Strangers living in your neighbors' house? Using their things? Driving their cars? Don't sound the alarms just yet. Chances are your neighbors are living in the strangers' house, using their things and driving their car.
It's called house swapping or home exchange, and it's emerging as the most civilized way to have a low budget vacation anywhere in the world. Europeans have been doing it for years, and now Americans are warming up to the idea of vacationing rent-free in a thatched English cottage, a French country villa or a rooftop apartment in the heart of Rome.
The idea is simple enough. Family A wants to vacation where Family B lives; Family B wants to vacation where Family A lives. They match up through a home exchange service, coordinate travel dates, leave their keys with the neighbors and a list of "must-knows" on the kitchen table and off they go to each other's homes.
Sounds great, you say, except for the part about letting perfect strangers have the run of your home and your possessions. Exchange fans--and there are plenty in Orange County--insist that those qualms soon disappear as you get to know your exchange family through correspondence. People who exchange, they say, are the nicest people in the world. And besides, they add, since you are living in their home, you have each other by the throat.
When Sharon and Harold Whatley of Santa Ana decided to try home exchange two years ago, Sharon admits, her initial feelings were of trepidation. "But I was at the point where I wanted to recarpet my house anyway and do a few other things," she says, "so some of the things I might have worried about I didn't have to worry about."
Having done it once, she says, she would recommend the experience without reservations.
"By the time you actually do it, you've written back and forth a lot, you've exchanged pictures and you've talked on the phone once or twice, so you feel you really know these people and you truly have a good feeling about leaving your house in their care."
During their two-month European odyssey, the Whatleys swapped houses with families in both England and France. The English couple with whom they exchanged got on so famously with the Whatleys' next-door neighbors that they took several trips with them during their 3-week visit. The Whatleys, meanwhile, became such good friends with their English neighbors, with whom they shared a passion for gardening, that they hosted them in their home last May.
Two weeks later they welcomed their French exchange partner, Giselle Hyvelde, who had not only left them her flat in Paris but had also given them free access to her country home in Limoges. They have since been invited to go skiing with their former French neighbors as guests in their Alpine chalet.
"You really make friends all round the world," says Whatley. "We've had invitations from just about everywhere from people who saw our listing. We had one fabulous offer from the island of Majorca. You just don't have enough time in one lifetime to take advantage of them all."
Listings in exchange directories can cram an extraordinary amount of information about someone's home into two or three lines by using what at first glance looks like undecipherable code. But a little practice with the key soon reveals that "R Poitiers 12M" means a rural setting near Poitiers, France, 12 miles from the mountains, and "A as ae cc dk mo uz" means that the 1-story house comes with air conditioning, use of a car, country club privileges, a photographic darkroom, a microwave oven and a view. Many of the listings also include a black-and-white photograph.
Subscribers to such directories pay a fee to have their listing included, or for a smaller fee they can simply buy the directory and use it to track down desirable exchanges. Vacation Exchange Club, based in Youngtown, Ariz., publishes two directories a year with about 6,000 listings of houses and apartments for exchange. The cost for both directories is $16 with an additional fee of $8.75 if you wish to list your home in one of them.
Intervac, whose offices are located in Tiburon near San Francisco, publishes three annual directories with about 7,500 listings in 30 countries. Subscribers pay $35 for the three, whether they choose to list or not.
Would-be exchangers in Orange County usually have little trouble finding a match. With its appealing climate and coastal location, its proximity to world-famous tourist attractions like Disneyland, and the fact that exchange houses here invariably come with a car, Orange County is becoming an increasingly popular exchange destination, especially for Europeans.