By Anne Machalinski
Esther and Edward Bourg will likely spend Thanksgiving in New York City this year. They’ll travel from the San Francisco Bay area to spend time with their daughter in Manhattan. The Bourgs may stay in a Brooklyn brownstone or a loft in SoHo, or maybe even a posh doorman building on the Upper East Side. While the accommodations are yet to be determined, the retirees know they won’t have to pay hefty holiday rates at a hotel.
For the privilege of staying in a stranger’s home, Esther, 70, has listed the couple’s three-bedroom home, along with its hot tub, garden and TiVo, in the house-swap section of the Craigslist Web site.
Bourg hasn’t found the right match yet, but she hopes that someone will come along and agree to make a trade.
“If I’m going to relax and be with my daughter,” Bourg said, “I want to be in a home. Most of all, I want to be comfortable.”
From extended vacations to weekend getaways, house swapping is gaining in popularity among travelers of all ages and economic backgrounds.
Jessica Jaffe, the U.S. representative for Intervac, a company based in the Netherlands that has specialized in house swaps for more than 50 years, says the company has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of people signing up for house swaps in the last two years.
Intervac now has more than 10,000 members with about 20 percent of its client base coming from America, Jaffe said.
Jim Buckmaster, president and chief executive of Craigslist, has seen similar growth in house swaps. It logs roughly 3,000 postings in that section of its Web site each month, up from 1,600 postings a month one year ago.
Both Jaffe and Buckmaster attribute the increase to a number of factors, including the increased cost of travel, particularly to European locations because of the U.S. dollar's weakness against the euro. The Internet has also made it easier for people to search properties quickly and spread the word about the service.
Home exchanges began more than 50 years ago when European teachers started trading homes for summer holidays, said Karl Costabel, the U.S. representative for HomeLink, an exchange service based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. House swapping is a cost effective way for travelers to immerse themselves in a different culture.
In addition to Intervac and HomeLink, Home Exchange and Digsville similarly provide a forum for members to list their properties in an online database for about $100 a year.
The cost is generally limited to membership fees or a one-time fee to post a listing. All of the companies include tips for successful swaps. They include outlining costs for long-distance telephone calls, bills and gasoline, and keeping a back-up plan in case anything falls through. Even with increased security concerns for travelers, most swappers take an informal approach to the swap, agreeing to the details with a proverbial handshake rather than filling out paperwork or collecting security deposits.
Scott Haas, a 49-year-old psychologist and author, has exchanged homes as a member of Intervac numerous times over the past 16 years. Swapping houses, which he started to do when his now-grown children were just 3 and 5 years old, plays a central role in the book he published in 2004, “Are We There Yet? Perfect Family Vacations and other Fantasies.” Haas and his family have stayed in a parish house in France and a five-bedroom home in Maui with a wrap-around deck and views of the Pacific Ocean.
This past summer, Haas and his family, who live in Cambridge, Mass., swapped homes with a man from Iceland. In addition to trading homes and cars, they even traded dogs during their stays. They settled the details of the swap in January, a full six months before heading to Iceland. Haas said staying in someone’s bed and seeing family photos makes the experience much more intimate and personal, like staying at a friend’s home.
Haas has experienced a few slipups along the way. On one trip in the southwest of France, he left the exchange family’s car in a parking lot and returned to find it “smashed like an accordion,” he said. Expecting the worst, Haas made a nervous call to let the family know about the damage. But the first question they asked, he said, was whether his kids were OK.
Helen Bergstein, the chief executive and founder of Digsville, said the company had no reports of theft or major damage since she started her company in 1999. Buckmaster said Craigslist also had received no complaints from the house swap section.
“It may sound wild at first glance,” he said, “but each person is putting his or her home in someone’s hands. That is motivation enough to treat it respectfully.”
When she wanted to take a trip to Paris on the cheap in the fall of 2004, Lorien Jordan, 27, posted her Manhattan apartment on Craigslist. A woman in her mid-20s who lived in London contacted Jordan. She was planning a trip to New York with two friends from Amsterdam and Paris. Jordan was given the choice of cities to visit, and out of the three, picked Paris.
In addition to maps and directions to tourist destinations, she left her apartment stocked with bagels, beer, cookies and other treats for her guests. The apartment in Paris, the home of an artist, was within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower and was similarly well stocked. When she and her boyfriend arrived, they found a spread of champagne and French cheeses and meats.
While in Paris, they spent one night at a five-star hotel.
“I felt more comfortable in the apartment,” she said.