that she has never had a bad experience. "One house maybe wasn't as immaculate as we might have liked, but it was not horrible or anything," she said.

Weiss thinks successful exchanges can be had if you always insist on seeing photos of the property first, and if you listen to your gut.

"Go by your instincts, based on what your swap partner says through e-mail or on the phone," she said.

The downside
Obviously, home exchange isn't ideal for everyone. If you prefer the amenities of a hotel, such as daily maid service, a concierge, bellman and an on-site restaurant with exotic nouveau cuisine, a home swap probably isn't for you.

If you want to take an impromptu last-minute trip, an exchange probably won't work because of the lead time required. Weiss said sometimes logistics prevent her from doing a swap - either she can't be bothered to get her house clean and ready, or sometimes her son is staying in her house.

Also, there is no guarantee you will get the home you want at the exact time you want it. For those who don't have flexibility in their schedule, it may not work out.

"You can't always say 'I want this place at this time,'" one exchanger said, speaking from personal experience. "You have to go where the availability is."

Once, in order to work out a successful swap with a partner he liked in a location he coveted (Hawaii), he gladly agreed to take care of the other homeowner's plants, pets, and even aging parents.

Lastly, if you just can't stand the idea of someone you don't know sleeping in your bed or using your kitchen, then home exchange is probably not an option for you.

But in our rapidly-shrinking global community, more and more people are putting their reservations aside and giving home exchange a try, in order to have a chance to see the world in home-style comfort for a fraction of the usual cost.

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