Last week it was revealed that overseas tourism to Britain had fallen to its lowest level since 1988, further evidence of world recession. The house exchange market, on the other hand, grew by about 20 per cent, a trend that probably will continue. The advantages are obvious: no accommodation expenses, more space and facilities and an occupancy that may keep burglars away. My own experience is limited to a holiday house swap with a Killarney family about 15 years ago, so mutually enjoyable that we have exchanged Christmas cards since. Yet swapping is not always so friction-free.
A London agency, Worldwide Home Exchange Club, showed me some recent testimonials. Words such as 'wonderful' and 'incomparable' rose from clients' letters like votive incense, even where arrangements had gone slightly awry. The Lansleys of Ascot, Berkshire, wrote: 'The disadvantages seem relatively trivial, and certainly we found our house spotless on our return, with only minor damage (they bleached some new towels - heaven knows why - and the doors of the fridge, washing machine and tumble dryer no longer close properly - perhaps they slammed them more than we do).'
House-swap psychology makes an interesting study. Some people are temperamentally incapable of allowing strangers to occupy their home or of coping with the culture shock when they do. Mildred Baer, a retired American diplomat who runs Worldwide from Knightsbridge Green, says people who are obsessively houseproud should not swap 'because they spend their holiday worrying about what's happening to their own homes'. Americans, apparently, are 'more interested in the holiday than in the vacation home so long as there are comfortable beds, a modern kitchen and bathroom and clean carpets'. For the British, the borrowed house often is more important than the holiday itself, 'even if their own homes are genteel-shabby'.
This is borne out by the experience of a Scotsman who swapped his Twickenham house for one near Kingston, Ontario, four summers ago. 'The Canadian was the local rat-catcher, but also a property millionaire. After moving into my home, he spent most of his time travelling in Britain, Ireland and Europe in my modest Saab. We drove his Lincoln Continental, but it was his house that provided our focus. Kingston is a prison town, so the house was full of guns: five rifles and shotguns in the wardrobe, a six-shooter in the bedside drawer. We refrained from using them on the cockroaches in the kitchen and the frogs in the swimming pool.'
Trouble occurs when British 'genteel-shabby' becomes, in American eyes, squalor. 'Americans are cleanliness-conscious,' Mrs Baer said.
The drawing-room of her own elegant flat behind Harrod's is adorned with pictures from the Orient, souvenirs of her diplomatic postings. 'Home exchange started seriously in the United States between 20 and 30 years ago and caught on here about 12 years ago, which is when I got involved, with about 50 subscribers.' Her 1992 directory ( pounds 25 per entry) contains a thousand or so entries from would-be swappers all over the world, including one from Russia, one from Sri Lanka and two from Kenya.
Do clients always write to her about their experiences? 'Not always,' Mrs Baer said, 'but when they do they're almost invariably positive.' Surely there were horror stories] 'Well, there is one that's far from typical.' She shuffled some correspondence. 'This exchange was between a family in Gloucester and a family in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The Americans were disgusted when they arrived in the English house, finding it so unclean that they couldn't walk barefoot on the carpets. They spent two nights in it before we found them another place in Henley. Later they said the English family had wrecked their California home, which had five bathrooms: they ran all the baths at the same time, flooding the septic tank, which backed up and ruined carpets in two downstairs rooms.'
The Californians wrote to the Gloucester family a litany about carpet stains; damage to a patio sofa and to a guitar that had been locked in its case; a 'crushed and smashed plastic baseball bat, a collector's item from the 1981 World Series, cunningly hidden under the tablecloth and now worthless - my son is devastated'; a football kicked on to the roof, and about damage to the swimming pool's filter system 'because the rubber snake your children left in the pool has jammed the mechanism. What gives your children the licence to act like this?'
Mrs Baer has blacklisted the Gloucester family (they had also run up a dollars 200 phone bill in Rancho Santa Fe). She asked the irate Californian wife on the telephone: 'Didn't you correspond with the English family before you exchanged?' She replied: 'Yes, but they just said that they weren't houseproud, so we didn't expect a fancy home. If it hadn't been so dirty we would have been prepared to stay on.'
The swapping agencies do not always learn of such horrors. Hazel Nayar of Intervac International of Derby, Britain's largest agency (9,000 entries in the exchange directory), laughed reassuringly, unaware of acrimony springing up at that very moment between two of her 1992 clients. One was the family of a journalist who lives in North London; the other, a biochemist's family from a San Francisco suburb. The former, losing sang-froid while gaining anonymity, told me: 'We have children aged two, eight and 12. Ours is a kids' house, stains on the carpet, old, comfortable sofas that you're relaxed about when your children are young. We explained to the Americans that it was a shabby, old English house with five bedrooms and only one bathroom. Their house had four bedrooms and four bathrooms. They have two kids, four and three, and thick-pile white carpets in the poorest possible taste and white kitchen surfaces you couldn't put anything hot or chop vegetables on. A real pain in the neck.'
What generated the mutual scorn? According to the journalist, the biochemist, on arrival in London, moved in with American friends in Highgate instead, leaving the swapped house to relatives, among them his parents, also over from California. 'We now have this letter from his mother, saying they spent two days cleaning the house, scrubbing walls and vacuuming the mattress (Have you ever heard of such a thing?), washing the sheets, and putting covers on what she described as the dirtiest living-room furniture they'd ever seen. She was insulting, saying she supposed we were now waiting for next year's sucker. Last year we swapped happily with Italians and the year before that with other Americans. The latest bunch have an obsession about cleanliness. They were too rich to house swap. Their four-year-old girl had her own soccer coach, for God's sake] In California we looked after their blasted dog which was moulting all over the place. No word about that.'
I'm not sure what general conclusions may be drawn from these differences. When I lived in New York and New Jersey, most neighbours were fastidious about their homes, though I put this down to the fact that Americans flit frequently and feel obliged to be obsessively spick-and-span, thus maximising marketability. On the other hand, some I knew regularly ate off the ironing-board. Similarly, I have flopped into stately British chintz, dust puffing out of it, but tiptoed among the gleaming bric-a-brac of British working-class living-rooms.
Lois Sealey, a Canadian who runs Home Base Holidays from Palmers Green, London, encourages clients to exchange photographs. 'But we try to put them in a frame of mind to possibly overlook the fact that the house they're going to may not be up to the standard hoped for. I can't say we've had problems - except with the exchange of cars. Americans sometimes find it difficult to negotiate narrow British roads, while British insurance companies may refuse to give cover.' Other than that, the only problem confronted by any of her clients was a nanny's sudden elopement with an American youth at the start of the British family's Californian house swap, leaving them, for the first time, to cope alone with squalling offspring.
In her directory, Mildred Baer includes 10 pages of commonsense suggestions for prospective swappers ('Try to avoid overstating your home's attractions and those of the surrounding area.') There is also the matter of etiquette. Don't open the other family's mail. Don't break into locked rooms. Finally, consider leaving a thank you present. A house plant, for example, would be nice - a kindlier gesture than the unflushed loo greeting the flushed journalist on his return to North London.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content