Every summer Michelle Holleman vacations abroad with her husband and three sons. They’ve been to Paris, London and the Netherlands and are heading back to France, yet they never spend anything on hotels or lodgings. Instead, they trade their home in a pleasant suburb for other families’ homes in places they want to visit overseas.
Hanni Reeb recently swapped her beautiful, big (as in 4,850 square feet and sleeps 12) home on Lake Ballinger for a vacation in a large house outside Paris that had an indoor pool and plenty of bedrooms for visitors. “We traded cars as well,” Reeb enthuses. A veteran swapper, she has been offered places in Thailand, the Caribbean Islands, Ireland, France, Denmark, Belgium, England, Hawaii, Canada and New York. She is sold on the concept.
Both Reeb and Holleman are part of a growing international trend: the house swap, made possible by a whole slew of Web sites that link travelers from around the world. Despite the economic downturn, people still want to travel and house swaps make a vacation much more affordable.
If you’re intrigued with the idea, start by asking yourself some basic questions. Are you willing to let strangers sleep in your beds while you’re out of town? Are you ready to have people you’ve never met rule your house including, perhaps, your pets, car and boat for a week or more?
Many other considerations go into a successful swap. Make sure you carefully consider your needs as well as your wants before you commit. Options may vary depending on the time of year. Your downtown apartment may be less in demand in the rainy months, but worth more in the summer. And be aware that all trades may not appear equal. Public relations professional Moira Campbell has a one-bedroom apartment two blocks from Times Square which bought her only a bare-bones studio in Paris, but a spacious, two-bedroom apartment near Vancouver, B.C. Think location, location, location.
But even if you live in a modest bungalow you consider less than exciting, there is likely to be a swap out there for you. People travel for different reasons. Someone may want to visit family in the Seattle area or to live in temporary housing while shopping for real estate. One family who lives in an ordinary home on a quiet street found a swap for their home with a couple from England who wanted to attend their son’s graduation from a local college.
If you’re still up for a swap, start planning months ahead because a match means finding the right house with people who want to visit your hometown at the same time you want to take your vacation.
Dozens of Web sites tout permanent real estate exchanges, house-sitting jobs, outright rentals or sales, or just a sofa to sleep on for a night or two. If you are looking for a vacation home exchange, the first step is to find Web sites that specialize in this type of arrangement. (See list below for some places to start.)
Many people use craigslist to find swaps, but it may be easier and safer, especially if you’re a newbie, to use a professional swap agency. Hanni Reeb likes www.HomeExchange.com because she finds it so Seattle-friendly.
Be sure to compare the costs of service, if any, and what services each agency provides. For example, some offer trip cancellation insurance and others don’t. Find out how many homes each agency offers in the place you want to go. Narrow down your search, and then get references from people who have stayed in the house recently and can tell you about its quirks and drawbacks. Think practical. If plumbing were to back up in the middle of the night, who would you call? Is the neighborhood safe?
THE GOOD NEIGHBOR POLICY
“Do unto others” is the golden rule of house swapping. Your guests should arrive to find a clean house with freshly changed linens, and you should expect the same when you arrive at their home. Of course the same standard applies to both parties upon departure so that each returns to a clean house.
To avoid abuse or misunderstanding, disable such things as your long-distance service and pay-per-view television. If guests will be using your computer, make sure security and parental controls are fail-safe. If possible, set aside a room, garage or closet where you can lock away financial records, valuables and irreplaceable keepsakes. If you can’t lock them away in your home, store them somewhere else. Secure the garden shed, snowmobile, fishing skiff or anything else your guests are not authorized to use.
Remember that the trade ultimately is between you and the home owner you’re trading with. Home exchanges aren’t for everyone, but those who enjoy them say the benefits aren’t just about saving money. House swaps let you experience an area like a local, help you avoid cramped hotel rooms and let you cook when you want to. A house swap might just be your chance to visit that place you’ve always wanted to see while enjoying all of the comforts of someone else’s home.
Janet Groene is a professional travel writer who never travels without pocket fuel (homemade trail mix). She develops recipes for www.CreateAGorp.blogspot.com.
The sites listed below are just some of the many found on the Internet, and no endorsement is implied by including them here. Be sure to read the FAQs or safety tips on the Web sites you use. In the end, all responsibility for the exchange rests with you and the other home owner.
CouchSurfing.com is not about vacation home swaps but about places to rest your head for a night. Offer your sofa in exchange for others who do the same worldwide.
Craigslist.org is one way to look for a house swap and it’s free.
Digsville.com costs $45 for a year or $100 for three years to access almost 3,000 listings in 50 countries. You can search for digs with or without offering your own in exchange.
HomeExchange.com allows you to offer your home for swap with people who have homes in Australia, Canada, England, France and Italy. Membership costs $100 a year.
HomeLink International (www.homelink.org and www.homelink-usa.com) has been around since 1953 offering more than 13,000 homes in 72 countries. The annual directory costs $60 and you can post photos of your home for $110 for one year or $176 for two years.
Intervac International, also founded in 1953, lists more than 20,000 homes in 50 nations. Memberships start at $65 a year. Intervac can also serve as your travel agent for the entire trip.
JewishHomeSwap.com offers free postings of home swaps with kosher kitchens near synagogues.
MatchingHouses.com finds home swaps for people who need wheelchair access. The free site is based Down Under but has listings in many nations including the U.S. Another site, www.Accessatlast.com, also matches home swaps for specific handicaps.
SabbaticalHomes.com is by and for academics worldwide. Someone may want to do field research in your area or teach at a nearby university for a semester. Search this site free for a swap, rental or house sitter. A small fee is involved to list your home and you can also make voluntary contributions to the California-based site.
SeniorsHomeExchange.com costs $79 for a three-year membership. It specializes in swaps between senior citizens but does not exclude anyone.
Women Welcome Women Worldwide, based in England, fosters hospitality including overnight accommodations for women by women anywhere in the world.
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