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The Upcycler: Try a home swap. You’ll skip Airbnb and hotel costs and vacation like you’re a local.

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It all worked out in the 2006 rom-com “The Holiday,” in which Kate Winslet’s British Iris and Cameron Diaz’s American Amanda escape their own routines and love lives in a two-week, cross-Atlantic home swap.

Ask other home swappers, most with standard suitcases and backpacks and not so much romantic baggage, and they’ll tell you the same: It all works out. They saved money, briefly lived like a local in a new city, and their lives were changed for the better.

Home swaps or home exchanges, a low- or no-cost alternative to hotel and resort stays, and these days, even an Airbnb
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or VRBO stand-in, have been attracting travelers, remote workers, family caretakers and group retreats for extended stays for decades. One of the oldest established clubs for home-swapping connections is Home Link International. It started in the 1950s.

Clearly, greater work-from-anywhere flexibility (which looks here to stay for some) and a general inclination to isolate away from crowd exposure during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more of the curious into their first home swap. Since then, more people are sticking with the concept, according to Google Trends. One of the largest sites that can be used to seek out an interested swapping party, HomeExchange.com, told MarketWatch that requests for exchanges in 2021 grew roughly 30% compared to 2020. And interest in 2022 continues to rise.

How home swaps work

The basic formula is a “reciprocal exchange” — a Denver family desires two weeks in Paris in the middle of June and that Parisian famille wants to head for the Rockies at the same time. They swap. At HomeExchange and other sites, they’ve also built in points banks, which means you don’t have to swap for exactly the same dates. This might make sense if you know you’re leaving your apartment for a week for a work conference, you lend out your digs, collect the points, and use them later when you want to vacation and there’s availability; and it doesn’t have to be with the same swapper.

There’s no doubt that peer-to-peer accommodation models, such as Airbnb, VRBO and similar sites have mainstreamed staying in a stranger’s home. The major differences between those stays and a home swap lies with cost: cost of the stay, cost for cleaning, and often, a booking fee for each visit. Hotel and resort stays can be more transparent on cost, but even those options can have what the travel industry calls “drip pricing,” meaning the posted rate for a stay is discounted and attractive, but the final bill is dotted with add-ons. Plus, increasingly, Airbnb properties are corporate-owned, so the personal connection, and the connection to a lifestyle, is lost. And these hosts can have stricter rules on entertaining additional guests, child-friendly options and more factors to consider.

Still, the concept of staying in a residence is clearly here to say. In fact, one would-be swapper based in the U.S. used a TikTok video to simply ask if anyone in England wanted to trade. Before long, she had a taker.

Many home exchangers, especially those just getting started, begin with the handful of websites that not only allow you to list your property and find a right-sized offering in the city or country of your destination, they provide round-the-clock support should you hit any snags.

For instance, you might need reassurance. After all, you are opening your home to strangers even if it feels like you could become fast friends. That’s also the point of these sites: plenty of back-and-forth communication with the person you are swapping with in order to set expectations. Or, perhaps a garage door is jammed at your accommodation and you need a repair on site. Sometimes, the unexpected happens and a trip needs to be cancelled, or a host greatly under-delivers (there’s no way this place sleeps six as promised!). In these rare events, it’s nice to have the matchmaking site’s support.

Read: This couple only rents their lake house to ‘pay as you wish’ friends

The savings and convenience of home swaps

The advantage of home-exchange membership sites (and we get into a list below) is you can explore options without first paying the annual fee. Once you book, that membership sign-up is typically the next step and fees tend to range from $100-$200 annually, more for premium-listing sites.

But that’s it. The whole point is the actual stay is free. And depending on what you decide to exchange, a trip might include use of a bicycle, kayak, or scuba equipment, a swimming pool on site, as well has toys and a high chair for family trips — all features that will make your vacation easier and cost you nothing out of pocket. Plus, you can cook more of your own meals, perhaps enhanced because the host leaves a note with her favorite market and wine shop.

“It’s really a lifestyle exchange. You get an insider’s stay,” says Jessica Poillucci, the U.S. spokesperson for HomeExchange.

In fact, always ask what other exchanges might be included. “Some 40% of our home swap­pers are open to shar­ing their cars with oth­er mem­bers, while 20% of our mem­bers also share access to lifestyle ser­vices such as gym and club mem­ber­ships, and ski pass­es,” says the site Love Home Swap, adding, “by opt­ing to share these things that can add a great deal of expen­di­ture to your hol­i­day bud­get, you can make huge sav­ings on your travels.”

HomeExchange, for one, also provides property insurance coverage of up to $1 million in the rare event there is major damage — and most comparable sites have their own offerings, but do ask in advance. It also can’t hurt to check with your own insurance provider, although technically you are simply hosting guests, not running a business, which should not impact your policy.

 Don’t miss: Want to rent your home with a pool? Here’s what you’re liable for

More sites to choose from

Love Home Swap starts at around $10 per month for membership. HomeExchange is $175 a year for unlimited stays. It has since launched HomeExchange Collection, for owners of “exceptional” homes. The annual fee is $1,000 and not all homes make the cut.

Other websites are comparable in membership costs: Holiday Swap is $100 a year, Home Link International, the longest-running exchange group, is $140, with a free second year. 

Environmental considerations

For the curious, most sites have a page dedicated to ways to make home-swapping travel as sustainable as possible.

Platforms such as Holiday Swap emit 66% less CO2 emissions than hotels because the listings overall equate to less energy, water and waste, the site says in a recent LinkedIn posting. For instance, with less cleaning, cooking and miniature hotel toiletries, staying in someone else’s home can cut down, though obviously not completely eliminate, resource use.

Holiday Swap executives also suggest in their blog that more home swapping should mitigate over-development of under-capacity hotels. “And with fewer hotel developments, we can preserve more historic areas and natural resources,” they add.

Be mindful of…

Be sure you enter into swapping with your eyes wide open. People — strangers! — will be sleeping in your beds, using your internet, conversing with your neighbors. It’s OK to set guidelines, just be a fair and clear communicator.

And don’t be sloppy. Personal papers, valuable jewelry, anything that could cause you a restless night, should be locked away. In homes that are large enough, swappers often designate at least one room as off limits. Store precious items there, and lock the door.

If you want to list your apartment or condominium on a home-exchange site, make sure you’ve cleared it with any landlords or building boards. A misunderstanding that ruins your guest’s stay could jeopardize the swapping relationships you hope to build.

Editor’s noteThe Upcycler column aims to help you make more with less, save or earn extra money, expand your creative side and shrink your carbon footprint.

Upcycling and the Buy Nothing movement involve reusing objects for practical or aesthetic purposes, or prolonging their usefulness and diverting them from a landfill. Our column also explores the benefits of repairing or upgrading more of what we already own; tapping potentially life-changing free or deeply discounted goods and services; and traveling in less expensive, intrusive and consumptive ways.

For certain, if we can “upcycle” more of our time, earnings and peace of mind, everything might feel brand new. 

Have your own upcycling ideas or dilemmas? Reach out on Twitter @RachelKBeals or by email to rbeals@marketwatch.com.

More of The Upcycler:

How to save up to 50% on your grocery bill and reduce food waste

Think twice before you trade in your old smartphone or tablet — you could make more money ‘upcycling’ on resale sites

Economic Report: U.S. leading economic index pointing to recession around end of the year, Conference Board says

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