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Adventures in home swapping

December 23, 2007|E. Scott Reckard | Times Staff Writer

It's almost January, which means my family will soon be in demand again, though there's no predicting where.
A golf resort on a Washington state wildlife preserve? A farmhouse in the south of France? England's Lake District? A Danish island?
My wife, two teenagers and I have been invited to them all -- just as we have invited adventurous strangers from around the world to our house in Laguna Beach.
Since discovering the services that help vacationers swap homes, we've chalked up six trades in five years, giving us accommodations in such distinctive settings as a labor lawyer's flat in a diverse Montreal neighborhood, a currency trader's remodeled Victorian mansion near London and a house flipper's built-to-look-ancient villa in the Mexican colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.

The deals usually gave us the use of a car, and two even included the use of second homes. Most of our exchange partners left us some food and drink to greet us on our arrival, and we've never returned home to a dirty or damaged house. And all of our trades yielded experiences you'd never find at your typical hotel.

We also had one major disappointment -- a swap that fell through -- for which we were at least partly to blame.

With a closet-size London hotel room running $400 a night these days, cutting lodging costs is the top reason for trading homes. Exchangers also praise the luxuries of well-appointed kitchens and multiple bedrooms, the live-like-a-local cultural immersion and the adventure of not knowing exactly what might turn up.

But it's not for everyone. If you're used to staying in nice hotels, someone else's home might not meet your standards. And some people are simply too fussy or anxious about their houses to find any fun in trading places.

"If people are overly concerned about their home, I advise them not to join," said Karl Costabel, coordinator of the U.S. affiliate of Brussels-based HomeLink International, the home-swap listing service we have used. "They would not enjoy a vacation while worrying."

A villa in Mexico

For us, it's been well worth it.

We shared the San Miguel complex -- a main house and two attached apartments -- with four friends. The package included the services of the villa's cook, Maria Elena, who was obsessed with making sure no one would walk away from the table hungry.

In Montreal, where the big draw for us was the city's huge summer jazz festival, it was a delight to find the apartment bookshelves jammed with jazz biographies and CDs. Some days, my son, Dan, a budding jazz performer, got so immersed in the musical library that we feared we would have to go to the performances without him.

Along the main commercial drag near the apartment one day, scores of soccer fans, faces painted red and green to match the Portuguese flags they waved, erupted howling into the streets on foot and in cars with horns blaring. Portugal had won its semifinal match in the European Cup.

The next day, fans in white and blue repeated the scene when Greece made the finals. It turned out we were staying near several ethnic neighborhoods.

In England -- a destination lobbied for by my daughter, Margaux -- our mansion in Sevenoaks, Kent, was a 25-to-45-minute train ride from London. After spending a day in the city, we would trudge about half a mile from the station up a dark lane, unlock the thick oak outer door and ditch our overcoats in the snow room before stepping into an entry hall featuring a grand piano, a broad L-shaped staircase and a grandfather clock.

Our ticket to these experiences has been the time it takes to connect and negotiate with prospective exchange partners.

Making the connection is where the home-swap services come in. The three biggest -- HomeLink, Hermosa Beach-based HomeExchange.com and Sweden-based Intervac International -- each charge about $100 a year for access to thousands of listings. Their websites ( www.homelink.org, www.homeexchange.com and www.intervac.com) also give advice on such issues as contracts (good idea; forms are provided) and car insurance (always check, but coverage probably extends to guests, at least in this country).

Most home swappers research and negotiate exchanges entirely over the Internet, but for an extra $60 you can get HomeLink's catalog. Although it's fun to leaf through the 4-pound monster -- "Hey, how about the Greek isles?" -- we've stopped ordering it because the same information, only more current, is available online.

But its release around the beginning of the year still triggers a wave of proposals in the dead of winter from exchangers planning their summer vacations.

The catalog and website contain photos and descriptions of homes, plus such information as the swappers' occupations, number and ages of children, requirements for nonsmoker or pet-free environments, and destinations they would consider.

Sometimes it's a specific city at a specific time, often "open to offers." References from previous exchanges are commonly available.

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