Two summers ago, on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, 5-year-old Caroline and her 2-1/2-year-old sister, Lily, got a bonus even the swankiest hotel wouldn't have provided: a chance to take care of Penelope, Petunia, and Pickles -- three real-life pet pigs. The girls' parents, Nicole and Andy Dewell, of Eagle, Colorado, had taken a leap of faith and swapped houses with the owners of said pigs, using an Internet home-exchange program.
"We don't have a lot of money, so this was great for us," says Nicole, who calculates that they saved about $3,000 they would have spent on hotels and restaurant meals.
Each year, a growing number of families log on to Internet exchange sites (usually for a fee) to gain access to thousands of listings from fellow swappers. When you find the right place in the right location, you contact the owners. If all goes well, e-mails and phone calls fly back and forth until you've sealed the deal.
But what if (like most of us) you don't have a home that's a vacation paradise? It turns out it won't really matter too much when it comes to making a match. Beyond the chance to go swimming, hiking, or skiing, a family may have a lot of other reasons for seeking a comfortable place to stay in a given area, anything from attending a wedding or reunion to checking out retirement spots or visiting local colleges.
The downside is that people you've never met are going to have the run of your house -- and you won't be there to supervise. "It's a huge trust issue, but since both sides are taking the gamble, it's a little more reassuring," says Tracy Shackelford, of Williamsburg, Virginia. She swapped a house with a family in the Netherlands so her sons, Bas, 5, and Finn, 4, could spend time with her husband's Dutch family. Like most of the home swappers we spoke with, Shackelford says there were no serious drawbacks.
Suzanne Brogger, of Santa Monica, California, also had a positive experience. A couple of summers ago she and her husband, Greg, and their then 2-year-old son, Ethan, swapped in Spain, spending two weeks each in Barcelona and Mallorca. Both homes were equipped with baby gear, and one family even contacted local friends: "These folks had us over for paella and wine. It was a lovely gesture," she says. Meanwhile, the rapport the Broggers developed with the homeowners in advance of the trip eased any concerns about what was going on back in Santa Monica, where two different families each spent two weeks.
Pat Funk, executive director of the Consumer Travel Rights Center, says you should always check out potential exchange partners. "It's critical to ask for references and check them. You want to know they're who they say they are." She also recommends that swappers formalize e-mail agreements by drawing up a contract.
"Most disappointing exchanges are usually about matters such as housekeeping," says Helen Bergstein, president of the exchange site Digsville.com. You don't want a neat freak to cross paths with the Messy McSlobs.
There are a number of well-respected exchange firms online (see page 6). Most allow you to browse their listings to get a feel for the homes and their owners. But once you find a listing, it's up to you -- not the exchange company -- to hammer out particulars. Some sites also list the homeowners' past swapping partners, so if you find a likely family, you can contact someone who has already exchanged with them. "Do your homework," says Jessica Jaffe, the U.S. representative for the Intervac exchange site. "But don't get too anxious; it's in everyone's best interest to be kind to someone else's home because you're in theirs."
Then there's the sheer volume of listings, but don't get intimidated. Once you decide on a particular locale you'll quickly narrow down your choices. And most exchangers are good about responding quickly to e-mail queries. If you're concerned that your home isn't in an obvious vacation spot, make sure you create an interesting online profile that details not only your house but the local scenery and fun attractions nearby.
Whether you're swapping for a long weekend, Christmas vacation, spring break, or an entire summer, both parties need to be clear about the ground rules, so keep the following dos and don'ts in mind.
Do make sure you write the most informative profile you can so other swappers can get a feel for your family, your home, and your neighborhood.
Do look for other families with kids. "If you've got two toddlers, you don't want to end up in a house with antiques," says Bergstein.
Don't forget the details. HomeExchange.com provides helpful sample correspondence and agreements.
Do communicate with the other family by e-mail and phone. Don't be shy about asking for references.
Don't swap cars unless both parties have consulted their insurance companies first.
Do plan to spend a full day preparing your house and putting away certain items. Bergstein warns that anything you leave out will be used, played with, or eaten.
Don't leave valuables out; lock them up in an attic or a garage.
Do swap contact info for pediatricians, babysitters, take-out, kid-friendly restaurants, and parks.
Don't forget to do a complete walk-through when you get to the house.
Do follow up during the exchange by e-mail or phone to ensure all is okay, or have a friend or neighbor drop in from time to time.
The best advice of all? Log on to some house-trading sites and spend time browsing the listings to get a feel for the homes and their owners. This will give you ideas about the kind of information to include when writing a profile of your own. You may just find a new way to vacation. As Nicole Dewell says, "We live in a global community, but hotels can be so sterile. This is a nicer, gentler way to travel."
Here are the major players in home exchange.
Digsville Home Exchange Club: More than 2,000 listings and 12,000 "guest" members; $45 a year for full membership. A very user-friendly site.
HomeExchange.com: 16,000 active listings; $100 annually for silver members, who are allowed to list homes and contact other listers; $50 for bronze members, who can only contact listers. Bronze membership is an inexpensive way to swap if you have a specific location in mind.
HomeLink International: More than 12,000 listings, nearly 3,000 in the U.S., most in Europe (50 percent of listers have children); $90 for annual online membership. A good choice for Americans seeking swaps with Europeans.
Intervac Home Exchange: 2,000 U.S. members (50 percent of users have kids); $95 annual membership, $65 for U.S. only. The site offers a free preview and thehomeexchanger.com, an informative blog all about swapping. Plus, it has more than 5,000 listings.
Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.