Homes around the world -- free

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It’s almost January, which means my family will soon be in demand again, though there’s no predicting where. A golf resort on a Washington state wildlife preserve? A farmhouse in the south of France? England’s Lake District? A Danish island? My wife, two teenagers and I have been invited to them all -- just as we have invited adventurous strangers from around the world to our house in Laguna Beach. Since discovering the services that help vacationers swap homes, we’ve chalked up six trades in five years, giving us accommodations in such distinctive settings as a labor lawyer’s flat in a diverse Montreal neighborhood, a currency trader’s remodeled Victorian mansion near London and a house flipper’s built-to-look-ancient villa in the Mexican colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.

The deals usually gave us the use of a car, and two even included the use of second homes. Most of our exchange partners left us some food and drink to greet us on our arrival, and we’ve never returned home to a dirty or damaged house. And all of our trades yielded experiences you’d never find at your typical hotel.

We also had one major disappointment -- a swap that fell through -- for which we were at least partly to blame.


With a closet-size London hotel room running $400 a night these days, cutting lodging costs is the top reason for trading homes. Exchangers also praise the luxuries of well-appointed kitchens and multiple bedrooms, the live-like-a-local cultural immersion and the adventure of not knowing exactly what might turn up.

But it’s not for everyone. If you’re used to staying in nice hotels, someone else’s home might not meet your standards. And some people are simply too fussy or anxious about their houses to find any fun in trading places.

“If people are overly concerned about their home, I advise them not to join,” said Karl Costabel, coordinator of the U.S. affiliate of Brussels-based HomeLink International, the home-swap listing service we have used. “They would not enjoy a vacation while worrying.”

A villa in Mexico

For us, it’s been well worth it.

We shared the San Miguel complex -- a main house and two attached apartments -- with four friends. The package included the services of the villa’s cook, Maria Elena, who was obsessed with making sure no one would walk away from the table hungry.

In Montreal, where the big draw for us was the city’s huge summer jazz festival, it was a delight to find the apartment bookshelves jammed with jazz biographies and CDs. Some days, my son, Dan, a budding jazz performer, got so immersed in the musical library that we feared we would have to go to the performances without him.

Along the main commercial drag near the apartment one day, scores of soccer fans, faces painted red and green to match the Portuguese flags they waved, erupted howling into the streets on foot and in cars with horns blaring. Portugal had won its semifinal match in the European Cup.

The next day, fans in white and blue repeated the scene when Greece made the finals. It turned out we were staying near several ethnic neighborhoods.

In England -- a destination lobbied for by my daughter, Margaux -- our mansion in Sevenoaks, Kent, was a 25-to-45-minute train ride from London. After spending a day in the city, we would trudge about half a mile from the station up a dark lane, unlock the thick oak outer door and ditch our overcoats in the snow room before stepping into an entry hall featuring a grand piano, a broad L-shaped staircase and a grandfather clock.

Our ticket to these experiences has been the time it takes to connect and negotiate with prospective exchange partners.

Making the connection is where the home-swap services come in. The three biggest -- HomeLink, Hermosa Beach-based and Sweden-based Intervac International -- each charge about $100 a year for access to thousands of listings. Their websites (, and also give advice on such issues as contracts (good idea; forms are provided) and car insurance (always check, but coverage probably extends to guests, at least in this country).

Most home swappers research and negotiate exchanges entirely over the Internet, but for an extra $60 you can get HomeLink’s catalog. Although it’s fun to leaf through the 4-pound monster -- “Hey, how about the Greek isles?” -- we’ve stopped ordering it because the same information, only more current, is available online.

But its release around the beginning of the year still triggers a wave of proposals in the dead of winter from exchangers planning their summer vacations.

The catalog and website contain photos and descriptions of homes, plus such information as the swappers’ occupations, number and ages of children, requirements for nonsmoker or pet-free environments, and destinations they would consider.

Sometimes it’s a specific city at a specific time, often “open to offers.” References from previous exchanges are commonly available.

After making contact, you might find that one party is looking for something the other party can’t provide. One big issue is that Europeans seeking summertime exchanges usually want them to last four or more weeks -- a tough request for your typical American parents juggling work demands and children’s crowded schedules.

By contrast, domestic stays can be brief, like the Thanksgiving weekend we enjoyed at a new, custom-built home on the outskirts of Santa Fe, N.M., or the long weekend we will soon spend in Santa Cruz.

Details and complications

When a trade makes sense, details and logistics must be discussed. If you leave a car for exchange partners at the airport, what do you do with the keys? If a home sleeps four, does that mean separate beds are available for teenagers of opposite sexes? Will the exchangers recommend restaurants and a baby sitter? Who pays for calls from the home phone?

Some swaps have special complications. For example, the Santa Cruz exchangers will be skiing while we’re in their house; we owe them a weekend at our home sometime when we’re away. And the owner of the Mexican villa, an expatriate U.S. citizen, worked out a deal to allow her daughter’s family from Florida to stay in our home.

Though negotiations can be tedious, the process is ultimately reassuring because exchangers become so well acquainted before making a commitment, said Ed Kushins, president of

Because we were lucky enough to buy a three-bedroom home in South Laguna during the mid-’90s housing bust, we have it easier than many exchangers. But Kushins said few of his members had trouble finding interesting swaps if they were flexible, regardless of where they lived.

And almost any part of Southern California can be seen as an attraction: Most residents can say truthfully that they live near a beach, the mountains, theme parks or Hollywood.

What’s more, experienced exchangers are often interested in seeing places a little off the beaten tourist track where they can live like a local, be near a loved one or family member, or conduct some business. While I was writing this article, a proposal arrived from a Norwegian family seeking to be in or near Irvine this summer because they had friends who planned to be visiting there.

Although illnesses and emergencies occasionally cause cancellations, serious problems are very rare, Kushins said.

“The actual biggest problem is that people have different cleanliness standards,” he said. “Some people just can’t live with the slight clutter and grime that others tolerate well. You have to know what kind of person you are, and make sure you’re trading with someone who has the same ideas.”

Minor difficulties come with the territory: balky locks, hard-to-find light switches, oddball coffee makers. Probably our worst experience during a trade involved a visit to a home in a suburb of Washington. During one of several excursions in the retired couple’s Toyota, the car broke down, forcing us to spend an unplanned night in a Mechanicsburg, Va., motel.

As it turned out, the couple experienced a badly clogged drain in our house around the same time that cost them a good chunk of time and money. When the trade ended, and all else went well, they reimbursed us for our costs, minus the charge for an emergency plumber’s visit.

No Paris match

Last year we had a much bigger adversity: a negotiated two-week visit to Paris that fell through.

We had started looking for a trade in late spring, later than recommended. But several Parisian exchangers we contacted expressed interest, including one with a large house near the Place de la Bastille and the city’s huge new opera house.

That sounded excellent. But when the family said they needed a car that seats five, we replied that each of our cars seated only four -- and they looked elsewhere.

Oh well. We were then able to work out a deal for a place with a view of the Eiffel Tower. But after we bought the plane tickets -- our would-be swapper begged off, insisting he had never committed to the exchange after all.

By this time, none of our other possible trades seemed to be working out and, with little time left, we went online again, this time to rent an apartment. We wound up having a terrific time, heading home each night to a little place above a pizza parlor in Montmartre -- for 2,400 euros for the two weeks, about $3,000 we hadn’t counted on.

So we learned two lessons. The first is to put the deal in writing. The second: The next time someone offers us a big home in Paris but demands roomier transportation than we have on hand, we’ll know exactly what to say.

“Just how large a car would you like us to rent for you?”