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Originally published Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Home sweet swap: House exchange opens door to adventure and cultural immersion

As I pulled my overloaded Subaru up to a house in Ann Arbor, Mich., last September, I paused a moment with an unsettling realization. Inside the home ...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Home-exchange tips

Go with a pro

For fees of $100 or less, home-exchange agencies offer detailed profiles of homeowners and a level of security. The Web site Knowyourtrade.com lists and rates dozens of home-exchange agencies, including two major ones, HomeExchange.com and Homelink.org.

Do your homework

Check out your prospective home-exchangers and their cities via Web sites such as Google or Bing. In the U.S., background checks of people cost about $40 through Intelius.com and property records can be searched for free at county Web sites.

Last-minute swaps

For last-minute and nonsimultaneous swaps, see www.digsville.com/forums.

Kid friendly

If traveling with children, ask exchangers for help with kid gear (cribs, car seats, toys) and recommendations for a pediatrician.

The golden rule

Leave the home better than you found it.

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As I pulled my overloaded Subaru up to a house in Ann Arbor, Mich., last September, I paused a moment with an unsettling realization.

Inside the home — a lovely two-story brick colonial on a quintessentially leafy street — was a couple I'd met just once before, for an hour. Based on that meeting, a few e-mails and a one-page agreement, we'd arranged to swap houses for the next nine months while I studied at the University of Michigan and they took an extended vacation in Seattle.

The what-ifs, I realized, were daunting. The Ann Arbor couple — Hans and Chris — seemed ideal house-swappers. But what if they weren't? What if Hans and Chris hated our house and wanted to come home? Or, more plausibly, what if my young children wreak the kind of havoc that I know they can?

House swapping, I came to learn, is all about faith. Trust in people — and do your homework — and the rewards are tremendous.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world swap homes each year, and finding a horror story is as rare as a platypus. You are far more likely to hear tales of transcontinental friendships and astonishingly cheap vacations in what amounts to free accommodations.

I'd done two previous short house-swaps — for a lake cabin in Idaho and a condo in Whistler, B.C. — and knew a bit of the trade-offs. Living in someone else's home — and opening your own to strangers — has its own anxieties and discomforts. But for adventure and full cultural immersion, home exchanging opens a different world of travel.

Exchange basics

House-swapping has been in vogue since at least the 1950s, propelled by the rise of affordable air travel and the affection for Europe that World War II GIs brought home.

It has now exploded with the Internet age. An alphabet soup of professional agencies offer worldwide listings for small fees. Craigslist has a special house-swap category, catering mostly to people looking for longer-term trades.

The concept is self-explanatory: a straight exchange of homes, for a fixed period. Most exchanges are between one and three weeks, and often include cars or bikes. Longer-term swaps require exchanges of utility bills and, in some cases, notice to home insurers.

For peace of mind, Nicole Frank, who writes at HomeExchanger.blogspot.com, strongly recommends using an agency and avoiding Craigslist, the free Web site where individuals can post home-exchange offers. If things go wrong, the agency has credit-card information to track down an exchanger, and subscribers are often house-swap veterans.

As a general rule, "act as if your boss lent you their country house for the weekend," said Frank. "If you do, you'll be respectful."

John Mensinger, a veteran house-swapper who writes on Homeexchangeguru.com, has a few golden rules. Minimize risk by locking up valuables, meeting your swappers and doing basic homework on them and their hometowns. Have a "broad view" of knowing you may not get a totally equal exchange.

"You have to have generous spirit," said Mensinger. "You have to know little things are going to go wrong."

Trust — but check

Our Michigan swap came together after I received a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan for the 2008-09 academic year.

My wife and I realized we couldn't rent our Wallingford bungalow for the amount of our mortgage, so I posted an ad seeking a home exchange on the Ann Arbor Craigslist.

Hans and Chris responded while I was house-hunting in Michigan, so we had what amounted to a date.

Retired and well-traveled, they'd been looking for a long-term house swap. They have a tribute to Jerry Garcia on their living-room mantel and an exhaustive book collection.

Chris was more concerned about fixing her house for us than vice versa. "I think we are somewhat adventurous which is a mindset that some folks don't have," Chris wrote in an e-mail.

As nice as they seemed, I'm in the trust-but-verify set. I looked up property records and checked Hans and Chris for bankruptcies and criminal convictions.

House-swappers will tell you the hardest part is prepping your house for exchanges. I spent weeks on small jobs, including installing a new toilet and an outdoor-watering system.

We both compiled house manuals packed with how-to instructions — such as how to operate the thermostat or turn off the natural gas — as well as recommendations for trips or restaurants and emergency phone numbers.

We both tucked away documents and valuables, and I arranged for my father, who lives nearby, to check in with Hans and Chris.

But moving into a fully furnished home meant my family of four moved with just what fit in our car. No moving vans. No furniture. Just lots of fleece and Gore-Tex for the arctic Michigan winter.

Hans and Chris had sent out a letter to neighbors alerting them to our arrival, so our first day in Ann Arbor, the dentist next door invited our young kids over for a playdate. Our son was soon running with new friends to the park while I did homework on a hammock on their screened-in back porch.

We also had our first brush with a what-if. Carrying my sleeping daughter over my shoulder, I stepped through a rotten step on the back porch. No harm done, and I applied the Golden Rule by repairing the step.

But it rattled Chris and Hans, who'd spent weeks doing small repairs in advance of our arrival. "This could have been a potential lawsuit if you guys hadn't been willing to overlook it," she said.

Happy ending

We returned home in May to find small gifts. Hans had installed a screaming-fast wireless network and dug a small garden. We'd reciprocated with a row of tomato plants — small payment for the many dings, broken dishes and stains we left behind. Hans and Chris refused payment. We left each other's houses immaculate.

That's common, said Bill Ingram, a retired University of Michigan professor who swaps each year for homes in London.

"The worst part of a swap is when you get home, all your neighbors say, 'What lovely people they are.' And you don't really know them, except to hand over the keys," he said.

With our home manual now in hand, we are now looking for more exchanges. August is the busiest month, and Seattle remains a popular destination for European and Australian home exchangers.

Hans and Chris, meanwhile, also got the bug. They are now in London, exchanging with a BBC journalist doing the same fellowship I did.

I hope he likes the hammock as much as I did.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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