A home away from home

You’re watching the sun set from the huge veranda of a house on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

It’s a large, cool and airy home, full of old colonial furniture. There are limes, grapefruits and coconuts to pick in the garden. Beautiful, isolated beaches are just a few steps away.

And the best bit? It’s free. As long as you don’t mind the owners taking a holiday in your home at the same time.

All you need to be a home-swapper is the Internet and a rough idea of when and where you want to go on holiday.

When you find someone whose dates match yours, and who wants to swap to your area, you get ready-made, often swanky accommodation with all facilities included. Cars can be thrown in and you might even get to use the owners’ boat, bikes, pool or gym.

Singles, couples, families and retirees can choose from properties ranging in size from a small one-bedder near the Eiffel Tower to a nut farm in the Australian outback to a houseboat on the River Thames in London.

If you’re flexible, you could be jetting off to Bali, Beijing, Lithuania, the Caribbean, Costa Rica or Cairo, although most home-swappers are still European and American.

Stefan Savva from the home-swapping agency Home Invite blames “cultural barriers” for this.

Europeans are more than happy to entertain at home while Asians, and particularly Chinese, rarely do.

But if you’re determined, the more unusual destinations are there.

The savings are massive: two weeks in a standard double room in San Francisco hotel, plus car hire — £2 000; large, comfortable house in central San Francisco, wood floors, terrace, garden, near to boating/ sailing/surfing, forest/woods, use of car, two bikes, quiet neighbourhood, good public transport: £0, plus flights, of course.

This means more spending money or extended holidays.

Retirees go for months at a time, often doing “multiple swaps”, scheduling them one after the other.

But it’s not just the money.

Lois Sealey, owner-manager of Homebase, was surprised at the luxury of some of the houses on her books when she started in the business.

“People with homes like that could afford to stay in any hotel in the world.” But they don’t. The single most important reason people home-swap is that they feel they’re living as a local,” says Savva.

You’re getting an insider’s perspective.

Pauline Bowles and her husband Billy swapped their home in Devon, south-west England, for one on the tropical island of Nevis.

“When you go, you’re treated as a resident; you live as they live. We went to Nevis eight years ago. When we returned last year, people in the bars remembered us and greeted us like old friends.

“Home-swapping takes you off the tourist trail.”

Swappers get invited round to neighbours’ homes for tea, barbecues and briefings on the local area.

Heather Anderson from Homelink says: “Members tell me time and again those are the memories that stay with them. It’s the cultural experience they love. Then there’s the house itself. You have the character, privacy and comfort of a real home. You can spread out instead of being squashed into one room.”

Shirley and Julie, who swapped their home in Newcastle, northern England, say: “When you have your own place, you can do what you like, when you like and how you like.”

How it works: It’s simple, but you need to be proactive. All searching and contacting can be done online. On many websites, you can do an initial browse to see what’s on offer without even joining.

Once you sign up with an agency, you can access the details of other members. It’s best to search out properties that you fancy, too, and begin to contact the owners. If the dates and destinations fit, it’s game on.

Of course, there are disadvantages. First, a lot of effort goes in to home-swapping. There’s all the communication necessary beforehand.

Swappers will phone and e-mail each other many times before the arrangements are finalised.

Remember that these people are going to be living in your house, sleeping in your bed and using your loo.

Anderson from Homelink explains: “It’s not like booking a package holiday. By the time you do it, you should feel that the people are friends.

“This can mean a lot of time spent on people you don’t even end up swapping with, but it’s worth it for peace of mind.”

As Nevis/Devon swapper Pauline Bowles says: “If you don’t get on with the person on the phone, then that’s the end of it. Don’t do it. I just don’t want them in my home if I don’t like them. You have to pick up quite a rapport with your exchange partner.”

There’s also an element of compromise required on dates and destination — although this can mean that you end up unexpectedly broadening your horizons.

You shouldn’t worry about theft or deliberate trashing of property. Home-swappers and agents alike say it just doesn’t happen.

Rhona Morgan from Intervac explains: “Because you’re taking care of their home and they’ve got yours, it ensures a mutual trust; it really does. They’re as anxious as the person at the other end.”

The worst complaint people have is the difference in standards of cleanliness. Most agencies try to help with any problems and advise that you keep written records, but in the end there is no legal recourse if things do go wrong.

As an employee at Gay Hometrade says: “Home trading is strictly at your own risk.”

If you are the kind of person who is going to worry about other people being in your home and spend your holiday having nightmares about people going through your underwear drawer, then home-swapping probably isn’t for you. — Â

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