House Swapping

8 minute read
Francine Russo

As vacationing New Yorkers Jerry Koenig and Mary Geissman jaunted in their posh gray sedan from the 400-year-old stone house overlooking the narrow paths of medieval Padua, Italy, to the modern ski condo in Asiago, Italy, they had time to reflect on how breathtaking the vineyard-dotted Po Valley is…and how the house, the condo and the car had cost them not a cent. All three came in exchange for use of their two-bedroom apartment in New York City.

What a deal! No wonder more and more folks–by some estimates 15% to 20% more each year–are getting into house trading as a vacation alternative. With a home swap, not only can you save about $1,500 a week, typically, on a holiday in Europe, without the cost of hotel, car and some restaurant meals, but with the swap, you also get the kind of intimate look at another culture that not even the swankiest hotel in town provides. Live the way the locals live, meet their friends, buy bread at their favorite bakery and dine out at strictly native haunts. And the connections you make on a swap can turn into lasting friendships.

Jerry and Mary first swapped in 1982, exchanging their Upper West Side Manhattan apartment for a five-room Paris flat in the 17th arrondisement, just a short hop from L’Etoile. Not only did they get the charming, high-ceilinged apartment furnished with 18th century antiques; they also got Rene, the owner, a charming and sociable French engineer, who met them for drinks at John F. Kennedy Airport. They have kept in touch since, through notes and Christmas cards, visits to each other and at least seven stays at Rene’s, including three quid pro quo exchanges. Sometimes Jerry and Mary have used Rene’s condo in the French Alps, or one–or both of them–has stayed at Rene’s Paris apartment when he was away from home. This March, nearly 20 years after their first swap, the couple plans to spend an entire month in Rene’s Paris flat.

After exchanges from Hawaii to England, Tom and Pat Hogan of Carrollton, Texas, are so enamored of the house-swap life that they’re shopping for a retirement home in Florida, partly because it is a much sought destination for vacationing Europeans. “That way, we could string together four or five exchanges,” Pat says, “and spend time in Europe in the summer.”

How, you might ask, does one get deals like these? And how, you might also ask, does one make sure you’re not getting a shack instead of a chateau on one end or a reprobate instead of a Rene in your home on the other?

In both cases, it helps to deal through a reputable home-exchange network like HomeLink or Intervac, which are the largest and have been around for 40 years. There are also a growing number of newer exchange services cropping up on the Internet. For an annual fee, usually under $100, your home or apartment is listed by location with a brief description of its amenities and occupants. You can also note the cities or countries you would like to visit and the times of the year you would like to go.

When the listings appear in a catalog or on a website–or both–you can contact the folks with whom you would like to exchange by mail, e-mail, telephone or fax or, through some online services, anonymously. Some services allow only members to browse their listings; others make them available to all viewers. From that point on, you make your own arrangements with each family.

If you pick a family like your own, say, a couple with the same number of children as yours or a pair of empty nesters, you can pretty much customize your accommodations, arranging everything from a baby’s crib to a play group and baby-sitter, from access to a car to the use of a weekend retreat. Your swap family may also be willing to feed your cat and walk your dog. It’s helpful to have a friend or neighbor meet your guests and show them the basics: how to use the vcr, where the vacuum cleaner is. You’ll want them to do the same on their end. If you want to dive wholesale into the local culture, you can also ask to meet their English-speaking friends or find out where they like to eat and shop.

Where can you go on such house-swap tours? Almost anywhere. The larger services offer as many as 11,000 listings, including just about every state in the U.S. and 30 or more countries, from Australia and the Czech Republic to Indonesia and South Africa. If you live in such popular U.S. tourist spots as Los Angeles, New York City or Miami, you may find yourself deluged with fabulous offers: a condo on the beach in Barcelona, a castlelike “cottage” in Burgundy. Sometimes the accommodations are more modest than what you’re offering in exchange. But timing and location can make up the difference. If you live in a less well-known area, you can write to prospects, regaling them with the hidden charms of greater Toledo or Tulsa, or luring them with the special amenities of your community: tennis or golf, for example.

Ed and Olga Bowe let the demand for their Chicago home drive their schedule. People who had left the Windy City and wanted to return to visit family just flocked to them. The Bowes did their first exchange with a Cincinnati family about nine years ago. Why Cincinnati? No special reason, Olga giggles. They got an offer; it was close; they thought they would try it. Since then, they’ve taken their two kids to homes in San Diego, Toronto, London–and twice to Orlando, where they swap with Floridians Jan and Stuart Omans.

The Omanses, for their part, trade for both flexibility and the unexpected rewards of the exchange system. Several years ago, they wanted to follow a planned visit to their grown children in Boston with a vacation in Vermont. They contacted a Colorado woman, Joanna Lyn Merriman, who had a second home in Vermont. The timing wasn’t convenient for Merriman, who banked the swap and eventually transferred her “credit” to her best friend, whose husband was in the last stages of cancer. “They stayed 10 days,” Jan Omans recalls, “and after he died, his wife wrote that her husband had wanted us to know what a good feeling he had on that trip. This goes beyond vacationing,” Jan says, “to good hearts and goodwill.”

But will your swap leave you feeling so good about it? “It’s very intimate being in someone else’s home and life,” says Lori Horne, who was an avid swapper before she bought the Intervac network 10 years ago. But intimacy can cut both ways. While your guests have their feet up on your ottoman, gazing at the photographs of your children, sipping coffee from your “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, you may be frantically calling home to ask why their washing machine keeps spinning your clothes but never wets them. (They have thoughtfully left the instructions out, but they’re in Dutch.) The thought of strangers in your home doing Lord knows what to your fine furniture and china may be enough to spoil your stay at their castle on the Rhine.

Relax, say most veterans. The vast majority of exchangers are home-owning professional people like doctors, professors and business owners. About 40% are repeat exchangers, so it’s easy to get references from others with whom they have stayed. Of the very few problems he has seen in the 10 years he has run HomeLink, Karl Costabel says, “most of them are trivial.” To avoid worry, Costabel recommends locking up valuable or fragile items or taking them to a friend’s house. “We have had no lawsuits in 10 years,” says Intervac’s Lori Horne, “and the few complaints we’ve got relate mostly to housekeeping differences. We never hear of theft or trashing.”

After nearly two decades of swapping, Jerry and Mary had their first annoyance this past summer with a couple from Italy. “They drank our wine collection,” Jerry griped. Well, the Italian couple drank about 10 bottles, Mary corrected, but they didn’t touch the “good” wine, and in turn had left Jerry and Mary some bottles and food in their home in Italy. Despite this, Jerry says he would gladly exchange again, only not with them.

Olga and Ed also had a “problem” when they exchanged with a couple in Missouri who had neglected to get new license plates on their Mitsubishi, and the Bowes were stopped by the police almost as soon as they took it out of the driveway. “We can’t use this car!” they called their home to complain. “Oh, sorry,” said their swappers. “Just use the car in the garage–the white Jaguar.”

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