Juan Gonzalez and his family spent New Year's Eve in a room overlooking Madrid's famed Puerta del Sol. But instead of paying $500 a night for a hotel room, they enjoyed the same view for free. "We could open the window and look out at the center of Madrid celebrating," says Gonzalez.
Thanks to a host of websites, Gonzalez, 52, can swap his beachfront central Florida house for a three-bedroom Madrid condo or a 17th-century Catalonia manor. Maybe you can swap your home for one in your dream destination, too.
The first step is to purchase a membership in a home-exchange website for $45 to $125 a year. Next, upload a description of your home and neighborhood, add photos, and list the cities you'd like to visit. Then browse other listings and contact members with homes in desired destinations, or wait for others to contact you. Via e-mail, you can get to know potential house swappers and discuss exchange dates, length of stay, car access, pet care, and other details.
In some cases, sharing personal information also is necessary. Cuban American María Alvarez, 55, disclosed her health concerns before swapping her South Florida oceanview condo for a Parisian apartment. "I'm asthmatic, so I have to make sure I stay at a place that is smoke-free and pet-free," says Alvarez. Because she communicated those needs, she says, she found "a perfect match."
Sao Paulo resident Ademar Couto has made so many successful matches, he hasn't stayed at a hotel in seven years. Not only are the savings a plus, he says, but when he trades for homes in Aspen, for instance, he gets to "live like a real guy from Colorado." Although the 45-year-old Brazilian can rent his beachside five-bedroom house for $400 to $700 a night, he'd rather not. "When you rent your house, people give you a lot of trouble," he says. "When you exchange your house, they take care of it as if it were theirs."
That's why the concept is revolutionizing vacations, says Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com. "It's like the change in Internet dating from 10 years ago. [At first it] was a little weird, it seemed scary. Now it's mainstream."
Hollywood helped popularize the home-swapping concept. After the 2006 film The Holiday—featuring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as heartbroken women who switch homes and continents at Christmas—memberships to home-exchange websites skyrocketed, according to the HomeExchange.com website.
As with online dating, commonsense measures can make the swap safe and fun. Experienced "exchangers" recommend you stow valuables, clean your house, prepare homemade neighborhood guides for your guests, and clearly communicate your house rules. Ans Lammers, owner of HomeForExchange.com, offers members a template for writing their own contracts. "We have created a dynamic online document that eventually has to be digitally signed by both parties [and] states in clear terms what has been agreed upon," she says. Lammers says she also introduced "accommodation insurance," which pays for alternate lodging in case one of the parties has to cancel the swap.