Holiday for free with a home swap
When you jet off on your summer holiday, the most thought you are likely to give to your home is to worry whether you locked the back door or not. But, your house is almost certainly the most valuable thing you own, so rather than letting it sit idle while you're away, make it work for you and save thousands of pounds on your holiday in the process by trying out a home-swap.
Instead of forking out hundreds or even thousands of pounds for a hotel or villa, the idea is that you swap homes with someone in your holiday destination. While you bask in the Florida sun for nothing, another family gets to explore the delights of your hometown in return.
The financial attractions are clear. With a family villa setting you back up to £2,000 a week, a home-swap wipes these costs out entirely, so whether you stay a week or a month, you only have to pay for your flights.
Rhona Nayar, who runs the exchange website intervac.com, says: "If you want to rent a villa of the same standard as your own home, you will have to pay a fortune. Swapping saves you all that expense."
Roger Moth, aged 60, and his 55-year-old wife Cynthia, who own a building company in East Sussex, were first attracted to the idea of a home-swap because of the money they could save.
Cynthia explains: "We were given free tickets to go anywhere in the world, but we had to take our holiday within 18 months. At that time we didn't have any money, so we decided to use the flights to go as far as possible, and do a home swap. We went to San Francisco - and it didn't cost us a penny."
But the advantages aren't just financial. Cynthia found that once she had started swapping, other advantagesrevealed themselves. She and her husband have three children, aged between 11 and 17, and they have found that holidaying with them is much easier in a real home rather than a villa or hotel. "If you swap with another family with children everything is there, they have toys to play with and the house is child-proof," says Cynthia.
And the benefits are not just for the kids - swappers will often include all sorts of things in the exchange that may prove invaluable for adults too. You can swap cars to save on hire-car costs, for example, and even leave your cars at the airport for one another to save on taxis.
The host family can also help ease you into their local area, so you can avoid getting sucked into tourist traps. Lois Sealey, who owns exchange service Home Base Holidays, recommends swappers create aninformation pack, telling people the best places to visit in the local area, where to eat and drink and where to avoid.
"Many people ask a friend or a neighbour to act as an agent for them during the swap," adds Sealey. "They will also be able to keep an eye on your home for you."
This is comforting to anyone concerned about letting someone else use their home - which is, of course, the downside of swapping. Sealey says: "Usually, everyone has the same worries, but remember the people you exchange with will share these concerns too, and you are in each other's homes at the same time."
There are also precautions you can take to keep your home safe. The main one is getting to know your swapper reasonably well before you travel. Initial contact tends to be by email through home-swap sites such as homebase-hols.com, exchangeaway.com and intervac.com. Then, once you have found a potential swapper, you should make sure you contact them regularly.
Moira Barratt, a 52-year-old university lecturer from Lincolnshire, has swapped her house, motor home and villa in the Algarve for holidays in New Zealand through Home Base Holidays.
"We've found that talking to our prospective swappers on the phone gives us a good feel for them," says Moira. "I also maintain email correspondence with our swappers right from the beginning, sending photos of us and our home, and telling them more about us and our family."
If you have trouble getting hold of your potential swappers, or their answers are too vague, you can then consider whether it's worth the trouble of swapping with someone who may prove tricky further down the line.
Sealey also suggests exchanging with people who seem similar. "For instance, if you have a young family you can swap with another young family, who you know won't have a pristine home stuffed full of antiques to worry about." The National Childbirth Trust, for example, has a list of child-friendly home swaps.
At this stage, you should draw up an agreement in writing, including addresses and dates, what is included in the swap, who will cover costs such as phone calls or gas bills, and what to do if something gets broken. If you're swapping cars then outline any rules, such as maximum mileage or the minimum age of the drivers.
The time for commitment
Finally, you will need to commit some money - by booking your flights. "At that stage, it's important neither party pulls out. It's best to buy air tickets at the same time and share that information, so you both make a firm commitment," advises Sealey.
Even then, you may feel more comfortable if you can meet your swappers. "Some people make sure they have an overlap - if they have enough room in their home - so they can meet each other and introduce their swap partners to the area." says Sealey.
You could also consider a hospitality swap, where instead of a simultaneous swap, you stay with one another, meaning you can keep an eye on things.
And even once you are fully confident of the other person, it's still quite common to lock away family heirlooms, breakables or confidential documents in the loft or garage, or to leave them with a friend or relative.
It's also important to contact your insurer, just in case things go wrong. "You should check with your household insurance company, but make it clear you're not renting your house out," says Sealey. "By the time of the exchange you should feel you know the people, so it's not dishonest to say you're having friends to stay, and you're generally covered."
However, while it's important to take precautions, home swappers stress that problems are rare, and that exchanging homes can be an uplifting experience, as well as a good way to get a cheap holiday.