As the economy continues to flounder, many families are forgoing summer vacations in favor of staying at home. But there’s a more interesting option that is just as cheap: vacationing in someone else’s home. Growing numbers of people here and abroad are seeking a thrifty change of scenery by skipping all the hotels and looking instead to swap houses with strangers. Agree to use each other’s cars, and you can save big bucks on rentals too.
Home exchanges are not new. At least one group, Intervac, has been facilitating such arrangements since 1953. But traffic online is particularly brisk these days, with several sites, including HomeExchange.com–which was founded in 1992 and, with some 28,000 listings, bills itself as the world’s largest home-exchange club–reporting that membership has increased 30% or more this year. For an annual fee that is usually less than $100, members can access thousands of listings for apartments, condos, villas, suburban homes and farms around the world. Initial contact is made through the sites via e-mail, with subsequent communication usually by phone. Before a match is made, potential swappers tend to talk a lot as part of a scoping-out phase that one exchange site likens to online dating. It’s hard to beat free access to a washer and dryer and fully equipped kitchen, but swaps entail more planning than simply whipping out a credit card for a vacation package. Exchange seekers often contact dozens of people before they find someone willing and appropriate. For starters, location really matters. Kathleen Dwyer, a retired assistant principal who has been exchanging for six years, says she fielded lots of offers to swap when she posted her apartment in Manhattan. Now that she exchanges only her vacation home–an old sea captain’s house in a fishing village in Nova Scotia–swapping inquiries have slowed to a trickle. She has swapped with people as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand, and once she exchanged her one-bedroom co-op for a large, upscale home on a lagoon in California. “I burst out laughing. I could not get over it,” she said of the fine-artwork-filled home that the Marin County couple swapped with her so they could visit their daughter and her new baby. “They got this little, small apartment, and I got this million-dollar home. I laughed at the trade, but they were happy to be near their daughter in Manhattan, so it worked out fine.” Although home swappers often become such fans of the practice that they have a hard time paying for a hotel, the concept may sound dicey to the uninitiated. What about theft Damage Reasonable causes for concern, but equally unlikely. “Nobody is going to fly across the ocean or drive 600 miles to come steal your flat-screen TV,” says Tony DiCaprio, president of 1stHomeExchange.com a four-year-old site that has seen membership increase 30% this year. Remember, he notes, “at the same time they’re staying in your home, you are staying in their home.” Some swappers use a padlock to keep their jewelry and tax returns safely out of sight. But Ed Kushins, founder of HomeExchange.com said that in 17 years in the business, he has never received a report of theft or malicious damage. If there are issues such as wine stains and other mishaps, they are handled privately, though he has been asked to intervene about the occasional scratched car, for example.See pictures of modernist houses available for rent.
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