Never pay for a hotel again!” That slogan is guaranteed to get the attention of any avid traveler.
What’s the catch? You just have to own a home, apartment or condominium that you can swap with another home owner – and you have to know how to use the Internet.
The digsville.com home-swap site follows up their catchy slogan by proclaiming: “Home exchange is by far the best way to travel the world at a fraction of the cost and gain true insight into your destination.”
For more and more home owners in Costa Rica, this home-exchange concept is catching on. More than 50 city, suburban, mountain and beach properties in the country are already listed on the most popular home-exchange sites.
Home swapping (or home exchange) has been around since the early 1950s, when Intervac “invented” the idea in Europe. Back then, home owners paid an annual fee and received thick tomes of available house listings with photos, and then fired off rounds of letters to prospective swappers to try to arrange a mutually convenient swap. Now, with dozens of home-exchange Web sites and speedy Internet connections, home swappers can set up a swap sometimes in as little time as a day.
Susan and Harry Liang, longtime residents of Costa Rica, are home-swapping veterans. They started exchanging their spacious, hacienda-style home high above Sabanilla, east of San José, nine years ago. Since then they have made 22 swaps, enjoying long-stay holidays in the United States, Canada and Europe.
“We started by writing letters,” Susan Liang says. “We were traveling in Denmark and I read about Intervac home exchange in a guide book. It’s much faster now with the Internet, and you get access to a lot more places. But you have to spend a lot of time e-mailing.”
Alexis Fournier is relatively new to home swapping, but she has quickly become an aficionado. In the past two and a half years, she and husband James have swapped their penthouse apartment in Sabana Norte, on the west side of San José, five times. She agrees that it requires a lot of tedious work, even with the Internet.
“It’s a very time-consuming activity and you spend a lot of time on the computer, but the results are tremendous,” she enthuses. Her swaps have also taken her to Canada, the United States and Europe.
Sharon Wallace and husband Richard Maehl, 35-year residents of Ciudad Colón, southwest of San José, are perhaps the most energetic home swappers in the country. In just six years, they have arranged almost 40 swaps through digsville.com, many to locations where their grown-up children are living.
“I’m a doctor, and I wanted to be near my son in London when his wife was expecting their first child, so I could deliver the baby,” Wallace says. “They were living in a tiny flat and we didn’t want to crowd them. But we didn’t want to pay London hotel prices either. So we decided to swap.”
They exchanged their 38-acre farm with a three-bedroom, Santa Fe-style house for a modest apartment in Blackheath.
“We were just happy to be close to our son, even though it meant living in a smallish flat where the bedroom was so small we had to climb over each other to get into bed. But it was worth it to be able to walk over to our son’s house every morning.”
Fournier also found a home swap that dovetailed with family demands. One of her first swaps was a house in California, very close to the hospital where her father lay ill.
“It was amazing that I was able to find a house so close to the hospital and at such an awkward time, around Christmas,” she says.
But for most home exchangers, apart from the attraction of staying abroad for free, the appeal of a home exchange is a chance to really get to know a place and to feel at home.
“It’s really a relaxed way to spend a holiday,” Liang says. “If you’re in Paris for a month, you can spend two hours at the Louvre, then go home knowing you can always come back next week.”
Liang’s favorite swap to date was a 200-year-old stone house in Italy’s Umbrian hills, where she and her husband enjoyed shopping in local markets and striking up conversations with Italians about how to cook the foods they were buying.
How does Costa Rica rank in popularity as a home-swapping location?
“Our competition is all of Europe, especially Paris, and New York. Everyone wants to go there,” Liang says. “A lot of people we contact don’t even know where Costa Rica is.
And when they find out how much it’s going to cost to fly the whole family here, we often lose out.”
Fournier comes up against the same knowledge deficit.
“Many of our inquirers, especially from Europe, don’t know a lot about Costa Rica,” she says. “They want to know how safe it is, whether the government is stable and even where it is.”
But that’s another advantage of home exchanges: giving and getting personal advice.
