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Swap homes to save a bundle on travel

Reprinted courtesy of MarketWatch.com.

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My wife and I were about three minutes into the pilot episode of the TV series “Transparent” when I grabbed the pause button on our remote and we both yelled: “That’s the house!”

We were watching a scene that was filmed in a unique California house where we stayed for 10 days the previous summer while the owners stayed in our home in Seattle.

That is one of several unexpected and interesting experiences we have had since we did our first home exchange in 2013. Since then, we’ve made unexpected friends, we’ve saved a lot of money, we’ve gone places we didn’t think we would.

Short-term home swapping has been around a long time. One of its modern incarnations began in the 1950s as teachers on opposite sides of the Atlantic arranged summer-vacation exchanges.

Today, tens of thousands of houses are available for exchange online at sites such as HomeExchange.com, where we signed up two years ago for $10 a month, and Homelink.org.

The results have exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t expect to become good friends with a couple in whose home we stayed in Florida while they (violating all common sense, it seemed to us) spent two weeks in Seattle in February.

We didn’t expect the people in whose homes we stayed to leave food, wine and flowers for us. One woman made a pie just for our arrival.

Another couple turned out to have professional interests and acquaintances that overlap ours.

We expected to save money, but not nearly as much as we have. When you don’t have to pay for lodging or rent a car, and when you can fix your own meals (even if you don’t always do so), your savings add up fast.

After our first six exchanges (Santa Fe, Los Angeles, the Florida Keys, Tokyo, Bellingham, Washington and Ashland, Oregon), I calculated we saved at $14,400 by not renting cars and staying in even moderate-price hotels. To my mind that is a pretty stunning return on an investment of less than $200 in membership dues.

People often ask if we’re worried about people living in our home. Will they go through our stuff? Will they steal our stuff? Can we really trust them?

Friends who have done more than 100 home exchanges told us they have never had a problem. Before each exchange we get to know our hosts via email and phone, which helps to establish a level of mutual comfort.

We don’t leave obvious valuables (we don’t really have much) or our most private papers lying around in plain view. Otherwise, our home is their home.

People who exchange homes are typically middle-class and upper-middle-class folks. They aren’t likely to open their homes to strangers in order to steal things from those strangers.

The travel opportunities keep pouring in. We have received more than 80 offers to exchange homes. Most were from the United States and Canada, but they’ve also come from Turkey, Japan, Panama, Indonesia, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Denmark, Spain, Mexico, Norway and Iceland.

We haven’t made arrangements but we’re thinking of doing an exchange in Copenhagen in 2016.

Not all exchanges are simultaneous.

After we stayed three nights in Ashland, Oregon while the homeowners were away on an extended business trip, we owed them three nights. When they came to Seattle in December, we stayed in a nearby “summer home” owned by the couple with whom we had exchanged houses in Florida.

Like many veterans of home exchanging, we’ve found that friendships are a normal side benefit from this mode of travel. Even without completing actual exchanges, we have made friends with home exchangers in Chicago, Iowa and Alaska.

It’s not hard to get started. If you’re intrigued but still nervous about the idea, join an exchange site as a trial member, then meet other members in your area to talk. Or arrange a short exchange in a nearby city. This will let you dip your toes in the water before you wade in.

If you love to travel, if you have at least a modest sense of adventure and if you want to save plenty of money, exchanging homes will open up a world of opportunities.

Richard Buck is (mostly) retired after a writing career that included 20 years as a business reporter at The Seattle Times and 15 years as senior editor at Merriman Capital Management.