How to avoid house swap horrors

HOUSE SWAP: For many people house swapping a means of affording or extending a holiday. For others it's about living like a local.
HOUSE SWAP: For many people house swapping a means of affording or extending a holiday. For others it's about living like a local.

It's a romantic idea, temporarily swapping your home for an apartment in New York City or a cottage in the south of France.

For many people it is a means of affording or extending a holiday, while for others it is about trying to live like a local rather than a tourist.

But it does mean letting complete strangers into your home, which takes a bit of trust - and is not without risk.

A global survey of members of the home-swapping site was carried out by Italy's University of Bergamo and drew 7000 responses.

On a global basis, six out of ten home swappers are "highly educated", three-quarters prefer organic food and about half travel with children.

The good and the ugly

British couple Scott and Susie Auty used home exchanges as way of testing out different parts of Australia and New Zealand before settling permanently in Australia.

Their first three swaps took them to a family home at Maleny in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, a large house in an upmarket suburb of Auckland and a house in suburban Adelaide.

In most cases they also swapped vehicles, although one owner declined to do so and they had to hire a car to get around.

In all three cases, the people they swapped with looked after the Autys' house in Britain with great care; one family to the extent that they did some repairs while they were there.

The good luck came to an end on the fourth swap, which landed the Autys in a filthy, flea-ridden house in Wellington - while their own house was getting the same treatment.

"Our house was a complete mess after nine weeks," says Scott Auty.

"My mum and dad spent two days cleaning it up for us before we came back; they (the home swappers) hadn't even cleaned away their breakfast dishes, they'd just left them congealing on the sink.

"We had to get the house in Wellington flea-bombed and it was so bad we considered just continuing on with our travels, although we did end up staying there."

With the benefit of hindsight, Auty says they should not have agreed to the Wellington swap.

"I had a bad feeling about it, but it fit in with our timing so we went ahead," he says.

Auty believes the negative experience was far outweighed by the positive ones.

"I'd definitely do it (house swapping) again, I'd just go with my gut feeling," he says.

 Risky business?

I recently discovered that our house and contents insurance would not cover us if we did a house swap or used house sitters to look after our home while we were away.

Our policy clearly states that we are not covered for any theft or damage caused by someone who enters the house with our consent; a potential disaster if we got the wrong person.

A spokesman for the insurer AAMI, Reuben Aitchison, says AAMI does not cover any theft, malicious damage or accidental damage by guests staying in your home.

Aitchison says some policies may cover visitors so long as they are not paying guests but it is vital that people check before entering into any home swapping or house-sitting arrangements.

If you decide to go ahead with house swapping, think not only about valuables but also financial paperwork, passwords and anything else that could be used by someone dishonest.

Put a password on your computer - you can create a guest account for your house swappers - and make sure you change any shared passwords or alarm codes when you return.

Also check your insurance policy if you intend to lend a vehicle to the people using your home and make sure you have an agreement about who pays the excess in the event of an accident.

Have you ever swapped houses with someone? What was your experience? Leave a comment below.

Sydney Morning Herald