Looking for that "home away from home" when you travel? Next time, skip the shag-carpeted motel and consider swapping houses instead.
Although home exchanging has been around for decades, it's enjoying a surge in popularity, largely due to the Internet. "An exchange is great for the obvious cost saving," says six-time exchanger Carol Heard of San Francisco, whose destinations have ranged from Santa Cruz to Marseilles. "But it's also fascinating to see how other people live."
Here's a primer on trading places.
To swap or not — First, be sure you're comfortable opening your home to strangers. If you're disturbed by the thought that someone might peek in your lingerie drawer, don't exchange.
Finding a swap — Start the hunt at least three months before your departure date. You can ask Aunt Betty to spread the word in her bridge club, but you'll have better luck with an agency like HomeLink International (www.homelink.org , 800-638-3841), Intervac International (www.IntervacUS.com , 800-756-4663), or Vacation Homes Unlimited (www.exchangehomes.com , 800-848-7927). A few agencies let nonmembers browse listings, but most require that you join. (Yearly membership fees run $30 to $70.) While some agencies publish printed directories—available for an additional fee—it's easiest to check listings online and use email to communicate with potential swappers.
Market it, baby — Be honest, but emphasize why someone would love your place. Photos are key. Homes in glamorous spots have an easier time finding a match, but don't despair if you live in Podunk. Exchangers may want to visit nearby family or get off the beaten path.
Snoop around — The first contact from exchangers is usually a letter describing themselves and their home. If you're interested, check references and learn about their neighborhood. Look up their place on a map, for example, to make sure that "easy access to transportation" doesn't mean a freeway through the backyard.
Get ready — Draft an agreement (agencies provide forms), check on insurance if cars are included, and lock up items of value. (Theft is rare, but accidents happen.) Write a guide to both your home and neighborhood—everything from dishwasher instructions to restaurant info—so exchangers will have as good a time in your place as you'll have in theirs.
Illustration by Melinda Beck
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.