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Southland Homeowners Vacation Rent-Free by Exchanging Homes With Families Around the World

January 30, 1994|CAROL TICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Tice is a Culver City free-lance writer. and

Marjorie and Victor Rose felt right at home on their vacation in Stuttgart, Germany. In fact, the retired Culver City couple stayed in a home in a Stuttgart suburb, relaxing after sightseeing and enjoying home-cooked meals. On Victor's birthday, a neighbor even brought over a cake.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Roses' vacation getaway were taking in the Southern California sunshine--and staying in the Roses' two-bedroom home.

The Roses had arranged for a home exchange, in which two homeowners agree to trade houses for their vacations. The Roses have also visited England and France this way.

Besides saving the often-steep cost of a hotel, staying in a home allows visitors to explore their vacation area at a more relaxed pace, experiencing daily life like the natives. "It gets you off the beaten tourist track," said Marjorie Rose, "I don't like going any other way. It allows us to do things at our own pace. We get to meet people. Basically, it's great!"

Every year, hundreds of Southern California homeowners like the Roses are vacationing rent-free by participating in a home exchange. Although some folks may be packing up and leaving Los Angeles, the area continues to be a coveted vacation spot, particularly by residents of cold-climate countries such as England and Germany.

Angelenos are notorious snobs about where they live, boasting of their exclusive ZIP code, hilltop house or beachfront view. But to shivering Europeans, if the sun is shining, it's a good location.

"This is a super home exchange location," said Dennis Huckaby of Palm Desert. "And I'm 125 miles from anything. I had people from Paris who wanted to do a month exchange in August."

To many Europeans, the ubiquitous Southern California swimming pool is "a real novelty," said Huckaby, who's traded in Hawaii, London and Munich. "I've got (a pool) right outside my front door. People from Central Europe are in it like kids. These are bodies that have never seen the sun."

Carl and Sandra Hathaway, whose Sunland home also has a pool, are frequent exchangers who swapped in London and five U.S. states. He said his location is fine for people already familiar with the L.A. area. "They'd seen the touristy things," he said of an English family they traded with. "I guess they came for the weather. I think you can find matches, no matter where you live."

While natives fight rush-hour traffic to work, vacationers can drive at off-hours, making all of Southern California accessible. To a German family who swapped with Debbie and Randy Yanaga of Costa Mesa, "we're close to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the beach," she said.

Yanaga's favorite swap was with a family in Norwich, England. "It was right on a river, and our son could lean out the window and feed the ducks and swans. It was just incredible."

Home exchanging is a big plus when traveling with children, Yanaga said, because "you have a base to move from. Basically, if we didn't exchange, we wouldn't be able to go, because the costs would be prohibitive."

Finding that perfect vacation swap involves joining an exchange group, sending letters to prospective traders and replying to those who inquire about your home. Several organizations publish books of participating swappers in the U.S. and around the globe.

"You can qualify people over the phone," said Huckaby of Palm Desert. "I look for camaraderie, a sense of humor. By the time I'm through with the conversation, I have a good idea whether these people and I would get along, and if we do, I presume we have similar tastes."

Some home exchangers really get acquainted with prospective swappers. "We tend to build up a relationship in the months between the initial contact and the time they arrive, so we feel like we sort of know them by the time they're in our house," Yanaga said. "We've built up a friendship with most of these people and remained in touch, so now we have contacts in these places."

Although most exchangers report no problems, it does pay to be on the lookout for the smooth talker trying to swap a two-bedroom condo for your six-bedroom estate.

"Only once have I made a colossal mistake," said Marjorie Rose. "I ran up against a fellow who was a great salesman. With the description he gave of his Colorado mountain home, I was ashamed to even have him come to my house." The Roses--who regularly swap in Denver to attend high school reunions--discovered the Rocky Mountain paradise was actually tiny, filthy and had no telephone. "Obviously, I wasn't listening very carefully," she admitted.

Though theft is a concern to new swappers, old hands say it's simply not a problem. "I don't put anything away," said Rose, who like many swappers, is a retired senior citizen. "After all, you're in their house, so they have to trust you, too."

"We don't have great valuables," said Carl Hathaway of Sunland. "We didn't lock up anything. People ask, 'Didn't you feel funny having people come in your house and using your things?' But it hasn't been a problem."

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