Even with the beaten-down travel industry spilling out deals on airfares like candy from a busted piñata, vacation planning nowadays often ends with, "It still costs too much." But suppose you could stay free in a vacation home? Those sweet deals might look a little more tempting.
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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 jumped to 26,000 in January, up from 20,000 a year earlier. "The word's getting out that exchanging homes is really a recession-beater," says HomeExchange president Ed Kushins.
The savings can be dramatic. Real estate agent Lori Koppel-Heath made her first swap ten years ago, when she was living in Coto de Caza, Cal. Lori and her husband, Michael, a stockbroker and financial planner, were looking for a stay in Great 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 town 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. "It just looked like a fairy tale," says Lori.
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.
However, it's a common practice to trade down in house size if you're looking to visit popular destinations -- such as London, Paris, New York City and Hawaii. When Lori and Michael visited Scotland for their second swap, in 2000, the St. Andrews house they stayed in wasn't as big as their own 4,500-square-foot home. But it was in a fine location for the British Open that year. "A fair swap is one that both parties are comfortable with," says Lori.
Mary Lang has also happily downsized a bit in her exchanges. Swapping out her four-bedroom lakefront home in Cazenovia, N.Y., about a half-hour from Syracuse, Lang has settled in smaller, three-bedroom homes throughout Europe, including just outside London and Paris. The cozier quarters provided plenty of space for Mary and her husband, Vaughn, a real estate lawyer, and their two sons. "A small house is still much more spacious than the alternative -- a hotel room," she says.
And, again, the savings can be impressive. Mary, who recently retired as a professor at Syracuse University, estimates the family saved "easily $10,000" on each month-long vacation. Over the past four years, the Langs exchanged homes seven times.
You don't need to live in a palace of your own to arrange an attractive swap. Serial swappers Sam and Judy Robbins, who hail from Washington, D.C., get all kinds of offers for a stay in their 1,300-square-foot condominium. Members of three swapping networks, the Robbinses consistently get about one inquiry per week. Trading for apartments and houses all over the world, Sam and Judy have swapped abodes about 40 times since 1995.
Throwing in extras can enhance the appeal of your home. The Robbinses, for instance, are able to offer a car and their second home, a restored 1840s log cabin on a 300-acre tree farm in Lexington, Va. The whole package makes for an exchange worthy of a larger home with a pool or garden.
Highlighting the best features of your home and neighborhood can sometimes secure surprising swaps. "Our friends ask us, 'Who the heck wants to come to Syracuse, especially from Paris or London?'" says Lang. "But if you have a family and you're looking for a wholesome vacation, this is a quiet and charming spot."
In addition to offering a spacious, architect-designed house on the shore of the 6-mile-long lake around which the peaceful country town was built, the Langs include use of the family's pontoon boat in their exchanges.