Home swaps: holiday heaven ... or hell?

In economically challenging times, exchanging your home with another family for a cut-price holiday appears an increasingly tempting option -- just watch out for the cows, and don't block the toilet.

Home-exchange sites are reporting a surge in membership this year, drawing couples and families keen to taste life in a different part of the world but not so keen to pay high hotel prices.

"Home exchanging opens up the oyster of the world," said Mary Behan, who is Irish. She owns four homes with her doctor husband so can more than afford to pay for luxury hotels.

"It's a pearl beyond price. We have made friends all over the world."

For others, though, it can be an unhappy experience, judging by anecdotal evidence -- possessions are stolen; the house they used in Thailand was on a factory site; the sewage system crashed; their own home was left filthy.

Kathlyn Gadd, who has exchanged seven times, was taken aback when a couple from the US Virgin Islands asked if the cows in the field next to her home in the Dordogne, in France, could be moved.

"They only stayed five days and left my house in an absolute tip," she said.

"They hadn't touched the washing-up, the bins were overflowing, there was empty, discarded rubbish everywhere. Fortunately it wasn't our first exchange. If it had been, we wouldn't have done it again."

Home-exchanging emerged in 1953 when teachers in Sweden created non-profit Intervac and Homelink was founded in the United States.


They have been joined by the likes of 1stHomeExhange.com, Switchome.com, Homelink.com, Homexchange.com and HomeForExchange.com, all of which report a growth in membership this year of 30 percent or more. Australian sites such as HouseSwapHolidays.com.au and AussieHouseSwap.com.au offer local home-exchange services.

For software executive David Ashton and his family, swapping homes changed their lives.

Exchanging their place in Phoenix, Arizona, for one in Mougins, southeast France, the couple and their four children spent a year in France and liked it so much, they returned to live.

"This was totally and completely life-changing," Ashton, who has secured a job in France, said in a telephone interview.

Tatiana Rabin, Renaud Iltis and their two children swapped their homes on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion for seven consecutive months in 2007.

"We did not sleep in a hotel once over the whole time," she said.

"We left instructions on how to close the shutters in a cyclone, but were given none on rubbish collection so once spent two weeks without emptying the bins because we had no idea where or when the collection took place."

Swapping homes requires research.

First there are some 70 or more home-exchange sites to choose from, before describing and photographing your house and finding someone to exchange with.

It's easier to find a suitable swap if you're a couple, or if your home is in a desirable location than, say, for a large family with a cat allergy.

Once the choice is made, it is vital to check details using all the tools available on the Internet, said John Mensinger, who has done 13 exchanges.

He said: "We discovered by looking on Google maps that a railway line ran right behind the lovely house in England we were interested in.

"We queried the owners, who said they were not bothered by the trains, but when we checked timetables on the Internet, we discovered it was a main line with over 60 trains a day thundering past!

"We did not pursue the exchange further."

Then there is preparing the house, finding tourist brochures, digging out domestic appliance instructions and compiling a "house peculiarities" file.

"It's an opportunity to do all those small repairs you've been putting off for years," said Gadd.

"I cleaned my house to within an inch of its life the first time. Now I'm a bit more relaxed about it."

Christophe Deseilligny, who swapped for the first time last summer, had to return from Iceland a week early after the sewage system in his home in France became blocked.

"Whether this was the fault of the 10-member family staying in our home, or a problem waiting to happen, I don't know," he said, "but they had to spend 10 days of their holiday in a hotel and I spent it changing the sewage system."

Still, his wife and four children were able to stay on as planned in their Icelandic family's home.

Some websites charging a membership fee provide services like insurance or problem solving.

Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com, said it introduced an insurance policy at no extra cost to members beyond the membership fee of 79 euros (A$127) a year.

He said it was to help people overcome two major fears about swaps -- that the other family might damage your house or may cancel their trip after you've bought airline tickets.

With this insurance, HomeExchange.com will reimburse up to 2500 euros for expenses such as air fares, hotels and car rental.

Lilli Engle, director of Homelink France which charges a membership fee of 125 euros a year, said it was important to have a proper contract.

She added: "We had one member who was surprised when the police, warned by someone in the neighbourhood, showed up and he was able to prove he was a bona fide resident in the house with this contract!"