Changing houses by swap

Many families who need to relocate to a new community are encountering serious problems in selling their existing homes.

Selling is a key link in the relocation chain of events since often, a new house cannot be bought until the existing home is sold.

The sluggish home-selling market in many areas is the culprit and can bog down the relocation process. Even with interest rates on home-mortgage loans edging down, it's still tough to convert equity into a large chunk of cash through a home sale.

But there's an alternative. Instead of waiting for that elusive outright sale , homeowners are exchanging their properties.

The Denver area board of realtors, for example, recently had a ''home-for-home exchange'' meeting. Each of the 35 real estate brokers in the room submitted one or more properties that were available for exchange. All properties were single-family houses, not income or investment properties. ''Haves'' and ''wants'' were matched. Preliminary offers were made.

Such a meeting is another indication of the growing trend in exchanging one house for another. In fact, it is sometimes a feasible means of solving home-selling-and-buying problems in one swoop.

Here's an example that illustrates how a home exchange can work:

My wife and I decided to relocate our home base from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Denver. We tried to sell our West Coast house outright, but with no success. Our plans were stymied by a super-slow housing market.

One morning I learned about another couple having a similar problem, but in reverse geographical order. The couple was trying to dispose of property in Denver so as to relocate in Santa Barbara.

Obviously, we began to talk. After discussing and inspecting each other's homes, we agreed on basic prices and terms and drew up an exchange agreement or contract.

The Santa Barbara-bound couple now has a comfortable house in a good area of its chosen new community. We have a similarly nice home in Denver, plus a condominium unit for an investment.

It was simply a matter of balancing equities. Property values are substantially higher in Santa Barbara than in Denver. Thus, the investment condo evened things out.

More often, a second trust deed or mortgage will be carried back by one exchange party in order to balance the equities. Or it could be cash, precious stones, a boat - anything of value that is agreeable to all parties in the exchange.

The most important element in a home-for-home exchange is a match of basic needs and goals of the parties.

While real estate brokers can sometimes be helpful in putting together a home-for-home exchange, some brokers resist this type of transaction because they either do not know much about it or are concerned about the difficulty in generating funds.

Those brokers who are savvy to the advantages of exchanging homes in the current market, however, are becoming increasingly active and proficient in this specialized field. The home-for-home exchange meeting at a board of realtors is a significant indication.

The next step in organizing forces to provide professional assistance for prospective home exchangers is to establish ''home-for-home exchange'' divisions within locals boards of realtors and the National Association of Realtors. Then, inevitably, will come a special educational designation for brokers - HHE (home-for-home exchanger).

Or, depending on who the key organizer may be, the designation might be identified as SHE (savvy home exchanger).

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