Trading places

My wife, Lisa, calls it the “wish book for adults.” She anticipated its arrival in the mail earlier this year as enthusiastically as a four-year-old waiting for Santa’s sled to bump onto the roof. When it finally did land on our doorstep, she read it from cover to cover, marking pages for future reference with little sticky notes.

It’s not a mail-order catalogue. It’s the latest home exchange directory from HomeLink International (, and the phonebook-sized 800-page January 2006 edition lists nearly 13,000 homes around the world – including 1,100 in Canada – that people are willing to swap with other HomeLink members for periods ranging from a few days to several months.

What’s a home-exchange program? Simple. I’ve got a house in Vancouver; you’ve got one in Paris. I want to go to Paris; you want to come to Vancouver. Neither one of us wants to take out another mortgage to pay our respective hotel bills so we agree to swap homes for a while.

Simple enough in theory, but the problem has always been how do thee and we find each other?

That’shere the home-exchange programs come in. For about $200, we can each get our homes listed on a home-exchange website (and in a paper directory) complete with contact numbers and photos. The rest is up to us.

The advantages to home swapping are as obvious as they are numerous. In addition to saving traders a ton of cash, home swappers enjoy all the comforts of a real home, including in many cases, the free use of a car and access to their exchange partners’ social network.

“Our neighbours tell us they’ve been to some pretty good parties on our deck when we’ve been away,” laughs Edmonton’s Elena Scraba, who with her husband, Peter McNab, has been a member of HomeLink International for 10 years. In that time, Scraba and McNab have been to Britain once, France “two or three times,” Austria and the western U.S.

Typically, the swaps are simultaneous but don’t have to be if the parties agree. Exchangers are free to work out whatever arrangement they want. On one occasion, Scraba and McNab allowed an Australian family travelling independently to stay in their home, so now she and her husband have accommodation credit on the balmy Queensland coast. “We heard from them recently,” says Scraba. “They wanted to know when we were coming.”

While many exchangers are retired folks with time on their hands, the membership ranks have been swelling in recent years with the addition of families.

“It’s made travelling possible,” says Scott Miller of Kitchener, Ont., who with his wife, Kathy Costigan, has been a HomeLink member for three years. “We took our three children – aged nine, six and three – to Ireland for three weeks. We could not have afforded it if we’d had to stay in hotels.”

In addition to saving them cash, Miller and Costigan contracted a swap with another family, so they were able to stay in a house that was both child-friendly and filled with toys.

Andrea and Cyril Johnston of Moncton, who have three children – aged 10, eight and six – echo the family-friendly benefits. They usually prefer to go on an exchange to homes where they have children because they have toys and understand that children can break things.

Which, of course, raises the almost instinctual fear people have when it comes to home swapping: what if these strangers – with or without children in tow – demolish my house?

According to HomeLink’s Vancouver-based manager Jack Graber, that’s never happened in the 20 years he’s been associated with the company.

“Over time, we have had problems,” he admits. “But house-wrecking hasn’t been one of them.”

So what kinds of problems do occur? The worst is last-minute cancellations, Graber says. “We have a lot of older members, and it’s usually health-related.”

However, for a mere $25, you can buy insurance, which can be used to help defray emergency accommodation arrangements. (The amount available depends on how many people pay into the program in a year.) “It’s rare, though,” says Graber. “Last year, we had three or four claims.”

Other than that, the biggest gripe members have is with divergent “housekeeping standards.” However, homes with too many dust bunnies typically get de-listed “diplomatically but firmly,” says Graber.

“The first thing people always say is that they’re afraid of getting their house trashed,” says Elena Scraba. “But we’ve never had any problems.”

She adds not everybody is as insouciant about their property as she and her husband are, and for these people, she has some advice: “If you’re the kind of person that’s hysterical about stuff, don’t do it.”

Ditto Anne Harkema of Vancouver, who along with her retired senior police officer husband, Bill, has been home swapping since 1999. “By the time you’ve finished all the arranging, you have a pretty good idea of whom and what you’re dealing with,” says Harkema. Other than cleaning out a few closets and drawers so the visitors don’t have to live out of suitcases, she removes nothing of value from her home, a rather swish flat overlooking False Creek in downtown Vancouver.

HomeLink isn’t the only home-swapping organization out there, so shop around before buying in. Other notables include InterVac of Calgary (, which has 8,000 to 10,000 members in 30 countries; Home Exchange (, based in California; International Home Exchange Network (; and Global Home Exchange (

As for Lisa and me, we’ve only just joined, but in the two months our home has been online, we’ve had offers from Great Britain, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Miami Beach. Our short list includes a three-bedroom Georgian-style home overlooking Kew Green outside London and a 100-year-old Scottish property “two minutes from Loch Lomond.”

All we have to do is take care of any dust bunnies before we leave home.