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Home values only grow in these exchanges

Sylvie Blaison and her family spent weeks at Amanda and Ethan Foulkes's home in Las Vegas (left). Amanda Foulkes on the porch of the Blaison's home in Sannois, France, a Paris suburb (right).
Sylvie Blaison and her family spent weeks at Amanda and Ethan Foulkes's home in Las Vegas (left). Amanda Foulkes on the porch of the Blaison's home in Sannois, France, a Paris suburb (right).
By Meg Pier
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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Condoleezza Rice and Bono grab the headlines for their diplomatic efforts, but there are others fanned out across the globe, everyday ambassadors quietly dispelling myths about their own and other nationalities. Their movement, at least 45,000 strong, began with a few people posing a new idea for the barter system: home exchanges.

Karl Costabel, owner of HomeLink USA, which dates to 1953, says: "We are, and I suspect will remain, a niche market. Our main demographic is the psychological profile of the individual: They must be easygoing and open to the idea of turning over their home to a stranger. There is little middle ground. When a person hears about this, there are two common reactions, either 'This is great, how do I join,' or 'You'd have to be totally deranged to offer your home to a stranger.' I tell people openly that if they have any concerns about security they should not join as they would not be able to enjoy their vacation."

Ed Kushins, 61, who founded HomeExchange in 1992 with one listing - his own - agrees to a point. "The idea of a stranger in your home isn't just a potential concern; it is probably everyone's primary concern if it's their first experience. But by the time homes are actually exchanged, the person is anything but a stranger," he said, citing all the information posted on each homeowner's page on the website, the extensive communication leading to an exchange, and the ability to check references.

"The most appealing thing to me about house swapping is that it makes the world a smaller place," said Gretchen Hunsberger, 57, of Newburyport, who with her two daughters has been home exchanging for 18 years. "I believe the world is, more often than not, a good place, a safe place, and it's important to have that worldview affirmed."

Yet even the most savvy exchanger can have a bad experience. Nicole Feist has been home exchanging since 1991 and has done more than 30 swaps. In 2006, she started HomeExchanger.blogspot.com, which attracts 35,000 readers. A passionate advocate of exchanging, Feist nonetheless had what she termed the "home exchange from hell," described on her blog as a small, dingy, smelly apartment in an unsafe neighborhood of Paris.

Feist is confident that her bad experience and those of others can be easily prevented. She cites three important steps: Never agree to a swap without seeing interior photos. Get to know a potential swapper. Avoid third-party swaps, which she calls a "big no-no."

For a mainstream vacation alternative, Kushins sees home exchange as being at the tipping point of acceptance. Many have taken to the concept wholeheartedly. Kris Stayin, 38, who swaps her second home, a Leather District loft, said, "We're new at this, but it's easy to want to exchange with everyone. We have been active on the home exchange network for less than a year. We have confirmed more than eight swaps through the next year or more, with individuals and families in Madrid, Hawaii, Italy, Costa Rica, the UK, Sonoma, Scottsdale, and even the Cape."

An old hand at exchanging, Tom Lerra, 63, of Brookline, and his family have made 33 swaps over 25 years. "We have been able to meet some wonderful people, both neighbors and occasionally the exchangers themselves," he said. "We have become good friends with many of them."

Lisa Weiler, 51, of Lexington, said, "The people who own the house we stayed at in St. Lucia are restaurateurs, and we got to know some of their staff. I spent a lot of time talking with a woman who came to the house every day to wash the napkins from the restaurant. Meeting her was one of the most interesting aspects of being there for me. We were roughly the same age, and had a tremendous amount in common, although our lives are completely different."

The benefits are practical and social, said Laura Foulkes, 58, of Westfield. "By the time you get there, you already know the best bakery, the museum that is a 'must-see,' the road to avoid. If you want, you can meet everyday people, the exchange family's friends and neighbors. We've been invited to wonderful dinners, been toured around town, and sipped wine in evening neighborhood get-togethers. We are still in touch with several of the families."

Scott Haas, 52, of Cambridge, who with his wife, Laura, and two children has been home exchanging for about 15 years, heard about the concept from a fellow parent while dropping his kids off at school. A member of Intervac, also dating to 1953, Haas and his family have traded homes in Venice; Lucerne, Switzerland; Toulouse, France; and Iceland, Greece, and Hawaii.

Haas listed the reasons they are committed exchangers: "Traveling with kids is, of course, expensive. It saved us tons of money. Having a kitchen is great. I love to cook. We could stay abroad longer. We were visitors rather than tourists. We were integrated into communities."

Janet Husband, 66, of Brewster said swapping can be an alternative to boarding the swapper's pet. "At the time of our first exchange to London in 1984 we had an aging Yorkie and they had a chinchilla in an indoor cage and a dozen chickens in their backyard," she recalled. "Our Braintree neighbors reported seeing the Londoners' two boys, 8 and 10 or so, running poor Mopsy around our neighborhood. The pace must not have bothered her - in fact she seemed friskier than usual when we returned."

The Haas family "paid it forward" while enjoying a month in Hawaii two years ago. Haas had approached a couple whose Maui home they had stayed in a decade earlier. The couple declined a second exchange, saying they were afraid of spending time away from home; one of their mothers, Ivy, was 95 and frail and living in a downstairs in-law apartment. Haas reminded the couple that his wife is a physician and in an emergency they could be counted on. They accepted.

"We stayed in their gorgeous house and Ivy joined us nightly for ice cream and we got her fish dinners from a take-out place we all liked. In the morning we spent time with her feeding the tropical songbirds," Haas said.

For other families, home exchange is a legacy. In August, Foulkes's son Ethan, 28, and his bride, Amanda, 27, honeymooned outside Paris for three weeks by swapping their Las Vegas home.

Kushins says 10 years ago his membership was skewed to teachers and retirees but today it's also newlyweds, empty nesters, young families, and people with teenagers.

Another of Foulkes's sons, Jeff, 24, credits his career choice to having grown up as an exchanger. After home swapping since the age of 12, he decided he wanted a job that paid him to travel. In September, he left for an assignment teaching English in an Istanbul elementary school.

Megan Powers, 47, of Winchester, is another second-generation exchanger. "My husband, three daughters, and I were first exposed to the concept of home exchanges 11 years ago by my parents. As retirees, Mom and Dad wanted to see the world but did not want to bankrupt themselves in the process. They found home exchanging to be a wonderful solution to the daunting costs of longer-term foreign travel."

Powers continued, "Several years ago, my parents suggested to me that we list our home. They felt that the New England area would be very appealing to foreign visitors. I wasn't so sure that Winchester, Mass., would hold the same cachet as a Sanibel home across the street from the beautiful Florida beaches. . . . We were shocked and overwhelmed to within weeks receive dozens and dozens of requests to exchange with homes all over the world."

Meg Pier can be reached at nahantmeg@gmail.com.

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