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Trading places

By David Ressel
COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK – By their own account, Ted and Katya Isaac, a retired couple from Honolulu, have swapped homes with strangers 100 times in 20 years of vacations around the world.

Not every exchange has been smooth. There was the time they arrived in Tuscany only to find they would be sharing the home with the Italian family's mother-in-law. Another time, after settling in a home in Northern California, the teenage daughter unexpectedly returned and proceeded to hold all-night parties in the room downstairs.

"Each time I put the key in a strange lock in some far-off place I have a moment of concern," Ted Isaac said.

This is the world of home exchange. Driven by the high cost of travel and the ease of finding swaps online, home exchanges are riding a wave of popularity. The practice has gained new cultural cachet this season with the opening of "The Holiday," a movie starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz as two single women who trade their English and California homes, lifestyles and relationships for a few eventful weeks. Diaz ultimately finds romance with Winslet's brother, played by Jude Law.

In real-life exchanges, of course, there is no guarantee you'll be swapping lives with a movie star or falling in love with Jude Law. Exchanges are most popular with retirees like the Isaacs; with teachers and professors who have long summer vacations; and with those who have vacation homes. The swaps can save a lot of money: Isaac said he and his wife saved an estimated $250,000, or roughly $2,500 a trip, in hotel and car rental costs.

More families are signing up. "There is huge interest in home exchange for families as travel gets more expensive and people are looking for home comforts," said Margot Guralnick, editor of Travel + Leisure magazine. "Parents want to give their children a cultural experience."

A growing trend

Home swaps have increased by 40 percent in the past two years, Guralnick said. But the practice has a long history. After World War II, teachers long on summer vacations but short on cash agreed to swap homes around Europe. The idea expanded from teachers unions in Europe to other continents through word-of-mouth and then hand-printed directories. Today, dozens of online listing services, including those that specialize in home swaps for educators, Christians or gays, cater to home swappers.

For the cost of an annual fee, usually under $100, several Web sites will list your property alongside others from around the world. But home exchangers themselves are responsible for contacting one another and working out all the details, according to Karl Costabel, president of Homelink USA (www.homelink-usa.com), which lists more than 12,000 members in more than 60 countries. Some swappers also provide cars or baby-sitters or even horses.

Not every English lord wants to trade his manor for a shotgun shack next to a nuclear reactor, but finding a swapper has not been a problem for some residents in remote or unlikely locales. Marianne Notley, a public relations professional in her 40s, has swapped her family's Shawnee, Kan., home a dozen or so times. "Kansas is not known as a tourist location, but we've had exchanges from Scotland, Hawaii and France," she said.

Notley prepares her guests for a visit to Middle America, arranging for friends to stop by to visit her guests and making sure they are invited to barbecues and other community activities. Most, she said, are here to get an inside taste of American culture as well as to make new friends.

Isabelle Dalerci, a Parisian fashion designer in her 40s, has swapped her vacation home in Provence with Notley. The two have since become best friends after several visits to each other's home. Dalerci said she liked American hospitality and the way her teenage children immersed themselves in the local culture. In recent swaps, her family has tried line dancing in Kansas, eating fresh lobster in Maine and watching a baseball game in San Francisco.

"I want to have internationally open kids, and not grumpy teenagers," she said. Her children have made several friends in the United States and have since stayed with other families on their own.

So much more

Notley appreciates the cost savings, but there are many more advantages. "I first thought of house swaps when I began to travel when my son was 4 years old," she said. On one exchange in Villars, France, Notley's son, Charles, broke the ice with local children in the village square with the help of his Game Boy video game. In two weeks, she said, he had befriended seemingly everyone in town, while learning enough French to get by.

Home exchanges are not for everyone. There are always a few complaints, most related to minor damage like broken plates, phone bills and crumbs. "You have to be comfortable with strangers living in your house," Costabel said, adding that many exchangers write up agreements or designate certain parts of their home off-limits. But he noted that swapping homes required a certain level of trust.

It is that trust that really makes the experience a deeper one than paying for hotel accommodations, many home swappers say.

"Sharing a house is like sharing a little bit of your life, yourself," said Morgane Laccouse, a 21-year-old whose parents have brought her and her sister on many home exchange trips, including one to the Notleys'. They have remained close with the Notleys as well as with a few of their hosts' friends and neighbors. "We really feel that we have a home in Kansas City, and the Notley family have a house in the south of France," Laccouse said.

Trading homes and lives has become a lifestyle in itself for the Isaacs and other longtime home swappers.

"We are part of a community," Ted Isaac said.

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