National Edition

Free hotels: Swapping houses means great savings for vacations

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Shelley Miller, writer and home exchange expert, and her family have enjoyed 15 home swaps in 13 years. This photo is of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a home exchange villa she stayed in last year. They had a maid, a driver and a gardener.

Courtesy Shelley Miller

When Sara Tetreault in Portland, Ore., first heard about home exchanges in 2004, she thought it sounded awesome.

A friend told her about a friend who swapped homes for a week with somebody in San Francisco — for free.

"It sounded awesome," she says, "Then I thought, 'Wait a minute. How did they do this?'"

Tetreault found a home exchange company on the Internet and signed up. It wasn't exactly free, but the $100 annual membership was less than one night in a hotel.

It wasn't long before a couple in Paris contacted her and asked if she would be interested in an exchange.

"I said yes immediately," Tetreault says.

Then she told her husband.

"I just thought, 'No way!'" her husband Brad recalls. "Why would we do that? It was just so foreign, the whole idea. We just can't have people in our house. She definitely had to talk me into it."

For many home swappers, the economy talked them into trying it. A pre-summer 2013 study by American Express found that 31 percent of travelers planned to spend more than $1,000 per person summer vacations. The total expected summer travel expenses averaged $1,145 per person — or about $4,580 for a family of four.

In an era of rising lodging fees, one home exchange company, LoveHomeSwapp.com, says its members "save an average of $3,487 per vacation." That doesn't mean, however, that the vacationer would have spent that much if they hadn't swapped homes.

Who does this?

Ed Kushins, founder and CEO of HomeExchange.com, says in an email exchange with the Deseret News that more than any other period in time, people are making travel a part of their lives. "But because of the economy," he says, "they are looking for ways to do so inexpensively."

He also says the other reason people choose to do home exchanges is because of the growing sharing economy: "People are looking for more eco/green-friendly ways to do things, and by exchanging and sharing items, such as your home, bicycle, car, etc., you essentially reduce your carbon footprint."

A recent study of HomeExchange.com members by Italy's University of Bergamo found that 62 percent of home exchangers had a high level of education, 98 percent are interested in cultural heritage, 84 percent visit parks and museums and 73 percent say organic food is important to them.

Why do this?

Sara Tetreault is a frugal-living writer who blogs about "stylishly frugal living" at GoGingham.com, so cost was one of the big attractions for her back in 2004. Her husband, Brad, however, was still not convinced that letting strangers from Paris in their home was a good idea and was worried about all their valuables.

"If you could look around our house you could see there are no valuables," she says. "The most valuable thing in our house is the people who live there. But we were not going to be there. We were going to be in Paris having a fabulous vacation."

Kushins with HomeExchange.com says the fear about personal belongings being safe is one of the biggest challenges the company has. "If you think you'll be worried about your home the entire time you're on your vacation," he says, "it's likely not for you."

Tetreault's family gave it a try, taking their young kids with them to Paris (the University of Bergamo study found that 49 percent of exchangers travel with children). Since 2004 they have swapped homes with people in Vienna, Austria; Alicante, Spain; Gouda, Netherlands; Victoria, British Columbia; Greece; San Francisco; and other places.

How to do this

Shelley Miller is a home exchange expert, which you can tell by the name of her website, HomeExchangeExpert.com. Miller says there are three types of exchanges people do.

One way is a simultaneous exchange, where the families live in each other's homes at the same time.

Another way is non-simultaneous. Miller did this when a family in Hong Kong went to Thailand and offered their empty home to her in exchange for the opportunity to visit San Diego later. When the people came to San Diego, Miller's family went to visit relatives.

The third way is hospitality exchanges where the host family is still there. Miller's husband, for example, traveled solo to Istanbul, Turkey, where he stayed with a family.

Miller says that larger exchanges, such as Home Exchange, based in California that has 44,000 members, Love Home Swap based in London that has 35,000 and Intervac based in Sweden that has 30,000, will give people more options just because of the sheer numbers of people. She says, however, that if a person wanted to exchange with somebody in France, it might be wise to find an exchange that has a lot more French members.

People can request an exchange, or like Tetreault (who used Intervac), they may have someone contact them.

Miller says she starts six months to a year before she wants to go somewhere, contacting possible exchangers. Travelers exchange emails and talk to each other over Skype. They discuss the best times and things to see. They may even, if they want, exchange signed agreements about the exchange.

"People are usually worried about having a stranger in the home," Miller says. "What happens is people don't exchange with strangers. If you don't feel a connection with somebody, you don't exchange. But if you do, by the time you exchange you've already become friends."

This doesn't mean, however, that things can't go wrong.

Exchange glitches

Tetreault says on one exchange she accidently broke not one, but two fancy wine glasses. When she called the couple staying in her home, they confessed that they had broken a toilet seat.

She says it is a good idea to check homeowners insurance and, if your exchange also involves cars, automobile insurance to make sure everything is covered.

Miller says her family went on an extended vacation in 2000, exchanging with five different families from April to August.

"The only changes, when we came home, were the cups and dishes were in different cupboards."

There are a few rare horror stories that have made the news — but most of those have been when people have rented out their homes or second homes using vacation rental websites like Airbnb or Home Away From Home.

The Tetreaults' "horror story" took place during their exchange with a couple from Gouda in The Netherlands. The couple neglected to let the family know they had chickens, so the Tetreaults had to feed the birds and gather eggs.

As it turned out, the horror turned to fun and the family liked it so much (and the fresh eggs) that they now have their own chickens in their Portland backyard.

Paris versus home

For some people, the problem might not be that they are afraid of strange Hawaiians sleeping in their bedroom, but that no self-respecting Hawaiian would ever agree to exchange to stay in their dull home in Vernon Hills, Ill.

Miller says this is not necessarily a problem. "Maybe someone has a conference they have to go to in Dullsville," she says. "Maybe a cousin lives there. Maybe the dates are not working out for other places."

People may have never considered to visit a particular place, but after talking with each other they might discover they have kids the same age with bikes in the garage, and it sounds like just the thing they would like to try.

"You never know why someone may want to come to your area," Tetreault says. "It could be a wedding, graduation or a family reunion. They need to travel and staying in a home is so much nicer than staying in a hotel."

And less expensive as well.

Home exchange websites:

Membership fees vary from $375 to $45 with some sites having free trials.

Sidebar:

Dos and don'ts for home exchanges

From Ed Kushins, HomeExchange.com CEO

DO:

  • Get to know the person or family you are swapping with. Talk on the phone, swap recent photos and video-chat over Skype.
  • Ask for referrals about prior exchanges. This will tell you a lot about the person/family and home you are swapping with.
  • Agree on the ground rules for your exchange
  • Leave some local tips and eateries for the person/family who will be staying in your home.
  • Exchange cell phone numbers and leave a manual on how things work in your home, when plants need to be watered, etc.
DON'T:
  • Don't leave your home a mess or the person you're swapping with a mess. The general rule is to leave the house exactly as you found it.
  • Don't leave your valuables exposed.
  • Don't lead someone on and always market your property honestly.
  • Don't cancel, as people have spent money on airfare. Respect your obligation.
  • Don't worry! Home exchange is much easier than you think.
EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

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