From home to home on your holidays

Sat, Nov 26, 2011, 00:00

GO HOUSE SWAP: The idea of having a holiday in someone’s home while they have one in yours seems such a no-brainer that you have to wonder why more people don’t do it, writes SANDRA O'CONNELL

THE HOLLYWOOD rom com The Holiday,starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, may be something of a turkey, but it certainly makes the notion of house swapping most attractive.

The movie saw Diaz’s character swap her slick LA pad for Winslet’s Cotswolds cottage with, of course, each having the holiday of a lifetime as a result.

The idea of having a holiday in someone’s home while they have one in yours seems to be such a no-brainer you have to wonder why more people don’t do it, particularly now when we’re under the cosh of recession.

A desire to get value for her holiday money was certainly a part of Aisling Finucane’s decision to undertake her first house swap this year.

The 36-year-old speech and language therapist and her husband Alan had spent their previous summer holiday on a campsite in France, with their two small toddlers.

“That holiday cost us €3,000 and we weren’t happy that we got value for money. We felt very cooped up in the mobile home,” says Finucane.

This year she changed tack. “We still wanted to go to France, still wanted to go on the ferry and bring our car, but this time round we decided to do a house swap instead,” she recalls.

She signed up with Homelink, an international home swap agency with an office in Ireland, in March. By June she had found a family that wanted to swap their holiday home in St Nazarre, a quaint fishing town near Nantes, for her three bedroom semi-D in Raheen, Limerick.

“At the time people said to me, ‘Why would anyone want to holiday in Raheen?’,” she recalls. “But the way I looked at it, our house is half an hour from Shannon airport, an hour and a half from Cork airport and is on the gateway to Connemara and Kerry.”

Which is precisely how her French guests viewed it, using her home as a base from which to explore.

The Finucanes, meanwhile, had a fantastic two-week holiday in France. “The weather was lovely, the house was lovely and we were close to a beautiful beach,” she says.

“We also had an enclosed garden, so the kids could run around and I didn’t have to worry about them.”

They travelled with Celtic Link for €739. If you exclude the odd night out in restaurants, plus diesel, that’s just about what her fortnight in France cost her.

“The entire holiday cost us less than €1,000, a €2,000 saving on the previous year, yet for much more space and the comfort of a house,” says Finucane.

She’s now looking at swapping with families in Spain and Germany next year. Given the kind of savings involved, she might very well visit both.

THE FINUCANES’ experience backs up research from Love Home Swap, a new online home swapping company based in the UK which estimates that home swappers save an average of €2,500 by home exchanging instead of holidaying.

“In tough economic times, travel becomes a ‘nice to have’ and is often one of the first things people cut from their budget,” says Debbie Wosskow, founder of Love Home Swap.

“Nearly one third of Love Home Swap members tried out home exchanging because of the savings they could make.”

The good news for anyone considering it is that Ireland is already one of Love Home Swap’s top requested swap destinations.

Marie Murphy, who runs the Irish office of Homelink, is also seeing increased demand for swaps. She currently has a database of 500 active Irish users.

“Membership numbers dipped the year before last as a result of the start of the recession. People told us they wanted to stay local and couldn’t afford the air fares,” says Murphy, who is herself just back from a three-week swap in San Francisco.

“But last year our numbers came back up again as people told us they just couldn’t face staycationing two years in a row,” she says.

The couple she swapped with were travelling Europe, but didn’t even want to stay in her house. Instead, they simply wanted someone to mind their dog while they were away.The result was a Stateside holiday, touring California’s winelands, for a €650 air fare.

“We have so much demand for exchanges with Ireland right now that we just can’t match it. Demand is particularly strong from swappers in New Zealand and Australia,” says Murphy.

When you think of all the Irish people who must now have family that have emigrated to that part of the world, home swapping could be a terrific way to go and visit them,” she says.

All kinds of homes are required for swapping. “A guy just rang me, worried that his apartment in Dublin wouldn’t be of any interest to anyone. But the fact is that, if it is in a good location or close to transport links, lots of people will want it,” says Murphy.

“Families coming here tend to like to stay in family homes in the countryside or close to the coast, but couples and singles like to stay in cities,” she says.

However, there are downsides. In Murphy’s experience, problems typically arise where differing standards of cleanliness clash.

