House swap for a cheap vacation

Did you see the new movie, “The Holiday?” In the romantic comedy, two single women with botched romances swap homes and find true love. Think it can happen only on the silver screen? Maybe not. In the film, Cameron Diaz’s character swaps her luxurious Beverly Hills mansion for Kate Winslet’s country home outside of London. They get to use each other’s cars, meet each other’s neighbors, and shop in each other’s favorite stores. They also get the chance to escape their dismal love lives in their new surroundings.

Sound intriguing? Well, if you’d like to exchanges homes, all you have to do is be brave and list your home on one of several “swapping” Web sites. More and more people are exchanging their homes with strangers around the country — and world. House swapping appeals to retired folks who have flexible schedules as well as younger people who’d like to get away for a long weekend.

Here’s how it works: You put your home or your vacation home on a Web site and choose the place you’d like to visit. Then, you post lots of inquires as to the week or month you’d like to swap. While most people try to match up vacation dates, you can work out other arrangements. You could request a week in Paris and set aside a different week for the other family to use your Miami vacation home.

If you’d like to stay in a popular city or resort area, you should put your request in as early as you can. You could be lucky and find a swap for the next week, but it could take up to a year to find the right match. If you think your little cottage on a stream in a far off location won’t swap?  List it. The experts say you never know. Someone with a penthouse in Manhattan may just want to stay a while in a private hideaway!

Most home swapping Web sites charge annual fees between $40 and $80. Some even offer special deals. For instance, if you don’t find a swap within the first year, you could get another year for free or you could list your second home for an additional $15. Here are a few sites and their fees:

  • HomeLink International
  • Green Theme International
  • Intervac
  • Digsville
  • International Home Exchange Network

Since you’re swapping homes, you don't charge the other family for electricity, heat, and other everyday expenses. You’re using their home, while they’re using yours, so it’s usually a fair trade. As far as the phone goes, most homeowners will arrange it so that you can use their phone for local calls, but you’ll have to use a phone card or cell phone for long-distance ones. You should get an itemized bill from your phone company to double check their usage when you return. This is definitely one of the issues you need to work out with your exchange partners before hand — don’t assume you will both be on the same page. Home swapping Web sites also offer contracts. It’s a good idea to have both parties sign one. If you want to include a car and utilities with your home, you need to specify that in the contract. But basically, you’re on your own. The Web site is not a realtor and it won’t resolve disputes. If something is damaged in your home or an item is stolen, you may be out of luck. You’ll need to check with your insurance company about having your valuable possessions covered.

Make sure you speak to the person with whom you’re swapping homes. Don’t rely on e-mail alone. Get a feel for the person who will be staying at your home. If it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t go through with the exchange. Home exchange sites discourage canceling a swap. However, it can happen. If one of your family members gets sick or if a pipe breaks in your home, you don’t have to go through with the swap. But realize that you’re dealing with other people who have spent a lot of time and effort planning their vacation.

It’s a good idea for you or one of your friends to be at your house the day of the swap, so that someone can show the new tenants your home’s quirks. Make sure to leave a list of emergency numbers including ones for the plumber, electrician, or pool person, so that if a problem occurs, the other family can call someone to fix it. Remember, you’re swapping homes with strangers, not Hollywood starlets, so lock up your valuables and financial documents. 

House swapping is a great way to get a vacation for next to nothing. Happy travels!

Janice Lieberman is the “Today” show’s consumer correspondent. She joined NBC News as a consumer reporter in 1999. She is author of “Tricks of the Trade: A Consumer Survival Guide.” She is a graduate of Rutgers University.