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Monday, 04 December 2006

House Exchange

Written by Karen Elowitt
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icelandThough it has flown largely under the radar for years, home exchange is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to conventional vacation accommodation, and is starting to get a lot of mainstream exposure, thanks to the new film “Holiday” starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, and a spate of recent publicity on shows such as Today and MSNBC.

To get a handle on the phenomenon also known as house-swapping, inTravel Magazine talked to several people involved with it to get a fuller picture of who is doing it and why.

According to Ed Kushins, president of Home Exchange, one of the top three home exchange services worldwide, house-swapping is a great idea for people who want to visit a country or a region, but don’t want the expense and hassle involved in staying in a hotel.

“It’s like being at home when you’re away,” he said, noting that home exchange gives people flexibility that they wouldn’t have in a hotel. “You can make your own meals instead of eating out all the time, and you have more room to spread out.” For those traveling with small children, house swapping also eliminates the necessity of bringing a boatload of stuff across an ocean or a continent.

Home Exchange, which has been around since 1992, has about 14,000 members on its books, about 40% of whom are based in the United States, and 60% abroad. Their website is translated into six different languages to cater to its international clientele.

Kushins says that the type of people who do home exchange has shifted somewhat in the ten years since he’s been in the business. “The demographic used to be primarily married retirees and teachers, but now it’s a mix of everything – young couples, families with children, and singles,” he said.

Home exchangers also tend to be very committed to the practice. Kushins says that many of his clients do multiple swaps throughout the year. “The trend is for people to do one long trip abroad, usually for 2 weeks or so, then do shorter weekend trips within their country at other times of the year.”

Kushins said that many of the people on his site are cross-registered with the two other major home exchange services, Intervac and Homelink, to ensure that they get the widest variety of possible choices. But he doesn’t mind the competition, and says that he is friendly with his competitors.

Though no one knows exactly how many people worldwide participate in home exchange, Jessica Jaffe, the owner of Intervac USA, another popular home-swap service, thinks that it numbers in the tens of thousands, if not more. She said that she did not know of any organizations that track statistics on home exchange, but that it is probably on the rise.

“In the days before computers, we used to print catalogs of our listings, and people would contact each other by mail,” Jaffe said. “Now the internet and e-mail has made it much easier and quicker for people to link up.” It’s a no-brainer to conclude that this probably explains much of the growth in home exchange, although Jaffe suspects that a lot of her clients come to Intervac through word-of-mouth.

Jaffe said that home swapping has traditionally been more popular in Europe than the US, but that it is catching on in America. She also noted that some places, particularly in Japan, it has not really caught on at all, probably for cultural reasons.

Like most of the other reputable services, Intervac charges an annual membership fee, which gives members unlimited access to listings and ensures that members stay committed and keep their listings current. Most sites charge a fee between $50 and $100.

Jaffe said that within the U.S., certain locations such as Boston, New York city, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Florida, and Hawaii are the most popular, and Italy is the most popular destination abroad.

However, even if you don’t own a house in one of the more popular destinations, you can still participate in a swap. “People ask me all the time, if I don’t live in a big metro area, can I still list my house?” said Ed Kushins. “The answer is, absolutely!” According to Kushins, there is always someone wanting to spend a week or two exploring your small corner of the world, whether you live in rural Maine or the Gulf of Oman.

Furthermore, if the idea of letting strangers into your house makes you uneasy, let the statistics reassure you. Kushins says that out of more than 25,000 exchanges done through his site every year, he gets on average less than a dozen complaints. And the complaints are rarely serious.

“For every ten complaints I get,” said Kushins, “about eight are for minor housekeeping issues, where maybe one party felt the house they stayed in wasn’t clean enough for their standards." He said he has never had a report of serious damage or theft from a client.

Scott Haas, a Boston-based writer and psychologist, has been doing home exchanges through Intervac for 20 years. He said that he has had his share of problems and mishaps, but they have always been minor and have always been handled quickly and courteously.

For example, earlier this year he exchanged houses (and cars) with an airline pilot from Iceland. Unfortunately, Haas damaged the man’s car during the vacation, so he notified him immediately and offered to make amends. The pilot simply said no problem, and just asked Haas to send a check when he got a chance.

Haas said that the pilot’s relaxed attitude is typical of home-swappers, who recognize that stuff sometimes happens. “Things do go wrong, but everyone is cool about it,” he said.iceland

Home-swappers tend to operate by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you’d have done unto you. Treat other people’s homes with the courtesy you’d expect them to treat yours. Be accommodating when it’s warranted. Be flexible.

Flexibility is probably the most important attribute to being a successful home exchanger. “You can’t always say ‘I want this place at this time,’” Haas said, speaking from personal experience. “You have to go where the availability is.” He also said that in the past, in order to work out a successful swap with a partner he liked in a location he coveted, he has gladly negotiated to take care of plants, pets, and even aging parents.

Haas said that he has never had an unpleasant or uncomfortable experience. “I’ve never encountered anyone who was really weird,” he said. In fact, he has stayed in contact with many former exchange partners. “It’s not unusual for home exchangers to become friendly,” he said. Haas has stayed so close to an Italian couple he exchanged with three years ago, that last summer his family hosted their daughter for a seven-week stay in Boston.

If you’ve got an open mind and are looking to live in a neighborhood while you’re away and enjoy the space of an apartment or house instead of a cramped hotel room, perhaps you should try home exchange.

©Karen Elowitt


Photos©Scott Haas


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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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