Network Helps Second-Home Owners Swap

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Norman and Carlisle Scott own a three-bedroom, two-bath vacation house in Myrtle Beach, S.C. But they are not limited to a single location for their holidays.

In fact, the self-professed "Italy freaks" spent three weeks on the island of Elba last year and are going back for four weeks this year.

Bob and Judy Cowan have a three-bedroom townhouse in Vail, Colo. But the retired couple from Rogers, Ark., hardly use the place anymore. Two years ago, they spent four weeks in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the British West Indies. And last year, they vacationed on Big Pine Key in Florida--all for virtually nothing.

How do they do it? How can they sink big money into second homes and still have the wherewithal to furlough elsewhere?

They're members of VacationLink, a fast-growing 3-year-old exchange service that allows second-home owners to use their vacation homes as collateral to travel the world.

The service, says its founder, E. Wade Shealy, is "a nice marriage of what people really want--a second home with a little diversity."

Exchanging is a proven concept in the time-share business. Indeed, the ability to trade the one or two weeks you own in your favorite retreat for a week or two in another resort hot spot isone of the reasons time sharing is so popular.

But flexibility is not the strong suit of full second-home ownership. Indeed, if there is one drawback to owning a second home--forgetting for a moment the cost and the upkeep--it's that you're pretty much limited to one location for all your respites.

Sure, most people would like to be "stuck" in Hawaii or Sun Valley, and there's nothing in the rules that says you can't vacation anywhere you'd like. But when you've already paid all that money for a place in some distant spot, it's awfully hard for most folks to dig back into their wallets to take the entire family somewhere else for an extended stay.

Enter Shealy, a resort real estate specialist who founded VacationLink in 1996 when he "saw a big void in the marketplace" and decided to fill it.

The commitment to one location that is created by investing in a vacation home "has been a dilemma for second-home buyers for years," he says. "They don't want to share a condo with 50 other people. They want to use their vacation homes any time they want. And they are willing to give up flexibility to get what they want."

Now, though, with VacationLink, an investment in a second home can be a bridge to unlimited vacation homes.

Based in Atlanta, VacationLink works just like time-share exchange services. Owners decide which weeks they're not going to use their homes, and they deposit those intervals with the company.

Then, from a catalog that now lists more than 1,000 properties from Barbados to New Zealand, from Aspen to Hong Kong and from San Francisco to Fiji, they choose a place of similar value to theirs and away they go.

Of course, they could swap homes directly with other owners. An estimated 50,000 families throughout the world trade mostly primary residences with other owners every year.

But finding exact matches--not just the right place but also the exact same time period--is a labor-intensive, time-consuming task.

VacationLink, on the other hand, eliminates most of the work. "That's the beauty of it," says David Batten, a Raleigh, N.C., attorney who exchanged a week at his place on the Outer Banks for a week in a five-bedroom townhouse next to the ski lift in the heart of Aspen, Colo. "You don't have to have a true item-for-item swap."

The exchange network is a remarkably simple, efficient and self-regulating mechanism. But it's not cheap. Annual membership fees range from $195 to $495, depending on which of five value levels your property falls into: under $200,000, $200,000 to $500,000, $500,000 to $1 million, $1 million to $3 million, and $3 million and up.

Members agree to classify their properties accurately. VacationLink reserves the right to reclassify a property if the member under- or overvalues it. The service also maintains the right to terminate members who don't represent the quality of their property fairly.

But Shealy, who spent 11 years on Hilton Head Island, S.C., hasn't had to do much of that yet. "Everybody's been pretty honest," he says. "They know that sooner or later, we're going to find out if they fudged."

The Scotts certainly haven't had any problems with the places they've stayed at, and neither have the Cowans.

"In every case," says Norman Scott, "the homes were as nice or nicer than ours." Adds Judy Cowan, "Our home in Vail was nothing like the one in the [Turks and Caicos] Islands; our place is nice, but theirs was wonderful."

When you join the network, you are asked to list the dates your property is available for exchange. Then, for every week that your place is used by another member, you receive a credit to use another member's place for a week. Members can use up to two weeks in advance, but after that, they have to wait until another member uses their place.

Each time you use a credit, you pay an exchange fee equal to your annual dues. But that's still much less expensive than renting similar accommodations. Batten, the Raleigh attorney, says the ski-in, ski-out place he had in Aspen would have rented for $6,000.

Exchanges are straight-up: one week at your place for one week in someone else's place at the same price level, two weeks for two weeks and so on. You can trade up to a higher level by giving up two weeks at your place for one week in theirs. But you can move up only one level.

Owners are required to be certain that the appliances are in working order, the utilities are turned on and the insurance is paid.

Visitors are responsible for any damages and can be expelled from the program if they fail to act "with the high levels of dignity and respect that is expected between members."

There haven't been any expulsions, either, which should ease the fears of second-home owners who don't rent their places when they are not using them.

Judy Cowan admits to being a little apprehensive about allowing strangers into her home, even though it was her vacation home. But now she says she wouldn't have a second thought about allowing them to stay in her Vail residence. "I totally trust these people. Everybody respects everybody else's home."

Norman Scott feels the same way. "People leave gifts, as we do too," he says. "I even leave my liquor cabinet open and tell people they are free to drink all they want as long as they replace what they take. They always leave more than they find."

VacationLink can be reached by calling (800) 750-0797 or by writing to P.O. Box 76350, Atlanta, GA 30358. The service also has a Web site: http://www.vacationlink.com

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