- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

Bethesda resident Patricia Benton read a newspaper article about vacation home exchange some years ago.

Ms. Benton learned that home exchange is the practice of casually brokering an even swap of houses, automobiles even pet care between like-minded travelers during a prearranged vacation period. Interested singles, couples or families often join home-exchange companies that guide them in pinpointing destinations and arranging potential exchanges.

Home-exchangers say vacationing this way provides all the comforts of home with no hidden tolls. Swapping homes eliminates the expenses of lodging and nonstop restaurant meals and offers escape from the confinement of a hotel room. The arrangement can be especially beneficial for families with children, offering a home base complete with children's equipment and toys as well as local playmates.

Perhaps most important, exchangers can enjoy being tourists while living like natives in a country or region that is not their own.

Ms. Benton says the entire idea of home exchange appealed to her and her husband, Bruce, a World Bank economist, and their four children.

"By staying in someone's home, you would be more in the community and get a much better idea of where you were," Ms. Benton says. "You wouldn't just be seeing the sights. You would be living with the culture, so rather than running from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, you would be meeting the people. You would really come away with what the place was like, not just what it looked like."

The concept of home exchange as a means of affordable vacationing has been appealing to people for half a century.

The idea was conceived by a group of European schoolteachers who decided to create a summer traveling network, swapping homes with other teachers. The idea mushroomed, and now 20 or 30 groups mostly online cater to the general home exchanger.

People typically register with one or more groups, paying a nominal annual listing fee. They develop a descriptive profile of their home, indicating amenities and nearby attractions. They mention what their trade would include, such as pet care or automobile privileges, and whether children are welcome in their homes.

Many contacts are made in the fall, when the next summer's swaps often are brokered.

Karl Costabel has run the home-exchange company HomeLink USA (part of HomeLink International) from his home in Tampa, Fla., for 12 years. Mr. Costabel says home exchange appeals to those he terms "niche travelers."

Home-exchangers tend to be professionals, he says, and they must be homeowners. "But it's more of a psychological profile than any demographic group," he says. "People who are easygoing, affable, trusting not the kind of person who will not be able to sleep because they're worried their stereo is going to be broken."

Certainly, today's economy could make some travelers consider home exchanges.

"People want to travel the way they did before, but with the economy, they're really looking for a good deal," says Cathy Keefe, a spokeswoman with the Travel Industry Association of America. "Swap homes? What could be more appealing?"

Exchanging cars as part of the deal eliminates rental costs. Exchanging pet care eliminates kennel fees, and even the most modest homes have televisions and laundry facilities.

"Most people get involved in this because it's a very inexpensive way to travel," Mr. Costabel says. "The ones who keep doing it do it because it's a very different way to travel, and they end up going to places they never dreamed they would go."

Homelink lists exchanges in exotic locales such as Cyprus, Kenya and French Polynesia. It also lists three homes in Iowa. Twenty homes in Illinois are listed, 88 in the D.C. area and 447 in Paris.

"People go to exchange places for their own reasons," Mr. Costabel says. "They may have family there, or they just want to see it. Location, proximity and convenience are as important an exchange opportunity as a seven-room house in the Hamptons."

Dan Rubin is co-owner of the International Home Exchange Network, based in Daytona Beach, Fla. "You get all kinds," Mr. Rubin says. "Some properties even come with boats. Most people will live in major metropolitan areas, like California or New York. There aren't too many in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but that doesn't necessarily preclude the ability of people to make exchanges in relatively obscure locations. We've had people make exchanges to Montana. We have one Mississippi for Paris."

Family vacations

In 1996, the Benton family arranged their first exchange for three weeks the following summer with a family from the tiny Welsh town of Overton-on-Dee.

"It was so great," Ms. Benton says. "The people who lived in our house were the local town pediatricians. They had told the local kids to come over to meet us. Our kids spent every day biking, playing soccer and playing with the kids. We'd go buy bread in the market, and everyone knew who we were. Our children will never forget Wales. They may not remember what sights they saw, but they're going to remember the people they met."

The family has exchanged homes every year since then. Destinations have included San Francisco and places in Canada, England and the Netherlands.

"Once we'd done it, though, there was another great benefit to it," Ms. Benton says. "If you really didn't want to do something one day and wanted to just hang out because kids need to do that sometimes you could, because you weren't spending any money."

Perri Green, her husband, Terry, and their two young daughters tried and loved their first home exchange two years ago. They initially bought a membership in an exchange company with high hopes of making it to Kenya.

"There were only three listings in Kenya that year," says Ms. Green, a McLean resident. "We sent our house description out and got one response back saying no thanks. Just after that, we got an e-mail from the Horsleys in England."

The Horsleys, they learned, lived in Holbrook, in eastern England. It wasn't Kenya, but the Greens were feeling adventurous.

"We had a fantasy that we wanted to be in the countryside because we live in suburbia," Ms. Green says. Holbrook is a town of two pubs and one co-op grocery store.

The families exchanged pet care and cars. The Greens own a very large yellow Labrador. The Horsleys had a gerbil.

"I pride myself on animals because I grew up on a farm," Ms. Green says. "I'm very concerned about the way my animals are taken care of. That, to me, is more important than the care of the house. I was worked up about this issue."

When the Greens arrived at the Horsley home in Holbrook, they unlocked the door, entered the house and saw the gerbil cage. The cage door was open.

Several anxiety-laden hours later, neighbors casually informed a very upset Green family that the gerbil was not lost but had expired just two days earlier.

Despite this initial setback, the Greens managed to immensely enjoy their stay in England.

"Two neighbor boys came over and played with my girls every day," Ms. Green says, "and when we got back here, the Horsleys had left wonderful pictures of them playing with our dog. The house looked cleaner than when I left it. The thing the Horsleys were upset about was that I had neglected to tell them about Potomac Mills shopping mall. They went five times."

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