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Swapping homes is in vogue

Even with the beaten-down travel industry spilling out deals on airfares like candy from a busted piñata, vacation planning nowadays too often ends with, "It still costs too much."

But swapping houses with other would-be vacationers is one way to get a free stay. And the pool of homeowners looking to trade places is growing rapidly. At HomeExchange.com, the biggest Web site for home swappers, the number of listings recently jumped to 26,000, up from 20,000 a year earlier.

The savings can be dramatic. Real estate agent Lori Koppel-Heath made her first swap 10 years ago. She and her husband, Michael, were looking for a stay in Britain. Instead of paying $400 a night at a London hotel for six weeks, they traded their four-bedroom home for a five-bedroom house in Amersham, a lovely market town 25 miles north of London. Total savings: $16,800. And the couple's temporary home turned out to be as breathtaking as their savings: an 80-year-old English Tudor surrounded by rolling hills and meandering footpaths.

Exchange clubs offer various kinds of lodging worldwide, whether you want to relax in simple digs or hold court in a castle. Just don't expect to trade a modest apartment in the hinterlands for a four-bedroom Parisian penthouse. The easiest swaps will be for homes similar to your own. To set up your home exchange, you first choose a network, then sign up online, review the listings and send inquiries to potential exchange partners.

Travel expert Bob Jones of Booking

Wiz.com recommends using established home-exchange sites because they offer broader networks and better protection from shady swappers. Costs range from $45 to $200 per year. To prepare for guests, Jones says, turn off the pay-per-view and long-distance capabilities on your TV and phone. Also, stow away all your financial information, and get your neighbors involved. "They'll be certain to let you know if a moving van shows up," he says.

Check your homeowners insurance for coverage for exchange guests, and review your auto-insurance policy before you swap cars. Most policies cover visitors as invited guests according to HomeExchange.com. Many exchange sites offer sample agreements for both homes and cars to help you formalize the terms of the swap.

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