Home away from home

John Mensinger (front), with his family and the French family they exchange with in Paris.
John Mensinger (front), with his family and the French family they exchange with in Paris.
Brian Cross at Frisby-on-the-Wreak, Leicestershire.
Brian Cross at Frisby-on-the-Wreak, Leicestershire.

Fancy a week in London, a fortnight on the Italian Rivera, a sojourn in Paris?

In these fiscally tight times, swapping your pad for someone else's has become the way to go for a lot of travellers.

According to the company, HomeExchange.com, one of the biggest global house-swapping companies, New Zealand is one of the most-searched destinations by its members living in the likes of Australia, Sweden, Italy and Indonesia.

But this house-swapping lark is no new fad. International house-swap company HomeLink has been around since the 1950s, says its New Zealand director John Martin. In 1953 American high-school teacher David Ostroff began organising home swaps for teachers during spring break. At around the same time in the UK, Jan Ryder was offering a similar concept primarily to members in the armed forces - her husband was an RAF officer.

Within a short time Ostroff and Ryder's paths crossed and they decided to collaborate by pooling their resources to lay the foundation for what would become HomeLink International.

In the early days exchanges would be arranged by snail mail but today there are loads of websites dedicated to the pursuit of holidays without the expense of accommodation.

John Martin and his wife Valerie themselves have done more than 40 exchanges and on a recent nine-week jaunt to Europe they reckon they saved about $18,000 on what they would have forked out on B&B accommodation and rental cars. Cars and even pets can come with the deal if you have a like-minded swapee willing to pet-sit.

Martin, who is getting ready for yet another exchange trip - this time to Paris, Provence, London and the Cotswolds - says HomeLink has 14,000 members across 27 countries. Membership in New Zealand has grown from 85 in 2000 to 450 in 2014.

The process of swapping homes seems relatively easy - join up with a home-swap agency, find another person or family from a country you want to visit to swap with you at a mutually agreed time and bingo, you have free accommodation often with added benefits of the family car, toys for the kids and sometimes even a fridge full of food.

You can swap homes simultaneously or non-simultaneously, where you stay in your exchange partner's home on one date and they stay at your home at another time. Typically, this is arranged by two members with second homes or members who will be away and their home is open.

The main reason people choose to house swap is to save money but they are also after the different travelling experience, Martin says. The most common international "swappers" in New Zealand are the Brits, closely followed by Canadians and North Americans.

Demand outweighs supply in New Zealand with more than 600 house-swappers wanting to come to New Zealand.

Most exchanges are between two to three weeks to several months - though he knows of one man who swapped house for a year with someone in the UK. Exchangers can be families, couples, singles but most are middle-aged or retirees.

Martin can't recall any real horror stories, though he did expel one member for leaving his Auckland house "like a tip".

HomeExchangeUniversity - a website offering information to people interested in house swapping - does have some horror stories. The website's operator and self-titled home exchange guru, John Mensinger, says he has heard of problems ranging from computer data being lost, dirty homes, and an agreed swap cancelled at the last minute.

On his previous website HomeExchangeGuru, swappers on a forum told of broken appliances, and returning home to find glassware broken, plates, cups chipped, dirty pots and damaged bicycles and cars.

One member heard from a neighbour that their home exchange guests were having a big party and disturbing the neighbourhood.

Mensinger, from Modesto, California, has swapped his home 19 times, and says before you go down the home-exchange route, you need to understand the nature of the house-swapping concept and be prepared to put a bit of effort in to making yours a successful swap.

"There are great rewards - it's cost-effective, you have your home comforts, cultural immersion and new friendships - but it requires time: time to prepare your house, time to find a good swap, time to verify that your good swap is good."

There will be problems that come up and though they tend to be minor compared to the benefits, you need to keep this in mind, he says.

"We had the car air conditioning fail in the South of France during the summer. That was annoying for a few days. On our most recent swap, the family accidentally took our second set of car keys back home. They took six months to mail them back. One family fed a tiny stray kitten that presented himself at our doorstep. This damnable feline has been a member of our family ever since."

Home exchanges are becoming more popular each year, Mensinger says. The internet makes it easier to find a swap and research it carefully. Indeed, HomeExchange.com had more than 107,000 exchanges in 2013. In 2014 they expect 130,000, 17 per cent up on 2013. Of more than 50,000 members, 350 are from New Zealand.

HomeExchange founder Ed Kushins says there are almost 1000 members located all over the world who have specifically stated they are interested in exchanging to New Zealand. But many of their members are open to offers from all over the globe, he says. "Thanks to the rise of the Collaborative Consumption movement, people are experiencing the world in ways they never have before."

Stephanie Georgalli runs Kiwi House Swap - a home exchange that focuses on the local market. Since starting up in mid-2013, it now has 300 members and has just branched into the international market.

Georgalli moved from an affluent lifestyle in Auckland to rural Wanaka with her husband and three children. In these fiscally tough times and with a growing family there was no longer the money for holidays. House-swapping was an affordable way to get away but there were no sites dedicated to national swaps.

"I saw a gap in the market and found a lot of people wanted to holiday at home but still found it expensive. Swapping homes was a cheap and fantastic option."

Georgalli has done several swaps herself, including her car and dog in the exchange.

Swappers do not necessarily need to own their own home to be a member, she says. Georgalli, whose family is currently renting, says you just need the blessing of your landlord to green light a swap.

Home-swapping tips

- Let your insurer know you are swapping homes and adjust your cover if necessary. In particular, make sure your car insurance is covered if you are including it in the swap.

- Get to know your fellow swapper. Exchange emails, Skype, communicate well in advance of the swap so you know who is coming to your home.

- Leave important information like where the electricity switch is and when the rubbish should be put out. Local knowledge about shops and tourist sites is also helpful.

- Put away any precious items if you feel uncomfortable leaving them out. Agree who pays the bills on longer-term swaps.

- Be honest about what you're offering. Offer as much detail as you can and ask the same of the person you're swapping with. Use Google Streetview to walk their neighbourhood. Use other maps to get a sense of the neighbourhood and region. You might also want to google the folks you're swapping with.

Sunday Star Times