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Trading places for inexpensive vacation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The last time I let friends stay in my apartment while I was away, I left a two-page memo on the kitchen table (typed, single-spaced) offering not only lots of tips about the neighborhood but also detailed instructions about various appliances and handling my mail.

Depending on your perspective, such a thorough approach either makes me a candidate for a home swap (such helpful advice!) or suggests that all ye who consider entering here should book a hotel instead.

I'm still on the fence about swapping homes with someone I don't know, but plenty of other people are taking the leap. The services don't necessarily keep track of how many exchanges take place, though HomeExchange.com estimates that it facilitates 6,000 to 10,000 exchanges a year. A week or two seems to be typical, but weekend exchanges are becoming more common.

By most accounts, the concept started about 50 years ago with teachers looking for affordable travel, and has found a broader audience as services handling home exchanges have migrated online.

"The biggest change is e-mail," said Karl Costabel, the U.S. representative for HomeLink, an international home-exchange organization that just celebrated its 50th anniversary. "People can get a response to an offer from Europe theoretically within a minute or two."

HomeLink charges $75 a year to put a listing at www. home link.org, plus $40 to receive a print catalog (in many countries it costs a lot more to access the Internet, so people are less likely to browse online). Most sites, including HomeLink, let anyone look at their listings, but typically you have to join to contact other members. About two dozen exchange groups are listed on the Web at www. freehomeawayfromhome.com.

Once you start exploring the possibilities, beware the temptation to spruce up your living room, whip out a digital camera and post a listing. That's especially true if you live in a place many people want to visit.

For instance, I searched for people interested in swapping with someone in New York City at HomeExchange.com, a newer service that posts listings online only, and found exchanges in about 20 states and as many countries. Among them: a 2,300-square-foot apartment overlooking the beach in Melbourne, Australia (claiming sunrise and sunset views); a loft in Cape Town, South Africa; a villa in Playa del Carmen, Mexico; and apartments in many European cities.

Insuring honesty

The flip side of such abundance is the penchant for exaggeration online, and the nagging worry that a "Tuscan villa overlooking a vineyard" might turn out to be a drafty barn with nary a grape in sight.

"Everybody's first question is how do I make sure my house doesn't get trashed or ripped off, and secondly, how do I make sure the house I'm going to isn't misrepresented," said Ed Kushins, owner of HomeExchange.com, which is one of the few services that lets nonmembers contact those who have posted listings. (Membership costs $49.95 a year.)

"We don't do any screening, but there's a lot of due diligence you can do that really doesn't take much effort," Kushins said, like calling past exchange partners for feedback. People who have swapped say the negotiations are also revealing -- whether someone is quick to respond to inquiries, or if photos of the house leave much to the imagination.

The services don't take responsibility for what happens between exchangers, but do offer advice on avoiding problems, which they say are rare. Among the tips: Lock valuables in a safe or a separate room, have a friend or neighbor check in on your guests and clearly outline rules of the house and who is responsible for any damage. But as Costabel pointed out, "If your first reaction is you're horrified at the thought of giving your home to a stranger, it's probably not for you."

That said, Netta Yerushalmy, a dancer who lives in Manhattan with her husband, said she wasn't on board when he started researching home exchanges in Italy, but eventually warmed to the idea. "Through e-mails and the telephone, you just get a feel for the person," she said.

Last summer, they traded their two-bedroom apartment in the East Village for a studio in Rome, and other than returning to a couple of dead plants at home, they had a great experience.

"It was better than I imagined," Yerushalmy said, explaining that even though the initial appeal was saving money, the chance to stay in a residential area and mix with their host's neighbors (albeit in limited Italian) made the vacation unique. "It wasn't touristy at all," she said. "That was why it was perfect."

They started looking at possibilities a few months before they wanted to travel and settled on the Rome exchange about three weeks before leaving. Depending on where you live and how flexible you are about where you'll go, the process can take more or less time -- one complaint some home exchangers have is that some people who post listings don't reply to all inquiries.

Yerushalmy asked a friend to meet their guest in New York City with the keys, and one of their host's friends met them in Rome.

"We made a big long list of how to treat the apartment -- how to clean the good knife, which faucet drips, things like that," Yerushalmy said.

Problems minor

For those inclined to put things in writing, home exchange organizations usually provide sample agreements that members can use to outline the terms of the exchange, like whether use of a car is included in the deal. Most homeowners' insurance and some auto policies cover house guests, but Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit group in New York, recommends contacting your broker for advice on your coverage, particularly if you plan to use a car in other countries.

Most of the dozen or so people I talked to said any problems with home exchanges were usually minor, like different housekeeping standards, undivulged smoking habits, broken dishes or mismatched expectations.

For instance, Gene Feist, founding director of the Roundabout Theater in New York, said that in 10 years of doing home exchanges, mostly through HomeExchange.com, the only problem he and his wife had encountered was discovering what had been described as a 10-minute walk to the center of Santa Fe "was more like a 20-minute drive over hilly roads."

They have also participated in "hosted exchanges" -- rather than exchanging at the same time, each party takes turns being hosts -- and have made lasting friendships.

Lori Horne, co-owner of Intervac (www.intervac.com), based in Tiburon, Calif., another service that's been around for 50 years, said that once people get hooked on home swaps, even a cocktail party becomes a chance for a new lead. "You can meet strangers anywhere who have families or friends all over the world," she said, admitting her ears prick up when a new acquaintance mentions a relative overseas.

In brief

Disney World weddings

Planning a wedding? You could go to Las Vegas, like a certain pop singer who later changed her mind. But if your style is more Cinderella than Britney, you might want to consider a Disney World wedding.

More than 2,500 weddings are held each year at Disney's "Fairytale Wedding Pavilion" in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Victorian-style glass building, surrounded by palm trees with a backdrop of Cinderella Castle, accommodates up to 250 guests.

The pavilion also has been used by couples renewing their vows and for weddings where the only guests were bride, groom and the person officiating. (Disney has people on staff who are legally qualified to perform weddings.)

Four-night wedding packages for two begin at $3,300 and include the officiant, bridal bouquet, groom boutonniere, a musician, two-tier cake, a limousine and two Ultimate Park Hopper tickets to Disney theme parks.

Disney World also offers romantic getaways for couples celebrating Valentine's Day, from a private yacht rental along Seven Seas Lagoon to a Valentine's Day dinner at the Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney-MGM Studios.

For more information on Disney weddings, call 407-828-3400; for the yacht rental, call 407-824-2439; for the MGM dinner, call 407-939-3463.

-- Associated Press

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