“It is very important that your house be clean and tidy. You don’t have to repaint, unless it is really grubby, but the kitchen and bathroom in particular have to be spotless,” she says.

Aisling Finucane came up with what seems like a very good solution. “I didn’t want to spend the run-up to my holiday running around cleaning up,” she says.

“Instead, I cleared everything into black sacks and put them in the attic and then hired a cleaning company to come in after we had gone to blitz the place for two hours, at €10 an hour,” says Finucane. “It meant I came back to a pristine house too, which was nice.”

HOUSE SWAPPING isn’t only about cheap holidays however. “If you have kids it can become a family affair,” says Frank Kelly, Irish boss of Intervac, one of the two big house swapping agencies in this country with about 300 members.

“My own first house swap was to a family in Sweden in 1973 and we still visit to meet one another’s grandchildren,” he says. “The people you swap with often become friends.”

The biggest demand Intervac has for Irish swaps has traditionally been from the US and Scandinavia. That said, swappers from European sun spots such as Portugal are on the increase too.

“They tell me they like a bit of rain for a week or two during their own hot summer, so the Irish weather is not a problem for them,” says Kelly.

He too believes the recession will encourage more people to consider swapping, but urges those considering it for the first time to take a flexible approach.

“Be open to going to places that you hadn’t considered. You are more likely to get a swap if you opt for something ‘in the region of Nice’, for example, rather than in Nice,” he cautions.

Equally, be aware that things can and do, if only sometimes, go wrong. “We had one lady last year who went to an apartment in Paris only to find it was already let out and the guy hadn’t bothered to tell her.

“When that happens the important thing is to contact us straight away and we will pull out all the stops to get you sorted.”

Intervac is considering establishing a fund to cover just such emergencies. In the main, however, house swapping works well precisely because it is based on trust.

Liam Harkin, a 47-year-old teacher from Donegal, learned all about the level of trust involved very early on. He went on his first house swap in 1996, six months after getting married.

“At first my wife wasn’t keen and was wary about having strangers in our home,” he says.Still, he won her over and the couple prepared for the big swap.

“I still get embarrassed when I think of it, but we took everything we thought was of value, which, of course, being so young, wasn’t of any value at all, and locked them into the box room,” he recalls.

“When we arrived in our 17th-century French villa to find it full of antiques and valuables, with even the computer still turned on for us, we were mortified.”

Since then the couple have travelled the world house swapping. They now have 18 swaps under their belt, three of which were in the one year.

“Once you house swap, you won’t travel any other way. In fact, you come to hate hotels,” says Harkin.

Interestingly, some of his family’s (he now has two children under 10) best swaps have been in Ireland.

“You simply pick a part of the country you want to see and you jump in the car. All it costs you is the petrol it takes to get you there.”

If that isn’t an Oscar winner of a recession-proof holiday, what is?

* homelink.ie

* intervac-homeexchange.com

* lovehomeswap.com

* homeexchange.com

* exchangeaway.com

* homebase-hols.com

* profvac.com

* exclusiveexchanges.com

Homing in make the most of it

* Be open to going off the beaten track

You’ll have more chance of success if you widen your sights. “We found Lake Constanz on the German and Swiss border by accident, just by being open to swapping there. It turned out to be a little piece of heaven totally undiscovered by the Irish. There wasn’t a pair of black socks or an eircom T-shirt in sight,” says Marie Murphy of Homelink.

* Communication is key

Take the time to discuss precisely what’s being swapped, and what is not, including cars. “The only difficulty we ever experienced was over cars,” says Liam Harkin. “We went to Italy and found we had been left the owner’s Fiat Cinquecento. Unfortunately, I’m 6 ft 4in and so that didn’t work very well. What’s more, when we got home we found our visitors had clocked up 4,000 miles on our own car.” These days he always checks what kind of car he is swapping for and agrees a mileage limit.

* Put the effort into the blurb you post about your house

“I made sure to sell our three bedroom semi-D in Raheen very well, pointing out four or five well-known tourist sites in the region,” says Aisling Finucane. “Overseas visitors will check these out online and it’s what makes them choose your house.”

* Be open to the additional cultural experience

“There is almost always a neighbour or a family member who will call in and show you the ropes, and on whom you can call if something goes wrong. What this also means is that you almost always get invited to dinners and barbecues too, which adds to the experience,” says Harkin.