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Make Yourself at Home

updated February 21, 2017
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.

During the planning process, you'll come to know your exchange partner intimately. In fact, you'll often make lifelong friends--not just with the swappers, but with their friends. "I must underline the fact that I have always met very friendly people doing these exchanges," says Gina Sartor, a language professor in Milan and house-swapper for more than 20 years. "My dilemma is that I like to return to see my previous exchange friends, and yet I always look forward to meeting new ones!"

Tips for first-timers

Swapping for the first time may seem like a daunting task. First do some research on your own via two guidebooks: Home Exchange Vacationing by Bill and Mary Barbour ($14.95, available on) and the Australian-published Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? by Jackie Hair ($14.95). It was Jackie Hair who suggested these tips:

1. Be active in approaching members. E-mail them a brief introduction to your family, your home, and the area in which you live.

2. Be flexible with your destination and dates of travel. In fact, be flexible about everything--you're not checking into a first-class hotel, so don't expect equivalent service.

3. Take photographs of your home and traveling party (remember to smile!) and post them with your Web listing or e-mail them to potential swappers.

4. Start a "fact file" about your home and area. It should include emergency information--where the water and gas shutoffs are, how the security systems work, appliance handbooks, emergency contacts--as well as helpful advice (recommended restaurants and shopping centers, for example, and any maps and tourist brochures).

5. Bring up any concerns you have from the start. It pays to be forthright.

6. Discuss how you're going to handle the bills, and type it all up.

7. Appoint a friend or neighbor to help your guests with any queries.

The major home-exchange networks in the U.S.

Homeexchange.com 800/877-8723 or 310/798-3864, fax 310/798-3865, Members: 5,500 (half American, half European) Salient facts: Has an "open system" that allows anyone to browse the Web site, member or not. Guarantees you'll find a swapper within the first year or your second year is free. Annual membership fee: $49.95

Homelink 800/638-3841 or 813/975-9825, fax 813/910-8144, Members: 15,000 (in more than 50 countries, but more than 70 percent of exchangers are based in Europe), homelink.com Salient facts: Largest of the group, with Homelink representatives in most major countries available for assistance. Maintains separate Web sites (currently 23) for specific countries around the world. Annual membership fee: from $70

The Invented City 415/252-1141, invented-city.com Members: more than 1,000 Salient fact: Invented City has a "closed system"--only IC members can respond to its listings. The company claims this creates a higher-quality, more motivated pool of members. Annual membership fee: $50

Intervac U.S. 800/756-4663, fax 415/435-7440, intervacus.com Members: 10,000 listings per year in 27 countries Salient facts: The oldest home-exchange company in the world (around for more than 50 years). Eighty percent of listings are outside the U.S., the highest percentage of the American home-exchange companies. Annual membership fee: $65 for Web listing; Web and directory (with photo), $125.

International Home Exchange Network 386/238-3633, fax 386/254-3425, ihen.com Members: IHEN won't say, but the company does receive 350,000 home-swapping requests per month, coming from more than 70 countries. Salient facts: Currently the cheapest of the lot, and with an "ope" system" wh"re nonmembers can e-mail members. Annual membership fee: $29.95

Vacation homes unlimited 800/848-7927 or 661/298-0376, fax 661/298-0576, exchangehomes.com Members: 3,500 listings online Salient facts: Members with a house for rent can post it on the company's other site, vhurentals.com. Annual membership fee: $30 for web listing.

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