House-swapping, the easier way to holiday

In these times of financial challenge, one way to enjoy an affordable holiday at home or overseas is to house-swap.

House swaps or home exchanges have been around for a long time. How you do it couldn't be simpler. House swappers decide where and when they'd like to go, check into their swap agency, look at a list of homes available, find something they fancy and then contact the owners direct to organise a possible swap. It could be a direct swap, with two sets of strangers moving into each other's homes at the same time, a non-simultaneous swap on mutually agreed but different dates, or even a "hospitality" swap in which one household plays resident host to the occupants of another.
In most cases, house swappers simply turn up at the destination, collect the house or apartment keys from a neighbour and take over the home and often the family car for the agreed period. It costs nothing to organise apart from usually minimal agency membership fees, it lands the swapper in the heart of a local culture with a functioning household base and perhaps independent transport and, most importantly, it can save the swapper thousands of dollars in hotel and restaurant bills.
1. Get to know your exchange partner and their home through email, phone calls and photographs. Ask lots of questions, especially about pets, children and allergies.
2. Ask for references - personal and business.
3. Clearly state "house rules" and what is off limits (such as locked rooms or closets, CDs that you value).
4. Discuss with your exchange partner, in advance, the consequences in the event of breakage or damage. Most people will agree to replace or pay for the broken item.
5. Establish do's and don'ts. Be sure to clarify who is expected to pay how much in terms of utility bills, the use of kitchen staples and bathroom items and computer usage.
6. Get confirmation. Before you make any travel plans, be sure to finalise the date and details with your swap partner.
7. Inform your nearest, trusted neighbour of your plans. They can keep an eye on your property and lend a hand if needed.
8. Remove from the house items of extreme value.
9. Leave a guide and instructions. Provide the phone number of a friendly contact to assist in an emergency, numbers for doctors and dentists, instructions for pet and plant care and info about appliances, locks, or anything else that may need explaining. Compile the guide in a notebook or binder and leave it somewhere prominent so your guests will find it on arrival.
10. Treat the house of your host as if it were your own. Remember, they're in your home as well. Always leave the house in the same condition you found it.*
HomeLink says the international company was established in 1953, the Australian arm in 1980. It claims to be the world's first and biggest agency, with members in 60 countries and extensive local back-up. Annual membership: $AUD250.
HomeExchange is a California-based agency established in 1992. The company claims 17,000 listings worldwide. Well-presented site, but listings details are limited for non-members. Annual membership: $US99.95; two years is $US140.
International Home Exchange Network is a US-based agency for home exchange and rentals in some 50 countries. Established 1995, it has limited information about exchanges, but non-member browsers can respond to listings. Annual membership: $US39.95.
Website: www.ihen.com
Aussie House Swap deals only with swaps in Australia and New Zealand. Listings are well-presented, with detailed property information, but contact details available only to members. Annual membership: $AUD48.

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