Don and Barbara Dennis were the classic definition of “house poor.’’
They had used so much of their money buying a beautiful home on the water in Marblehead in 2004 that they had little left to travel as they used to with their sons. But then the couple realized the house itself was a valuable bargaining chip.
“Our home is in a great location, and it dawned on me that we could swap it for any place in the world,’’ said Don Dennis, an architect.
And so they have. The Dennises have been able to travel around the United States and Europe by swapping homes with other owners in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, Nev., Sweden, and Italy.
“There is a wonderful emotional side to home swapping. You come in contact with people who share your same passion for travel,’’ added Dennis. “You talk so frequently about the upcoming swap, you become friends.’’
With accommodations typically the single most expensive item of any trip, the practice of swapping homes with another vacationer in a desirable location is a tested way for flexible-minded travelers to find a low-cost vacation option. It has also gained in popularity in recent years as the economic downturn convinced more travelers it is worth the work to find a suitable swap, said Helen Coyle Bergstein, founder of digsville.com, which connects its 10,000 members with home-swapping options around the world.
“Culture, comfort, and cost are three of the primary factors that bring people back to home exchange time and time again,’’ said Bergstein. Moreover, she said home exchanges offer a more intimate and realistic picture of the places swappers visit. And they can be more convenient.
“It’s a kitchen when you crave scrambled eggs at 2 a.m. or the convenience of a laundry room when your toddler has gone through three outfits in one day,’’ Bergstein said.
Families with children and empty nesters make up the majority of home exchanges, she added. The most requested destinations tend to be major cities, with beach and golf spots second in line. If you are not in a stunning locale, or your home is not big or beautiful, that does not necessarily mean it will not appeal to a swapper.
“You never know what may appeal to someone else - your home could be interesting to them in a way that you aren’t necessarily able to see,’’ said Keghan Hurst, a spokeswoman for homeexchange.com, which offers members access to thousands of home swaps around the world for an annual fee of about $120.
While swap-specific sites take much of the search work out of a home exchange, swappers should still exhibit the same caution they use checking out a hotel or other rental. Homeexchange.com, for example, suggested subscribers do their own reconnaissance as the site does not check out every listing.
“We encourage people to get to know each other very well before an exchange,’’ Hurst said. “They’ll usually talk on the phone, e-mail, and Skype several times before the exchange.’’
Dennis, now a veteran swapper, said that finding the right match is crucial.
“It’s a gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it,’’ he said. “But most people are more than happy to answer any questions you have, they’ll offer references and send utility bills for proof of residence if you ask for them.’’
Preparing your home for an exchange is pretty simple: Keep the house neat and organized, clean before they arrive, and lock up valuables and personal documents. Some swappers have closets with locks in their homes for the purpose. It is also helpful to prepare your swapper with lists of local attractions, transportation options, stores and favorite restaurants, along with emergency contacts.
On the other side of the swap, treat your host’s home as you would your own. Dennis, the Marblehead home swapper, said the arrangement requires “mutual trust.’’
“Yes, there may be a broken plate or scratch on the floor when you get home,’’ Dennis said. “But any good home swapper will offer to replace or repair it.’’
And the exchanges often produce benefits that last years: friendships with fellow swappers, said Luciana White, who has hosted 19 exchanges at her Jamaica Plain Victorian.
“It frequently seems like we’ve known the people we exchange with forever even though we’ve never met them,’’ said White, who has used the exchanges to travel with her husband across the country and throughout Europe including Paris and Istanbul.
“And sometimes we feel such a connection with the other owners that we arrange to meet. We stay in touch with a lot of couples long after the exchange,’’ she added.
Jaci Conry can be reached at email@example.com.