A home away from home

Swapping your house with someone else's is a cheap and comfortable way to see the world. Felicity Cannell reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Looking for an alternative holiday? Fed up with package tours herding you into impersonal hotels with food you can't eat and entertainment you can't suffer? If you miss your home comforts then go home for a holiday - not yours, but someone else's.

Over 20,000 people worldwide will be swapping their homes this year, some for the first time, others for their 40th year running. Homelink International has been running for 40 years in the UK, and membership increases annually. By swapping your home there are few places in the world that are out of reach, even on a budget.

The exchange procedure is relatively simple. Each member's home is listed in a directory with a description and photograph, including local attractions, distance from major cities and other relevant details (pony included - yes you can swap pets as well). Members give preferred dates and destinations, but many are willing to go any time, anywhere.

You may prefer to swap like with like. If you have a minimalist apartment in London you may not want two bouncy children disrupting your feng shui but conversely if you live in a Victorian terraced cottage in Leeds, you can still achieve a successful exchange to a colonial home in Boston. Most visitors simply want a base, and a warm comfortable home is more personal and practical than the most luxurious hotel. "The most important thing is to give an accurate description," says Lois Sealey of Home Base. "And stress all the advantages. Every home has some."

When Elise Butler put her "average three-bedroom house" in the Essex suburbs into Homelink's directory last year she was flabbergasted by the response. "The directories kick off in January, and by April we had over 60 offers - letters, faxes, e-mails, from America, Canada, South Africa, Europe and Australia." The most exotic came from the post-master of Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland, complete with rain forest, wallabies and 320 days sunshine per year. Elise and her family took the offer of spending the Millennium celebrations in Sydney.

Homelink is the largest home exchange company, with Homebase and Intervac both running in second place. Membership and listings cost under pounds 100, the cheapest being Homebase at pounds 50.

And as well as the directories, the Internet has opened up an instant way of seeing what is on offer - 50 per cent of Homelink's members use it for their initial exploration. Many Americans and Australians have their own web sites describing their homes and families together with photographs (seeing snaps of three children ready to wreak havoc on your home is fun for your own children to see). Homelink UK members can now have their own home page with unlimited text and five photographs.

The home exchange companies give comprehensive guidelines for a successful swap, from having flexible expectations to the final details of how to prepare your home - cupboard space, directions for recalcitrant kitchen appliances, leaving a spare key. Home Exchange Vacationing, by experienced home swappers Bill and Mary Barbour is also good reading. It gives exhaustive details for a successful swap, as well as the odd disaster story. But overall, there appear to be few disadvantages.

Max Lawless, however, offers his first exchange as a cautionary tale. "In my anxiety to get to New York, I chose a fabulous home in Upper New York State. I then discovered that Manhattan was not exactly on the doorstep!" He advises not to look at the directory and think "Oh look, a mansion with a swimming pool". Choose your area first, visit the library and then see what's on offer.

Household insurance companies need to be informed that you will have non-paying guests staying, but there should be no surcharge - most will be pleased to hear that your home will be occupied. But you will not be covered for theft if there is no forcible entry. This has to be a matter of trust, but none of the major home exchange companies has so far had any reports of theft or serious damage. Most members will treat your home as they would want you to treat theirs. As one home exchanger found, "The most likely difference you will notice is that your home will be cleaner than it ever has been - not only because you scrubbed it in preparation for your guests, but also that they have scrubbed it again before they left. One guest afterwards told me that I had left a silk scarf poking out of a drawer. She had been dying to put it back neatly, but was terrified that I would think she had been nosing around my personal belongings."

The greatest fear for most home exchangers is not leaving their home to the care of virtual strangers, but the chance of the exchange partners backing out at the last minute, leaving you with airline tickets and no accommodation. This is highly unlikely, and as many members have second homes, particularly in America, some last minute ringing around can often come up with an alternative. But cancellations can nevertheless be covered by travel insurance. Homelink offers detailed and competitive insurance to its members.

Home exchangers can swap not only their homes, but cars, pets, golf club memberships, baby sitters - even dinner guests. Having a drink with the neighbours is a good way to learn what's hot and what's not. And Max Lawless summed up the real charm of it all. "Which of my overseas homes will I go to this year?"

Homelink International - 01344 842642 Website www.homelink.org; Intervac - 01225 892208; Homebase - 0181 886 8752. 'Home Exchange Vacationing' is published by Rutledge Hill Press.

STEPS TO A SUCCESSFUL CHANGE

1. Be flexible - even if you've set your heart on the French Alps, the Canadian Rockies may turn out to be just as good.

2. Correspond with several exchanges and whittle your list down to the best.

3. Always check out the membership of any offers you receive - some members offer references from homeowners they have swapped with previously.

4. Keep a "home book" jotting down useful information about where you live - your favourite local restaurant, the time of the last train, when the gardener/ cleaner/dustman comes.

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