“When the Internet started to become widely available and popular,”… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
The gig: Ed Kushins, 65, is the founder and president of HomeExchange.com, based in Hermosa Beach. It is one of the nation's largest members-only home exchange businesses.
What is a home exchange? With 43,000 members, HomeExchange helps participants reach agreements to swap their homes for vacations or business trips. The deal provides each with a house or apartment, and it eliminates the need to pay for hotel rooms. Members pay about $120 per year for access to the company's member database.
How does it work? A member in Southern California looking to visit Florida, for example, finds homes of Florida members and exchanges photos and emails, asking if any of the Florida homes are available on the desired dates. If two parties agree, they arrange the trade. HomeExchange facilitates the meeting but does not perform background checks or referee the transaction.
His background: Kushins worked as an airline marketing director until 1978, when he took over his father's scrap-metal business in Los Angeles. He is married and has two children from a previous marriage.
An idea is born: In the early 1990s Kushins vacationed in Washington, D.C., with his children, staying at a home he found through a Europe-based home exchange program. "It was perfect," he recalled. "Instead of staying at a little hotel room and coming back after a full day of sightseeing, we had a big house in Washington. We had seven days there. They had a swimming pool, and everyone had their own room and their own TV." Impressed, he decided to launch his own home exchange business in the U.S.
Power of the Internet: Kushins founded the company in 1992 and mailed the last paper directory to members a few years later. "When the Internet started to become widely available and popular, it totally changed this from being a hobby to being a business because in one fell swoop it eliminated all my production costs," he said. And instead of having to send letters to one another, members can use email to communicate instantly.
Hobby no more: What began as a hobby with about 125 members and a printed directory sent by mail has become a bustling enterprise. With five full-time workers and 42 contract workers, the business now operates around the globe, is offered in 15 languages and draws $5.5 million in annual revenue.
Not to worry: The exchange idea may sound scary at first, but it isn't, Kushins said. "First of all, nobody ever does an exchange with a stranger," he said. "The whole process serves to eliminate that fear and to make sure that you feel so totally comfortable with these people coming into your house and that you are going to have a comfortable experience in their house. By the time you do your exchange, it's not even a factor."
Insurance? Most potential problems should be addressed in discussions ahead of time. But if there is some damage in a home swap, HomeExchange officials say, most homeowners insurance policies typically cover such mishaps. Many policies treat HomeExchange members like any other invited guest, such as a messy, clumsy brother-in-law.
Hey, wasn't this in a movie? The company benefited from the 2006 film "The Holiday," starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, about two women who exchange homes and in the process meet the men of their dreams. Before filming began, producers called Kushins for permission to mention his company in the movie. He agreed.
"We really took advantage of the movie by capitalizing on a lot of PR that came subsequent to the movie," he said. "The killer was 10 days after. The 'Today' show came to my house and did a five-minute interview with me about the home exchange business." The movie was released in December 2006; HomeExchange's membership jumped from 9,000 in 2006 to 14,000 in 2007.
The biggest disputes: The most common complaint among people who exchange homes is that other members did not leave their homes as neat and tidy as they found them. But Kushins said such problems are "so rare that it statistically doesn't show up."
The latest feature: HomeExchange recently added a "Gold" membership for those who want to exchange high-end, luxury properties such as ski-in villas, penthouse apartments or beach-side mansions. The membership fee is $500 per year, and the company has about 1,000 such members.
Who would want to stay in my tiny, cramped home? Members negotiate a home swap and decide what is a fair exchange. They can agree, for example, to trade three days in a tiny shack for one day in a mansion, Kushins said. "I've exchanged for a tiny loft in Greenwich Village for my relatively larger place in Hermosa Beach, and I've exchanged for a 10,000-square-foot home in Dublin."