By JIM GRAY
Last July, we spent the month in Kusadasi, Turkey, in a home overlooking the Aegean Sea. During August, we lived in Prague, and in September, we lived in Berlin. Before that, we spent February in Quito, Ecuador, and March in Granada, Nicaragua.
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This is our lifestyle: spending about five months each year in foreign countries. We do it by exchanging our two-bedroom condo in San Diego with people living in other countries.
My wife, Carol, and I had never traveled outside North America until we were 60. We were busy putting children through college and with my business. Then, we started with one-week trips to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Tokyo. In short, we caught the travel bug—and decided that when I retired, at 65, we would travel overseas as much as possible.
Some friends introduced us to the idea of home exchanging. We decided to exchange our San Diego condo, a second home, on the beach. We joined two networks, homeexchange.com and homelink.org/usa. The former has 39,000 members in 146 countries; the latter has 13,000 members. We have done about half of our exchanges with each site.
Since I retired in 2006, we have exchanged 32 times. We've been to Paris (four times) and London (twice), along with stops in Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Australia and Hong Kong, among others. The typical exchange lasts three weeks to a month.
Exchanging homes involves some negotiating. Your leverage depends on the desirability of the home you have to exchange. In the U.S., New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are favorites of international exchangers. After that, there is a second tier of cities, which includes San Diego.
(One tricky area in negotiations: whether to exchange cars. Our preference is to rely on local transportation. Some cities, like Paris and London, have great public transportation. Unfortunately, San Diego doesn't, and our exchange partners feel strongly that we need to exchange cars. We've done so about half the time.)
Exchangers specify their conditions. For example, we won't accept pets, children, smokers or more than two people in our home. About 80% of exchangers have children, which limits our universe of exchangers. That said, if we want an exchange to a specific home strongly enough, we try to be flexible.
On each Internet site, we have a page with photos of our home, information about San Diego and ourselves, and details about when, where and with whom we want to exchange. Once we make contact with a potential partner, we discuss details of dates, number of people, transportation, etc. On average, an exchange takes about 20 emails and an occasional phone call to work out all the arrangements.
The homes in which we have stayed run the gamut. Our home in Hong Kong was about 1,500 square feet in a high rise overlooking the city and the bay, with a full-time maid. Our home in Granada, probably the most interesting one in which we have lived, was colonial style with an open center and totally open kitchen, covering 5,000 square feet. In our last stay in Paris, we had a single small bedroom, a small living room, and very small kitchen and bathroom. In all, about 500 square feet.
In each case, we knew exactly what the home was like before we made our exchange. One helpful tool is Google Earth. We use it to locate the exact address of our potential exchange and get a 360-degree street-level view. We are currently discussing an exchange to Madrid for this summer. We can see the address on the building where we will be staying and virtually walk up and down the surrounding streets.
A Month Is Good
Our preferred length of time for each exchange is one month. We have two goals when we exchange: to see the tourist sites and, more important, to live among the local people and be a part of their culture.
No money is paid from one home exchanger to another. Exchanging is very cost-effective, but there are several variables. The largest expense is transportation, particularly airfare. We keep food costs down by eating two meals each day at home. We prefer to eat in the neighborhood where we live because it is usually less expensive than the city center, and we like the local experience.
The biggest variable is side trips. During our trip to Turkey we went on a four-night Greek island cruise and also spent three nights in Cappadocia. Those pretty much drained our side-trip budget for the three months.
We are often asked if we have any problems with our exchanges. We do. The biggest problem is cancellations. Since our first choice is to exchange with other older adults, unexpected medical problems can be an issue. With younger exchangers, you can encounter job or financial problems. In a few cases, my guess is that people cancel because they get a better offer—but they never admit that.
We have had seven cancellations in connection with our 32 exchanges. Fortunately, all except one were early enough that we hadn't made plane reservations and could arrange alternative exchanges.
Another problem is cleanliness. People have different standards. We have never found a home which was unacceptably dirty, but we have had a few cases where we spent part of the first day cleaning. Of course, that means they will leave your home dirty also when they depart.
One other concern is the length of time we spend away from our grandchildren. We compensate for this by spending more time with them while we are home. We use Skype extensively. Every Sunday we make audio and visual calls home.
These problems are minimal compared with the experiences we have enjoyed living in almost three dozen homes. Each exchange is a unique experience. It is a wonderful feeling to wake up on the first day, to realize that we are now living in a new home in a new city in a new country, and to wonder what experiences lie ahead.
We now plan to spend a little more time in the U.S. and Canada. We spent January and February in Florida (Fort Myers and St. Augustine). On June 1, we'll arrive in Paris for the month, then spend July in Stockholm. We hope our August exchange will be in Madrid. Then we'll spend the first half of September in Venice. We can't wait.
Mr. Gray is a retired business owner in Upland, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.