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How to Feel at Home With a Long-Distance House Swap : Screening: Directory services help with the initial match-ups, but after that you need plenty of communication--and insurance.

June 04, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

The higher hotel rates climb, the more travelers are intrigued by home exchanges. A swap brings you closer to the daily life of a new place, puts you in touch with real people and saves money that would otherwise go to a hotel.

But it's a bit of a risk, and before a traveler decides to swap with another, both should make sure they well understand each other and each other's properties. Because these arrangements are often international and seldom include a formal written pact (often, no money changes hands), and because companies that offer exchange listings leave all deal-making and follow-through responsibilities to swappers, advance communication and courtesy are crucial. Here are some measures that most home-swap promoters suggest.

To find the right swapping household and lay the groundwork, most families begin their planning months in advance. On an international trip, most swappers plan a stay of two to four weeks.

Early on, swappers should agree on how to handle a cancellation. You should also make sure your homeowners' insurance will cover major damage left by a house-exchange visitor and cover liability if an exchanger is injured in your house.

When swap time comes, leave a clean house, linens, closet and pantry space, a note on how to operate appliances and directions to the nearest grocery store, the beach, an emergency room. If you're trading cars, too (as many households do), make sure insurance is in order and top off the tank. Also leave phone numbers of trusted friends in case of an emergency, and agree on how to handle long-distance phone bills and replacement of any items broken. If you want anything off-limits, such as a rare bottle of wine, say so clearly.

Here is an alphabetical list of home-exchange companies. Readers should consider this a sampling of the marketplace, not an endorsement.

Home Exchange Network is an electronic site, founded in November, 1993, by Daniel J. Rubin and Linda J. Allen. (Box 951253, Longwood, FL 32791; telephone 407-862-7211; computer bulletin board number 407-869-5956; Internet address: www.magicnet.net./homexchange. On the Internet only since March, Rubin and Allen estimate that their list carries 400-500 homes daily, about 80% of them in the United States. A year's membership costs $29.95 and allows you to list up to two homes. (So far, only a handful have photos, but Allen says she expects most listings to be accompanied by photo images within the next six months.) The phone bill aside, there's no charge to look at listings.

Intervac U.S. (Box 590504, San Francisco CA 94159; tel. 800-756-4663 or 415-435-3497, fax 415-435-7440) is the U.S. link of an international group of affiliated companies founded in 1953. Together, affiliate organizations in 30 nations publish a catalogue that six-year co-owner Lori Horne calls "the largest home exchange catalogue in the world." Intervac publishes four catalogues yearly (December, March, May, June) and charges $78 for a year's membership (listing in one catalogue and copies of three consecutive catalogues), $11 more to include a photo with listing. Seniors get $5 off. Catalogues list about 10,000 homes yearly, most in Europe (led by France and Great Britain), about 20% in United States.

The Invented City (41 Sutter St., Suite 1090, San Francisco, CA 94109; tel. 800-788-2489 or 415-673-0347, fax 415-673-6909), founded in 1991, sends out three directories yearly. Proprietor Glenn London charges $50 for a year's membership ($60 if you include a photo) and estimates membership of about 2,000 households in 15 to 20 countries.

Teacher Swap (Box 454, Oakdale, NY 11769; tel. 516-244-2845) was founded in 1986 by a Long Island high school English teacher and two partners. Since 1992, the teacher and his wife have run it, working with similar groups in France and Germany, and defining "teacher" liberally to include volunteers, retirees and others. An annual directory goes out each March (no photos) with supplements in April and June. This year's directory and first supplement together included about 700 homes, about half in the United States and half in Europe. Membership (one directory listing, and copies of one directory and the two supplements) runs $42 a year.

Trading Homes International (P.O. Box 787, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254; tel. 800-877-8723 or 310-798-3864, fax 310-798-3865), based in Hermosa Beach, sends out directories in March, June and December every year and is linked with 15 exchange organizations worldwide. Judy Saavedra, manager of the U.S. office for three years, estimates that 2,000 homes are listed in the course of a year, about half in North America and 25%-30% in Europe. For a $65 one-year membership, a swapper gets listed in one directory and receives copies of three. Saavedra estimates that three of every four listings include photographs.

Vacation Exchange Club (Box 650, Key West, FL 33041; tel. 800-638-3841 or 305-294-1448), founded more than 30 years ago, publishes five catalogues yearly. The January book, traditionally the largest, included roughly 7,000 entries, about two-thirds of them in Europe and one-third in North America. About half were shown in photos. The owner is Karl Costabel, who bought the organization in 1991 from its founders. Members pay $65 for a listing and the chance to browse five books. Those with photos pay $15 more.

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