Is a home swap holiday for you?
A growing number of New Zealanders are saving thousands on their holidays, or taking trips they simply might not otherwise be able to afford, by swapping their homes with people overseas.
Jim Pickell, chief operating officer of HomeExchange.com, which has facilitated more than a million home exchanges worldwide since 1992, says boosting its number of New Zealand listings has become a top priority because they are the most searched for, proportionally, by its 50,000 worldwide members.
"New Zealand is top of the charts."
The country's supply of listings is on the way up. "It's an area where we hadn't historically focussed on growing our inventory and we now are," Pickell says. "In the first three months of 2014 we have had more New Zealand members join than in either of the previous two years."
The high demand for New Zealand homes-for-exchange means Kiwi home-owners should have little difficulty teeing-up swaps.
Christchurch supermarket office worker Linda Rollinson, 51, admits she was pretty scared when she handed over her house and car keys in her first exchange in 2006.
"We had three boys and we wanted to take them to visit all their relatives in Perth and I knew we'd never be able to go over there for three weeks if we had to pay for accommodation and to rent cars as well."
But since then she has exchanged homes another 14 times without experiencing a hitch.
"We have done five in Australia and 10 in New Zealand."
The Rollinsons now have a house swap in Tasmania and another two domestic exchanges in the wings and are negotiating a swap in Phoenix, Arizona in 2016.
"They are better quality holidays than we used to have. We used to just have 10 nights in a rental place somewhere in the South Island; somewhere we could drive to.
"The most interesting thing for us is the ability for others to ask us if we want to swap. That way you can end up swapping with out-of-the-way places that you would never have thought of otherwise."
Leo Abbott, a retired financial consultant in Auckland, spent a whole year travelling Europe through back-to-back house swaps. Only one, in Scotland, fell through, but with enough warning to prevent that being a major issue.
Abbott admits the trip was a logistical challenge and says European swaps are easiest to arrange in spring and autumn. But he says it is not as hard as might be imagined to exchange a house in the New Zealand winter for a northern hemisphere summer as the primary reason many Europeans come to New Zealand is to visit family. But you can't always expect "like for like", for example if you are looking to stay in the centre of Paris, he says.
Security concerns might be top of mind for many. But Rollinson said swaps were usually preceded by email exchanges and Skype calls. Often they met the people they were swapping with either as they were leaving their house or when they arrived at their exchange home.
"Sometimes it works out we can meet for a decent length of time and have a coffee or a chat at the airport. Often the people who want to swap are older retired people."
Pickell says people frequently "Google" their house swappers to find out more about them or use LinkedIn to check their background.
"Often you find you know someone, who knows someone, who knows the person. The world is becoming a much smaller place."
He admits his wife was a little nervous about their first home swap before she found out the exchange partner was head of the economics department at Paris' prestigious Sorbonne university.
"While we were talking to him on the phone we were searching his name and saw it pop up on the university's website and she was immediately very comfortable.
"The integrity and generosity of our community was one of my biggest surprises when I joined the company 18 months ago. I'm not saying there are never cancellations but people really do try to fulfil their end of the bargain."
The flipside is that home exchanges can be time-consuming to negotiate and prepare for.
Rollinson says she does an "overkill spring clean" before a swap. "But that's a good thing and without the house swaps we probably wouldn't get around to doing it quite so enthusiastically.
"Any little jobs you need to do, you do, so you do keep your house a bit tidier and fix dripping taps and they all do the same on the other end too."
Her advice to first-timers is that it's all pretty simple. "Initially we used to over-think things, like where to leave the car and how to get the keys to them.
"You leave each other a wee pressie, like a bottle of wine. It's all quite civilised."
Abbott advises people to leave their home "as a home".
"Leave your photos up and your bits and pieces around. If people come in and see a home, they treat it as a home. We did find one exchange that was a bit like walking into a motel unit with 'four of this' and 'four of that'."
The benefits can extend beyond the cost-savings and potentially having someone to feed your cat while you are on holiday. Enduring friendships can sometimes be made. Abbott says he is still in touch with people he exchanged homes with in France and Malta.
Pickell claims there can be a broader societal element to home exchanges which he sees as part of a wider move towards a "sharing economy".
"There has been more attention given to how people can utilise under-performing assets and the home is the biggest one that each of us own.
"The reason a lot of people use HomeExchange is they are trying to get beyond the primary tourism destinations and really experience what it is like to live like a local somewhere that is not necessarily in a guide book."
It's fun and free to browse properties on sites like HomeExchange and HomeforExchange. But you will need to pay for membership (about $140 and $77 a year respectively) to get in touch with their owners and to list a property.
HOUSE SWAP FROM HELL
A home swap between families in Britain and Australia went awry last Christmas after English mother Andrea Moczarski arrived at their exchange home in the dark and stepped in a pile of poo left by an untended dog.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the exchange spiralled downhill from there into accusations of uncleanliness, threats, insults and eventually calls to the police.
An earlier agreement to swap cars did not work out because the Australians couldn't get British insurance. Moczarski contacted her Australians counterparts for advice after the vacuum cleaner broke, but the Australians were so offended at the suggestion their house was unclean they left the British home in protest.
When the Moczarskis returned "home" from church they were met by a relative of the Australians who told them to vacate, prompting the call to police.
The swap was organised through a reputable home exchange service, HomeForExchange.com.
Pickell says issues are incredibly rare. "In the 20-year history of our company there has been nothing along the lines of what was described in that article."
But HomeExchange suggests people discuss their plans to exchange homes and cars with their insurer, he says. "We find the vast majority do cover exchanges because it is really no different than having your sister come and house-sit for you while you are travelling."
It is "common sense" to put valuables away and guests usually appreciate having a friend or relative stop by to see how they are doing, he says.
Steve Jordan, an underwriter with insurance giant IAG, which owns the State Insurance, NZI and AMI brands, said it would expect homeowners to advise it about any change in occupancy that occurred while they are away. "This is regardless of whether they are doing a home swap or getting friends to house sit.
"Depending on the circumstances, there may be a change in the terms applied at this time, for example, an increased excess or excluding unexplained disappearances or theft following unforced entry," he said.
HomeExchange also provides sample agreements that members can use to formalise the "ground rules" for their swap, though he estimates only about one in five sign an agreement.