Free holidays: How to swap your home for a place in the sun

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Dorothy and Steve Brider's home isn't just their pride and joy - it's their passport, too. In recent years they have swapped their Norfolk house with home-owners in Perth and Sydney for months at a time, and are now preparing to do the same with a couple in Queensland in 2007.

"We like the idea of living in a personal space rather than being restricted to one hotel room, and we like going away for three months at a time, particularly during our winter. And it must work out cheaper," says Dorothy, a retired local government secretary.

But exchanging homes doesn't have to mean long journeys and even longer stays. House-swappers can come from short and long-haul locations, and can be staying for a long weekend as well as half a year.

"Most people register their homes with our agency for a specific exchange on specific dates but then they see how flexible the system is and may vary," says Lois Sealey, who runs Home Base Holidays, one of Britain's most successful exchange agencies.

"We have exchanges within the UK to across the world. South Africa has become especially popular in the past two or three years."

Many of Sealey's clients are teachers or retired couples - people who are able to spend more than the usual seven or 14 nights away - but she says that the user profile is changing now. "Thanks to new technology, people who can work anywhere now go anywhere. And we have a lot of craftsmen registering these days, such as plumbers and electricians. Swapping has become a legitimate holiday option for many groups," she says.

And you don't have to own a swanky place to take part. "The UK homes are more upmarket than average, but range from two-bedroom apartments in city centres to a nine-bed castle in Scotland," says Caroline Connolly of HomeLink International, another exchange agency.

The principle of home swapping has been around for 30 years and used to involve dreary exchanges of photographs by mail and expensive international calls to discuss cursory information about properties. But e-mail and the internet have changed all that for the better.

Some websites have sections for last-minute exchanges. For example, Intervac's site has homes in Godalming, Warsaw, San Francisco and Paris that could be free later this month if owners elsewhere are happy to go on holiday at such short notice and have properties in locations that the last-minute entrants like.

But usually an exchange is finalised six months to a year before the actual holiday starts, giving you time to start making simple but thorough preparations for the people who will be using your home.

"Prepare two manuals. The first - 'Where Can I Find It?' - should list everything in the house the visitors may need and which cupboard it is in. The other - 'How Does It Work?' - should include instructions on the TV, CD, DVD, cooker and anything else electrical. And it should contain a list of repair people should all else fail. Obviously, leave guide books to all attractions and neighbouring areas, too," suggests Dorothy Brider, who is now an old hand.

Practical arrangements are crucial. Some owners exchange small sums to cover breakages or milk deliveries for their visitors; others book restaurants or arrange for neighbours to be on call in emergencies.

A crucial aspect is insurance for the house and contents, and for a car if you swap that as well. You must inform your insurer. "Most will know that the arrangements are based on mutual trust and may charge little or nothing extra over the swap period. They'll also be pleased your home is occupied.

"But car insurance is much more strict so get your visitors' licence details and include them on your vehicle's insurance," advises the Association of British Insurers.

There are occasional horror stories, of course. A Midlands couple who wish to remain anonymous had an American family to stay with them and flew over for a reciprocal visit a few months later. "In America we were given only one room, having been told that there was more space. The family had no cooking pans so we had to eat out all the time. The holiday was far more expensive than we'd been led to believe," say the couple, who had previously enjoyed an entirely successful swap with an Australian family.

But problems like that are rare, as most exchangers make extensive preparations to make sure they get the right place at the right time.

Or, as Dorothy Brider, puts it: "Do your homework, read guide books, check the atlas, make sure that this is the area you prefer. Write, write and write some more, and make friends with the people before you all commit to booking air tickets."

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Get swapping

* Decide where and when you want to swap. If you don't have a fixed place in mind, scour exchange websites for ideas.

* Register with an agency, which costs between £40 and £250, for up to two years' display of your property details on a professional website. It also gives you access to a detailed layer of information about other properties.

* Describe your property accurately but thoroughly on the website. Remember that US and Australasian visitors are especially drawn to historic areas and period properties. Provide plenty of digital pictures.

* Either wait for another client to contact you, or identify a place and home you like, at which point you e-mail the owners. If they like your place too, you could make a deal.

* Most agencies then offer you checklists of details to discuss with your exchangee - whether cars are included, pet care, how to handle wear and tear and breakages, and so on. Some even offer quasi-legal contracts for both parties to sign.