Travel

See the World With a House Sit or Exchange

Cutting your lodging costs can stretch your travel dollar.

Retirees Pat Lee and her husband, JD, love visiting new places for extended periods. In the past 22 years, to stretch their travel budget and see the world, they have swapped their Mesa, Ariz., house with homeowners in 21 locales, ranging from Santa Barbara, Cal., to Perth, Australia. Last summer, they exchanged homes with a French couple with homes in Burgundy, Cannes and Corsica, and they stayed at all of them.

See Our Slide Show: 9 Amazing House Swaps

The Lees—Pat, 69, is a retired teacher and JD, 71, is retired from the construction business—say they have never had a bad house swap, on either end of the exchange. Typically, they exchange homes for three to four weeks, but the Perth swap was for two months. "It's not a tourist experience—it's more of an immersion," Pat says. "We literally step into the lives of other people, and we've made some lifelong friends."

For example, the Lees have stayed in touch with a few of the families they have swapped homes with over the years. They became so close to one German family that the daughter moved in with the Lees at age 17 to finish high school in Mesa.

For retirees with flexible schedules, house swapping can be an attractive option. "Retirees meet every target requirement: They own houses, they like to save money, and they have time to travel," says Ed Kushins, founder of HomeExchange (www.homeexchange.com; $120 a year). More than 40% of swappers on Kushins' site are 55 and older, he says. A recent survey of 46,000 members of the site found that house swappers tend to travel several times a year on limited budgets, and look to make a trip an "authentic experience" in which they immerse themselves in a different culture.

About 60% of users of Homelink USA (www.homelink.org) are 55 and older, says co-owner Katie Costabel. Homelink has 14,000 members in 80 countries and costs $89 a year to join. Intervac (www.intervac-homeexchange.com) has 30,000 members in 49 countries, costs $100 a year to join and has more listings in Europe than in the U.S., which is an advantage for Americans seeking a European swap.

The Web sites enable users to view photos of homes and exchange information through e-mails before they decide on a swap. Depending on the site, you can narrow your search by target destination, preferred dates of travel, home type (such as apartment, houseboat or chalet) and amenities (from pool to wheelchair accessibility).

The most common type of home exchange is simultaneous: You stay in an exchange partner's primary residence while the partner stays at your house. Or you can stay at a swapper's vacation home, which is a non-simultaneous swap. In this case, home swappers don't need to coordinate travel dates.

Costabel says that trust is the fundamental element of house swapping. The exchange sites do not vet homeowners or collect security deposits for potential damage. About a third of swappers include their cars in the deal. "We've stood the test of time, and there has never been intentional theft or vandalism," she says.

Lauren Kahn, 66, a retired lawyer who lives in McLean, Va., has engaged in 53 home exchanges. "The benefit of being able to do laundry and bring less is top of the list," Kahn says. She says she has been able to see many places she would never have visited if she had to pay for accommodations, such as Nova Scotia, Canada, and Helsinki, Finland. Even when the homes aren't perfect, Kahn says, "you will still, after all, be in a new place with plenty to explore."

Experienced house swappers offer the following advice before agreeing to a swap.

Plan ahead. To increase your chances of getting your first-choice location, start your search three to nine months ahead of your expected travel date, and be flexible about dates. JD Lee says he and Pat started a year in advance for each of their three swaps to different cities in Australia. "Sydney and Perth had killer views, absolutely magnificent. The home in Brisbane was five minutes from the beach, and we went almost every day," Pat says.

Check references. Before you take a swap, call others who have stayed there. Photos can be staged, and not everyone has the same standards of cleanliness, for example. Kahn says she stayed in a "filthy" house in Bavaria, Germany, and one swap in Sydney, Australia, had dead flies in the Jacuzzi. She cautions to "be prepared for a mix of experiences. But even the lousy homes give you an opportunity to go further and have new experiences for less."

Be flexible on destination. If you live in New York City or London, or another highly sought-after location, you will get more offers to swap homes than if you live in a rural area. Thus, it is a good idea to be open to swaps from people who want your home, even if that destination isn't at the top of your wish list. For summer travel, Americans often "fixate" on Provence and Tuscany, Kahn says. "In 24 years, I have never had an offer from Provence or Tuscany," she says. "If you get too unrealistic, you will end up with nothing. Take what you get and be glad of it."

Put it in writing. Some Web sites, such as HomeExchange.com, post a sample letter of understanding, which is not legally binding but can help both parties avoid misunderstandings. The letter should include information on host and emergency contacts, dates of arrival and departure, names of lodgers, access to the house, and off-limit areas on the property. It also sets out who pays for utilities, phone calls and cleaning services.

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Check car insurance. Ask in advance whether your coverage includes foreign guests who are staying in your home when you are away. And spell out to the guest acceptable use—is the car only for local driving, or can it be used for a 300-mile sightseeing trip?

Protect your valuables. Lock jewelry, private documents, computers, heirlooms or other valuables in a closet or room that is off-limits or move certain items to a safety deposit box.

Trust your instincts. It's a big leap of faith to let a stranger use your home for weeks or months. In choosing a swap partner, Pat Lee says, "watch carefully for what they say in their e-mails, and how prompt and transparent they are about answering questions." While the Lees' insurance policies cover their car and home while exchangers are using them, they have never had to make a claim.

House Sitting as an Alternative

Perhaps you don't like the idea of strangers living in your house, yet you still want to explore a place for weeks or months without paying for a hotel. Consider a position as a caretaker, also called a house sitter, which allows you to stay in someone else's home for free in return for providing a small service, such as caring for a pet. Some caretaker positions offer a stipend.

The most comprehensive listing of caretaker positions is published by The Caretaker Gazette (www.caretaker.org), which has 10,000 subscribers. The newsletter is published every two months (you can get it by mail for $35 a year or online for $30), and 200 e-mail updates with new listings also are sent to subscribers.

Caretaking could offer more exotic surroundings than typical tourist fare. A recent Gazette advertised a salaried position for a couple to maintain a private lodge in the wilderness of southwest Alaska—some experience with small motors and cutting firewood is helpful. Another gig: three months in Sedona, Ariz., looking after three cats and a garden. Does a five-week house sit in Belize, on a property bordered by rain forests, sound appealing? You must be willing to care for a cat, six dogs and fish tanks, and water young plants.

Retirees are a desirable demographic. "We see reverse age discrimination," says Gazette publisher Gary Dunn. "Many homeowners prefer a mature couple, who have been homeowners, and know what to do if a pipe bursts."

Responsibilities vary from professional property manager to pet care. Some duties, such as maintaining a swimming pool or turning on lawn sprinklers, don't require any special training.

Many retirees use house sitting to check out an area before moving there permanently. As with home exchanges, check references and draw up a written agreement before taking an assignment. Both parties should sign the document, which lays out responsibilities, start and end dates, and emergency contacts. Some homeowners request weekly e-mail updates from house-sitters.

For Cynthia Olsen, 70, of Eagle, Colo., house-sitting has offered accommodations not available at a typical hotel. For three weeks in San Clemente, Cal., she lived in a beautiful house with a private patio and a fountain in exchange for taking care of a cat. Another time, she stayed for a month in Santa Fe, N.M., in an adobe compound, near mountain hiking trails, while watching two cats. "It can be a grand adventure," Olsen says.

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