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House swaps, for a home away from home

Digsville offers for exchange this 18th century, 5-bedroom

Digsville offers for exchange this 18th century, 5-bedroom stone house with its own tower in Perigord, in the Dordogne of southwest France. The home comes with complete modern appliances. The kitchen has french windows which open onto a small garden. Four bikes are available together with boules and badminton. And in town there is a regular weekly market on Fridays. (2009) Credit: Courtesy of Digsville

Several years ago, after a long and stressful period of home renovation, my husband and I felt a desperate need to get away from it all. The problem: We'd spent all of our cash on a new dining room and deck. There was nothing left in the budget for a vacation - or so I thought. A conversation with another mother at Sag Harbor Elementary School, who was in the process of arranging a house swap, made me appreciate my spiffed-up quarters in a new way, as an asset I could trade for holiday accommodations. I scurried home to check out the website she had recommended, and within hours I had posted photos and a description ("Antique Home in Glamorous Hamptons") and sent out a flurry of e-mails to homeowners in San Miguel de Allende.

A few months and a few frequent-flier tickets later, we were winging our way to Mexico. About an hour into the flight, I remembered that I had left my mother's sterling flatware in the dining room hutch. I gripped the armrests and whispered to my husband, "Do you think I should have hidden the silver?" He rolled his eyes. When we arrived at the spectacular 300-year-old house in the center of town, I found a mint's worth of silver candlesticks, picture frames and knickknacks that the owner, a retired Santa Barbara banker with a bohemian streak, had collected over the years. Assured that he had not traveled to Sag Harbor to rip me off, I was able to relax and enjoy the bubbling fountain in his courtyard, churros at Café San Agustin, and the town's spectacular cathedral, Parroquia.

Since then, we've spent idyllic vacations in Vancouver and London, with private homes-away-from-home as our base. And the benefits of home exchanging have gone beyond saving money on hotels. During each of our trips, we took advantage of our hosts' knowledge to live like locals. We used our swappers' pantry staples (no need to buy a box of salt to boil pasta) and washing machines (no need to pack three weeks' worth of clothes). Our two children had their own rooms, which kept the bickering to a minimum. I could go on.

You don't need to live in the Taj Mahal to attract prospective swappers. There are plenty of homeowners across the globe with modestly sized and/or decorated homes looking for an equivalent in the New York area. And plenty of homeowners aren't necessarily looking for a home as grand as their own so much as one in the right location on the right dates. The trick is to be flexible and to find the right match, so that everyone feels the exchange is fair. Here are some lessons I've learned: 

Tips for swapping success

1. Take care with your listing

Once you've joined an online home-exchange service, craft a listing that will give other members a positive and complete idea about yourself, your home and your neighborhood. More information is better. Photograph your home (I won't consider getting in touch with people who don't post photos), but before you get out the camera, put away the pile of shoes sitting by the front door and empty the sink of dirty dishes. Be honest about what you are offering - misrepresenting your home by exaggerating its square footage or proximity to area attractions may lead to bad feelings.

2. Trust in the process and your instincts

I am, by nature, a fearful and suspicious person, yet I've become completely comfortable welcoming strangers into my home while I'm away. This is because by the time our exchange occurs we are not really strangers, having built a sense of mutual trust during a series of e-mails and phone calls. Every so often, someone will get in touch, and after a little back-and-forth, the match just doesn't feel right. When this happens, I say thanks but no thanks before any commitment has been made. But, by and large, exchanging homes with a variety of generous and helpful people has bolstered my faith in humanity.

3. Take the initiative

Don't just sit back and wait for offers. Decide where you want to go, and start sending friendly and persuasive messages to owners of nice homes in interesting places. I've just accepted an exchange offer from an interior decorator in San Francisco, but until this year, I've initiated every one of my home exchanges, and felt like I've gotten just what I was looking for each time.

4. Draw up a contract has a sample home and auto exchange agreement that I've used with exchange partners for the past few years, customizing it so that it spells out our responsibilities while we're staying in each others' homes. It is useful for setting up expectations about phone and utility bills, repairs and damages, plant care, arrangements for keys, making room in drawers and closets, replenishment of pantry staples and paper goods, use of pool, gym, boat, or other extras, maximum mileage to be put on cars, changing the linens at the end of the swap and any other details you want spelled out.

5. Address insurance issues

Your homeowners' insurance should cover you while you have guests in your house, but it is a good idea to check before you go. Get in touch with your health-insurance provider for information on coverage while you are away. If you are planning on a car swap, check with your insurance company and obtain copies of your swappers' drivers' licenses and any other documentation your provider requires (our British swappers needed to get AAA international licenses to drive our car; their insurance company wouldn't cover us, so we asked them to provide us with Underground passes in exchange).

6. Put together a house book

This took some time, but I only had to do it once, with yearly updates. The first part includes information on my house - where I keep the extra paper towels and detergent, hints about air-conditioning settings, the quirks of our TV remote. The second part deals with home maintenance, including our burglar alarm code, lawn service schedule, emergency phone numbers I hope no one will need: police and fire, plumber, electrician, doctor, dentist, etc. Finally, the fun stuff: Restaurants, tennis courts, bike rentals, beach details. I also leave a file of newspaper clippings and fliers with information on happenings around town, as well as a taste of something local: cookies I've baked or a bottle of wine from a nearby winery.

7. Get your house in order

To prepare for our first swap after our house was newly renovated, I simply made space in my closets and drawers and cleaned the refrigerator. But as the years have passed, I've taken the time before an exchange to re-grout the shower, donate 50 dusty stuffed animals to a day care center, fix loose floorboards. I also pack away anything I don't want my swappers to use, stowing silver in the bank vault - not because I'm afraid it will be stolen but to prevent one of my mom's teaspoons from winding up in the trash.

8. Make professional house cleaning a part of your exchange agreement

One of the most helpful families we swapped with was also the least concerned with vacuuming up the sand they had left on our floors. The next year I saved myself some annoyance by arranging for my house cleaner to continue to come while I was away, scheduling a visit on the day I was due back in Sag Harbor. I also asked our swappers this time around if they could manage a similar housecleaning arrangement on their end, so I didn't have to spend the last day of my trip scrubbing my vacation home.

Resources for home swappers

An online search turns up a dozen house-swapping websites. I have used the following two with great success:

For a fee of $44.94 a year, you can list your home and post as many photos as you like. Use the site's search tools to find a home that fits your specifications (three bedrooms, smoke-free). There's also a reverse search feature, to locate members who want to visit Long Island. Your e-mail address and other personal information are not visible in e-mail messages you send through the service. A personalized account page lets you save interesting listings and track who has contacted you and who you have contacted.

More expensive than Digsville (a yearlong membership costs $119.40), it offers everything that Digsville does, but with more home listings (Digsville lists 87 homes in Vancouver, while Homeexchange has 292). I prefer Homeexchange's page setup, which allows for chatty descriptions of home, neighborhood, "about us." Another nice feature: You can sign up to get e-mail notifications of new listings in places where you want to travel. - Lauren Chattman

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