The growing popularity of exchanging homes for vacations in other countries can lead to unforgettable moments. A couple from the United States, for instance, trading their home for two weeks in a Peruvian one, heard a knock on the door their first morning in Peru.
A small boy stood there holding a box. Thinking the boy wanted to sell something, the couple said, "No, we don't want anything." But the boy proceeded to uncover the box holding several mice, and matter-of-factly said, "I'm here to feed the boa constrictor in the basement."
"Always get as much detail as you can about a home," says a laughing Bill Barbour, co-author with his wife, Mary, of "Home Exchange Vacationing: Your Guide to Free Accommodations (Rutledge Hill Press) "Get an itemized description of what is in the house."
The snake incident is hardly typical. More than 200,000 families and individuals from around the world are estimated to have enjoyed home exchanging last year. "The people who publish the directories say the number of exchanges has been growing about 20 percent a year since around 1983," Mr. Barbour says.
Many people like the idea of staying in wonderful places - Paris, London, Venice, Stockholm, the Caribbean - for much lower cost while their homes in San Francisco, New York, Miami, Hawaii, or Cape Cod are exchanged for the same reason.
Only for easygoing types
But a home vacation exchange isn't for everybody. "The common thread among people and families who do this is that they are very easygoing," says Karl Costabel, owner of the US office of Homelink International, one of the two major home-exchange services in the world.
Snakes don't throw these people. Exchanging their cars, too, is not usually a problem, nor is sleeping in someone else's house and trusting your house will be the same when you return home.
Home exchangers welcome the differences in cultures and scenery. Less vacation structure means more serendipity and making international friends.
"Some people ask me about home exchange, 'Aren't you worried about your stuff?,' " says Carol Glatstein of Coconut Grove, Fla., whose family has exchanged its home many times, "and then other people say, 'What a great idea.' People fall into these two categories. If I can feel comfortable going into your home and assume responsibility for it, I can presume you are the same kind of trustworthy person. If not, I know where to find you."
Exchanging homes for vacations has its origins centuries ago before hotels. Some travel experts say that in the 16th century, ambassadors to France traded residences with their counterparts from the French court.
In the 1950s and '60s, according to Barbour, several organizations modestly revived the exchange idea by publishing annual directories for a listing fee. HomeLink started in the US as a home-exchange service for college professors in l952.
INTERVAC, a leading exchange organization in Europe and internationally, was also launched in 1953 by teachers wanting to travel economically to other countries. Currently the organization operates in 32 countries including the US, and publishes a 450-page directory four times a year.
Listing home-exchange possibilities on the Internet is increasing by homeowners, and newer organizations offer some listings including farm exchanges.
Two years ago in Boston, John Deters, a former INTERVAC user, started Internet Home Exchange with some 700 international listings. For $39 a year, your home is listed and you receive confidential access to e-mail, phone numbers, and addresses of the other listees. "The advantage is that access is instantaneous," says Mr. Deters, "and with no huge directories coming in the mail."
On HomeLink the fee for listing a home in a directory is $83 for two years. "This summer we will put our listing of about 15,000 homes on the Internet for members only," Mr. Costabel says.
Generally the steps to follow when considering a home exchange begin with listing your home with a listing organization including a photo; detailed description of your home (number of bedrooms, baths, kitchen accessories); if your car is available (make sure your insurance covers a non-family driver); and access to local attractions, events, and scenery. Include care of your pets, and restrictions such as no smoking in the house, and how to use the air conditioner.
"Over the years I've worked up a very detailed portfolio of information about our house," says Mrs. Glatstein, "how the washing machine works, telephone numbers, restaurants, anything that would be needed. And I leave fresh orange juice in the refrigerator as a welcoming gift."
Along with descriptions, you list your vacation choices - the south of France, London, Stockholm, Vail - and the time of year you want to be there.
Making the match
Once contact is made, letters, e-mail, and photos flow back and forth to establish rapport and understanding to minimize big surprises. Little surprises can be expected. Usually the match is made between people who are at about the same professional and income level, or have children of similar ages.
Lawyer James Ryan, and his wife, from the Boston area, worked out an exchange for a home in Lucerne, Switzerland. "The house wasn't all that great," he says, "in fact it was a little barren, but it was such a great location that we didn't want to complain."
According to exchangers, it is extremely rare that major problems, such as theft or home abuse, occur in the exchange. The worst that can happen is that your exchanger pulls out at the last minute, leaving you with plane reservations to somewhere with no place to stay. Again, such 11th- hour bad news seldom happens.
The Barbours have participated in about 80 exchanges. "We now have an extended family from around the world," says Mrs. Barbour. "We know so many people in England that when we go there we don't have the chance to do much else but visit."
Glatstein's exchange experiences have all been positive. "They have restored our faith in mankind. We have met some of the nicest, warmest, most gracious people, and have had wonderful adventures."
Home Exchange Organizations
P.O. Box 650
Key West, FL 33041
(415) 435-3497 (US)
INTERVAC International Headquarters
Box 12066, S-291
12 Kristianstad, Sweden
Reseau International d'echange de Foyers
Creux de Corsy 55
1093 La Conversion