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Swap Homes for Vacation

Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page M07

You can go to the far reaches of the world -- or just the other coast -- without delving too far into your wallet by trying home swapping. The practice, also known as vacation home exchange, lets two virtual strangers trade spaces for a week or two, or even longer. Popular in Europe since the 1950s, the custom has crossed to this side of the pond, with Intervac, one of the largest home exchange networks, reporting a 40-percent increase in U.S.-based members in the past year. So if you want to live like a local, and can roll with the punches (picky people need not apply), here's how to swap.

THE MATING GAME. Home exchange networks are sort of like online dating sites, offering interested parties a way to meet. Membership varies from free to $75 and up (see resources for details), and most networks let members post pictures and descriptions of their homes as well as browse though listings of abodes to borrow. "Our role is to act as a matchmaker -- we don't screen, but we do monitor for complaints," says Intervac's Jessica Jaffe, who reports that the company receives few gripes about unmet expectations. You also might be able to negotiate swapping cars, phones or even pet care. Be aware that agencies can't promise a perfect trip. Helen Salem, owner of the Only in America agency, says, "Since we are only a liaison, there are no guarantees, and we don't assume responsibility for damages."

Trade ya! Your Swiss Alps chalet for my Capitol Hill townhouse. (Michael Sloan For The Washington Post)

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LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Living in or near a desirable destination (like the nation's capital) has its benefits: When Rich Shea, a retired school principal, and his wife moved to the District six years ago, they posted on Intervac. Within a month, they had more than 30 offers to swap in 15 countries. "When we lived in Oregon, we had to sell the idea of the place, but not with D.C.," Shea says. But destinations that are off the beaten path can still find a match -- many people turn to home exchange to attend weddings, graduations and other events. When Shea lived in Oregon, he negotiated deals in Paris, London and Boston. Whether you have a snug studio or a spacious villa, highlight features of your home that will attract visitors, like the fact that it's walking distance to train stations and major sights. Just don't over-embellish -- residences that have been egregiously misrepresented can be delisted.

PREP WORK. Plan ahead and be flexible about dates, locations and length of stay. "You can find things last minute, but for your ideal destination in your ideal home, give yourself four months lead time," advises Jaffe. Once you've picked a place, make sure it's up to snuff before you sign on the dotted line. "Do due diligence," Jaffe says. "Ask for more photos, ask for details about the neighborhood, and Mapquest the address." Salem recommends discussing everything from computer use to phone bills to the exact number of guests, and getting it all in writing. Leave a list of emergency contacts for your own home -- like a plumber, electrician, neighbor and landlord -- and make sure your home and car insurance (if you're lending your wheels) are in order. Jaffe suggests renters clear the swap with their landlord. Last but not least, lock away valuables and things with special meaning -- fuming over a broken irreplaceable object is a terrible way to end a vacation. Isabel C. Gonzalez

Respite resources:

Digsville Home and Hospitality Exchange Club. 877-795-1019. www.digsville.com. Membership starts at $44.95 for this site, which lists homes in more than 50 countries.

HomeLink International. 800-638-3841. www.swapnow.com. A 12-month Web membership starts at $75 for this network, in business for 50 years.

The Home Exchanger. www.thehomeexchanger.com. A blog about home exchange with stories from Intervac members.

International Home Exchange Network. 386-238-3633. www.ihen.com. For $39.95, you get an annual listing with this service, which started in 1993.

Intervac. 800-756-4663. www.intervacus.com. Membership begins at $68.88 a year. The company has a Web site as well as a printed catalog.

Only in America. 415-383-8125. www.exchangehomesoia.com. Membership is free as this site builds its clientele database. It caters to people with homes in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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