Home exchange networks, which allow vacationers to swap houses without swapping any money, are growing as rapidly as travel budgets are shrinking. HomeExchange.com, one of the largest networks, has doubled its listings, to over 40,000 in some 145 countries, since 2008. "We love exchanging," says Clary Tepper of Sacramento, who has traded her house for getaways in Chicago, Monterey Bay, and Sausalito.
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The process works like online dating: You post a profile of your house, browse other listings, and contact potential partners. Some networks charge a membership fee; annual dues to belong to HomeExchange.com run $120, for example. Others charge to list but not to view profiles. Digsville charges $44.95 for a one-year listing. Some networks are free, though they may lack the track record or extensive listings of paid sites. For information on dozens of home exchange networks, visit www.KnowYourTrade.com.
For your first swap, it's best to search for experienced home exchangers. They'll think of details you won't (directions for the DVR? emergency contacts?) and can usually provide references from previous trades.
Industry experts say scams and thefts are rare, but there is the occasional surprise. During one of the Teppers' recent vacations, for example, the police showed up looking to talk to the owner. When the couple explained they had never met him, the cops were skeptical. Then they were intrigued by the home exchange concept, says Clary. "They wanted to know how to do it, too."