“Luckily, Costa Rica is one of the best documented destinations on the Internet, so I can direct people to tons of good Web sites,” Fournier says. “I often end up helping them organize their trip here, too. Just this Easter, I advised my swappers to postpone their visit to the beach until the week after overcrowded Semana Santa. It works in reverse, too. If we’re going to Prague, for example, we want to know the right timing for our visit.”
Wallace points out another advantage to a Costa Rican home exchange.
“A lot of people are thinking about relocating to Costa Rica, but they want a chance to scope it out first. House swapping for a month or six weeks is a great way to do it.”
Wallace finds she occasionally has to turn people away.
“Sometimes people are so desperate to stay with us at a particular time, they will happily take one of the smaller guest houses on our property and give us a rain check for a stay at their house,” she explains.
Speaking of rain, some swappers coming to Costa Rica can be a little daunted by the weather here. Liang remembers two elderly ladies from sunny California who stayed in her house for two weeks.
“It rained every day. They burned up all the wood we had in the shed, and complained the whole time they were here. They hated it,” she says.
At the other end of the scale, the Liangs had to almost forcibly kick out a young couple who wanted to stay on after their two-week stay was up.
For Wallace, every experience so far has been fun.
“I’ve never had any bad experiences that would make me hesitate to swap,” she affirms. “And the few bad times, which seemed horrible at the time, seem pretty funny later and make great stories.”
For instance, there was the million-dollar, two-year-old house in New Jersey that was unbelievably filthy.
“It took us six hours to clear a path through all the piled-up bags and junk just to get to the kitchen,” Wallace recalls. “We ended up cleaning just enough to make pathways through the house and then spent most of our time in New York City.”
All the home swappers emphasize how important it is to use a swap site that details housekeeping styles. It’s even more crucial to correspond with prospective swappers to make sure you share similar standards and expectations.
“I’ve gained the ability to sense over the Internet who is compatible,” Fournier says.
“After all, you’re not just exchanging a house; you’re exchanging a life.”
On the issue of home security, Liang says that in all her swaps, she has noticed only three towels missing.
“You can’t really care too much about your stuff,” she advises. “If you have something valuable you do care about, lock it away.”
And, of course, here in Costa Rica there is the security advantage of having your house occupied, instead of sitting vacant while you’re away.
Despite all the e-mailing, scheduling and negotiating use of cars, computers, care of pets and the like, the greatest joy of home swapping is that it opens up new travel horizons, Fournier says.
“House swapping multiplies by hundreds of options where and when you travel. It also releases your imagination and prompts discovery urges you may never even have known you had,” she explains. “I was looking just the other day at this fabulous house in South Africa…”
Home-Swapping Sites Vary in Price, Quality
Some sites are definitely better than others, advises home swapper Alexis Fournier, who lists her penthouse apartment on four sites.
“Good sites can help you find out right away if there’s a possibility of finding a house in a specific place at the specific time you need to be there,” she explains.
Some sites are free, while others cost as much as $100 to subscribe for a year. The average cost is about $50. But you get what you pay for.
Says veteran swapper Susan Liang, the cheaper or free services tend to attract younger people who are often much more casual about commitments. Intervac, with more than 11,000 listings in 50 countries, is the oldest – and most expensive – but it’s also the most experienced, Fournier says.
“You find the most serious house swappers through Intervac,” she adds.
Another popular and reputable site is homeexchange.com, with more than 9,000 listings. Its advantage, Liang says, is it tells you straight off if there are kids in the family.
“A family with kids has to stick to school schedules, so you know there are limited time frames for an exchange,” she notes.
This site also lists the most Costa Rican properties.
Sharon Wallace is a big fan of digsville.com, which offers listings in 55 countries, and has convinced many of her friends in Costa Rica to list their properties on the site.
Fournier also likes digsville.com because it’s very good with follow-up, keeping track of who has contacted you and whom you have contacted.
“They also supply you with a model contract,” she says.
Here are just a few of the comprehensive home-swap sites out there to get you started: digsville.com, homeexchange.com, homeforexchange.com, intervac.com and switchhome.org. There are also specialized sites, such as seniorhomeexchange.com, and sites in different languages, such as echangedesmaisons.com.