Swap homes to find the love of your life?

Special to The Times

HOLLYWOOD has discovered the home exchange, which means millions of moviegoers are discovering the home exchange, an inexpensive way to vacation.

In "The Holiday," Kate Winslet plays a single woman living in a cottage near London. Cameron Diaz plays a single woman living in Los Angeles. They meet on an Internet home-swapping service, each goes to stay in the other's home and instantly finds the love of her life (Jack Black and Jude Law, respectively).

Before the advent of the Internet, the home-exchange concept suffered from a small audience of participants, which made it hit or miss. You joined a vacation-exchange club, received a thick catalog listing people all over the world who were eager to swap their residence for yours. You then wrote a letter to such a person, proposing a home exchange, often learning that a swap had already been arranged.

The Internet sped things up. When a house or apartment was spoken for, it was removed from the listings (at least, such was the theory). Yet too few Americans were aware of this cost-conscious method of arranging free accommodations in another city.

The largest of all home-exchange clubs has about 13,000 members. For most Americans, the biggest barrier to a home or apartment exchange is the fear that the visitors will damage the residence or its furnishings. But most would-be exchangers request references, assurances of responsibility, photos of the people involved and their homes. Some of them arrange for neighbors to periodically look in on the house and talk with the temporary residents.

The three major U.S. home-exchange organizations maintain websites; all belong to worldwide organizations bearing the same name and convey their information in many languages. And all say what happened in "The Holiday" can happen.

Jessica Jaffe of San Francisco's Intervac told me that one of her French clients, who visited Colorado last year on an exchange of homes, met a Coloradan whom he plans to marry.

* The exchange club featured in "The Holiday" is Home Exchange of Hermosa Beach, (800) 877-8723, www.homeexchange.com, which has been in business since 1992 with 13,000 current members in 22 countries. Its membership fee is $59.95 for one year and $99.95 for two. But if you don't exchange during the first year, your second year is free. It does not offer a printed directory, but it displays all listings on its website.

* Equally large is HomeLink International of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (800) 638-3841, www.homelink.org. Founded in 1953, it has 13,500 members in 22 countries; the membership fee is $80, plus an optional $50 for a printed catalog containing names and offers of all members. Why a catalog? Many members are mature people who prefer getting their information from the printed page.

* And finally, there's Intervac of San Francisco, www.intervac.com, (800) 756-4663, with 8,000 members in 50-plus countries. It charges $65 a year for listings in the United States, $95 for complete listings throughout the world, and $140 if you wish to supplement the $95 membership with an optional printed catalog. Intervac will refund your membership fee if you do not obtain a home exchange during your first year of membership.

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