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CONSUMER REPORT

Demand for Domestic Home Swaps Is Rising : Vacations: High travel costs have exchangers looking nearer their own back yards. California leads one listing.

April 11, 1993|JACK ADLER

Home exchanges within the United States seem to be growing in popularity.

In the past, home exchanges have most often been associated with overseas travel. A resident of, say, Newport Beach decides to visit the English countryside for a week or so, and offers to swap his or her house for use of a home in England. After buying a listing in a home exchange directory, the Newport Beach resident waits for a call from an English family hoping to spend a week near the beach in Southern California. Soon, perhaps, a home exchange "marriage" is born.

But the recession, the high cost of travel overseas, and the desire to take quicker and shorter vacations have caused travelers, especially families who may not be able to afford the high cost of hotels, to set their sights closer to home.

"Some people can't afford to go to Europe," said Lori Horne, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Intervac U.S., part of Intervac International, an association of home exchange outfits around the world. "Domestic home exchanges enable people to go away for short weekend trips, and to possibly drive instead of flying. They also avoid hotel stays, and save money by not eating out at restaurants all the time."

Due to the demand for domestic home exchanges, Intervac this year printed its first booklet of U.S. home exchange listings. (Previously, domestic listings were only a part of Intervac's international catalogue.) Out of a total of about 9,000 listings, approximately 1,600 are in the United States, a 10% increase over 1992, according to Horne.

"We have listings from most states, with California topping the list," Horne said. "Florida is second. Among the cities with listings are Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C."

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Some home exchange companies operate by producing directories with listings of people who want to make a home exchange. Interested parties handle their own negotiations. Other companies handle arrangements for the parties, for a fee. Exchanges, domestic or abroad, can be of homes or apartments, in urban, suburban and rural locations. Most stays abroad last for at least a week, though that point is negotiable.

"The amount of advance time needed to set up home exchanges isn't necessarily crucial these days, especially with the growth of faxes, which has made home exchanges a lot easier and faster," Horne said.

Through Intervac, consumers can buy a booklet with listings, and also make their own listing IN upcoming booklets. The cost of making a domestic listing, plus the book, is $40. The price of a listing in the international booklet is $62, which also includes the booklet; without making a listing, consumers can buy the booklet for $72.

Los Angeles-based Agency Alpha International handles home exchanges in France and England, for a fee. "We've found that directories can be obsolete, so we do the work ourselves," said Jana Citron, head of Agency Alpha International. "If someone is interested, they pay a $65 non-refundable registration fee. Then they tell us what they want, and we do the rest."

Based on the information provided by interested parties, such as destination desired and number of people in the group, Agency Alpha International comes up with three home-exchange options for their clients. "Three choices is usually enough," Citron said. "Then we make all the arrangements, which costs $300. About 40% of our clients are repeat clients."

Hideaways International, based in Littleton, Mass., publishes two directories a year supplemented by a quarterly newsletter. Membership is $79 a year, with listings costing $155, which includes the publications. Most business is with home and villa rentals, both domestically and abroad.

"We put parties in touch with each other, and they then set up their exchange," said Mike Thiel, president of Hideaways. "Domestically, we primarily exchange a lot of people's second homes, which, almost by definition, are in desirable locations."

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Vacations Exchange Club, based in Key West, Fla., publishes three directories that cost $60 a year. This fee covers one listing. Photos are $15-$20 extra, depending on the size.

"We have about 12,000 listings worldwide, including 3,000 of the domestic variety," said owner Karl Costabel. "We also help subscribers in finding a specific destination that may not be in the listings or the monthly updates."

Insurance is often a big concern for parties that exchange homes. Horne recommends that consumers check their individual insurance policies. "Most people are covered for casual visitors to their homes, and other drivers of their cars, which covers people in a home exchange program."

The biggest problem with home exchanges probably stems from last-minute cancellations, especially when would-be exchangers have already bought air fares laden with cancellation penalties. Trip cancellation insurance can be a worthwhile purchase.

If you handle the exchange yourself, which is less expensive, allow more time for correspondence if you are not working by phone or fax.

For more information on home exchanges, contact Hideaways International, (800) 843-4433; Agency Alpha International, (310) 472-7216; Intervac, (800) 756-HOME, and the Vacation Exchange Club, (800) 638-3841.

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