Property: Let's stay at a stranger's

Get over the fear that your home will be trashed and consider a home swap

Imminent movers should read no further - save all your energies for your packing cases. Those of you with no plans to uproot might want to consider a temporary house exchange - but does the smallness of your fridge deter you?

Rhona Nayar runs Intervac, a home-exchange service started by her mother- in-law in 1953. A yearly fee of pounds 80 ensures that your home appears in the five directories it publishes annually; last year it had 11,500 homes listed in 67 countries. The brochure boasts everything from "tiny, bijou flats to opulent country mansions"; the only criterion for acceptance is that your home is "clean, comfortable and welcoming", although Rhona adds that: "You can't be planning to move or be doing up your house."

Most exchangers seem to swap their homes, and lives, for two- or three- weekly stints; but retired members and those with time to spare may prefer longer exchanges. Rhona believes that adaptability is essential: "The more flexible you can be, the better your chances of a successful swap."

She lists many benefits: "Obviously, you could stay at a very prestigious address without the prices, but also you swap lifestyles and can be part of a community meeting neighbours and even friends."

Bridget Robins, her husband and their three daughters live in a large house with a swimming pool and an acre of land in Sacramento, California. Earlier this year she "stumbled upon a house-swap website while researching a vacation to England" and, having found a swap partner through Homelink International, is planning a summer exchange with a family from Salisbury in Wiltshire.

Bridget found it convenient to use a service which was "already at my fingertips", but why did she find exchanging an attraction?

"I want to experience daily life in another country rather than the tourist's view. Saving on costs is a benefit but it's not our primary reason."

Media interest in home exchanging has mirrored its growing popularity but prompted inevitable scare stories. Many British property owners display natural reserve and worry about their stateside counterparts' expectations. Rumours are rife about Americans arriving in British homes and finding - brace yourselves - no walk-in larder.

Apart from wanting to visit southern England "where my husband's grandparents emigrated from", Bridget's needs seem modest: "We want someplace where we can feel comfortable and be centrally located for the things we want to do. I'm not looking for a property as large as my home, just somewhere that is clean and uncluttered."

After location, Bridget prioritised communication skills and chose her swap-partners carefully: "They have a great sense of humour, have negotiated a written agreement in a positive and professional manner, and overall have been fun to deal with."

Rhona Nayar agrees that communication beforehand minimises disappointment and finds that most Americans look for somewhere "steeped in history and heritage" rather than refrigeration facilities.

Are there many complaints about sub-standard homes? "Very few, and nine out of 10 could have been avoided had they read the guidelines. It should be an informed decision. Don't be reluctant to take the initiative and ask questions," she advises.

Maurice Clark runs Holi-Swaps, an Internet travel site, and reassures British would-be-swappers who are apprehensive: "They see the quality of the properties on the website and get put off, but they shouldn't. Most people want a base where they can put down roots while they look around - they're not bothered about super standards."

Holi-Swaps started two years ago and now has 3,000 members in 32 countries. It currently has 600 listings, mostly in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, where the concept is strongest - although as more Internet-linked homes come online other countries are increasingly represented.

Mr Clark finds that 75 per cent of members are new to swapping, so education is important. Holi-Swaps has a tutorial programme which anyone can download from the website but a yearly subscription of pounds 18 gets you a monthly e- mail newsletter and optional weekly newsletter of the latest swaps coming online.

A browse through house-exchange websites opens your eyes to endless possibilities. Forget the size and condition of your home (all part of its period charm) and imagine two weeks beside a swimming pool with inevitable walk-in larder. Mr Clark finds that similar types tend to find each other, although everyone has preferences: "You might be a dentist and be willing to swap with a lawyer but not a teacher."

He believes that applicants fall into a particular category: "Most are successful professionals who are well-off and very active. They aren't your run-of-the-mill types sitting in front of the TV. A typical member has a vibrant personality and wants excitement."

The benefits are obvious; no musty smelling holiday rentals, the conveniences of a proper home and, perhaps best of all, no fees. But for some the disadvantages are too great.

Amanda Whittingham lives in a Devonshire farmhouse and has swapped with homes in London, Florida and Canada. "It is fun and my children love having access to different toys and videos," she says, "but I couldn't stand the cleaning. Our house would take about three weeks to paint and clean as I hated anyone seeing the state of it and before leaving your exchange home, you've got another major clean-up to do."

Some exchangers I spoke to told of partners who were not as rigorous as Amanda. One with 10 years of swapping under her belt found a London home where "our feet stuck to the carpet and a high chair which was so dirty I couldn't put my baby in there." Inevitably on their return they found their own home was less than pristine: "There were mouldy strawberries in our bedrooms and a bottle of wine spilled over the kitchen units."

Intervac's Rhona Nayar remembers few disappointed members but there are some: "One large man swapped homes and cars with an Italian and found that in return for his big Volvo he got a tiny Fiat that he couldn't fit into." Another aggrieved family found their rural French exchange property ringed by electric fences which made holidaying with their small child less than relaxing. Rhona believes that both incidences could have been avoided had they asked questions beforehand.

Some may find the strain of worrying about what's happening back home too great but most exchangers speak positively of mutual respect for each other's property. Bridget Robins is unworried about potential problems: "We often have guests and enjoy it very much. While we have a nice home that we care for and value, ultimately there is nothing that can't be replaced."

Exchanging tips

l Don't rush into an exchange

l Find a partner who communicates well and ask questions

l Be flexible

l Check on household and car insurance policies and get special travel insurance

l Make sure your home is clean and clutter-free

Intervac can be contacted on 01225 892208; http://www.holi-swaps.com; http://www.homelink.org

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