Daniel Scott takes advantage of an increasingly popular way to save on holiday accommodation while living like a local: house swapping.
Late last year when planning a big family trip to Europe that we could barely afford, we made our first foray into house-swapping. It took just minutes to register with the new Love Home Swap site and a few hours to add a description and pictures of our four-bedroom rural house on the beautiful NSW mid-north coast.
Then we started surfing the site. Ideally, we were looking for a London home for four weeks and another in the English countryside in which to celebrate a significant birthday with friends.
There were hundreds of stylish houses to choose from. Our only concern was: would any homeowners we sent swap requests to want to trade the European summer for the Australian winter?
Over the next few months, we received many apologetic responses saying the timing for a simultaneous swap between England and Australia was not quite right. We also received inquiries about our place from Sydney, New Zealand, Britain and Salt Lake City that didn't suit us.
We widened our search and opened ourselves up to the possibility of a non-simultaneous swap, thinking we'd vacate our place in summer and stay with family if necessary. The inconvenience would be worth the money we'd save.
However, three weeks before our June visit, we still hadn't secured any swaps. When an old friend offered us her London cottage for a month, it saved our trip. But we still needed a venue for a week-long birthday bash.
Shortly before we left for Europe, we sent off another 10 ambitious swap requests. None more so than to the owners of a 12-bedroom rectory set amid the rolling hills of North Devon, three hours' drive from London.
Never in our wildest dreams did we think that, three weeks later, we would be celebrating in style at this sumptuous property.
Located in the Saxon village of Chulmleigh, The Old Rectory (theoldrectorychulmleigh.co.uk) is even more imposing than it looks in pictures. Situated among sculpted gardens and towering elm trees, the sprawling Victorian mansion crowns a hill overlooking a river valley between Dartmoor and Exmoor.
Inside the main house, eight luxurious en suite guest rooms are spread over two upper floors, each individually decorated with great thought and care.
The accommodation options include a room with a Parisian theme and the "Principal room", where my wife and I sleep in a four-poster bed and bath our young daughters in a roll-top double-size tub once owned by the Kennedy clan. All the rooms feel both decadent and warm and have far-reaching views over the countryside.
Sharing the rectory with six old friends, a feeling of conviviality suffuses the entire house. Each night we take turns to cook dinner on the original kitchen range and gather like lords and ladies around a long, candle-lit dining table.
Over the week, we take full advantage of the rectory's facilities. We mimic the ongoing Wimbledon championships on the tennis court, swim in the heated outdoor pool, try our hands at croquet on the manicured lawn, do yoga in the annexe studio, and play late-night games of snooker in the games room.
So brilliantly self-contained is the Rectory that we rarely venture beyond its gates, going for the odd walk in the surrounding hills and chatting with locals over pints of real ale in two inviting village pubs. The house's beaming caretaker, Gordon, occasionally turns up to tend to the gardens but, otherwise, we're left to our own devices.
Our experience is an example of the hot new travel trend of house swapping.
"It's like online dating for homes," says Debbie Wosskow, who founded Love Home Swap with her brother, Ben, last year because they were sick of spending 80 per cent of their travel budget on accommodation. According to a recent survey of the site's members, the average accommodation saving per swap is $3367.
"It's part of the greater fashion for 'collaborative consumption' that encompasses home-rental sites such as Airbnb that's sweeping the world," Wosskow says. "People everywhere are asking, 'How can I use assets like my home to facilitate my life?"'
Our Devon exchange also underlines a growth area within house swapping. Our English hosts won't be staying at our Australian home until next year, but they were happy to accommodate us first.
Love Home Swap's member survey found that 51 per cent of swaps taking place via the site are non-simultaneous. "This is particularly important for Australians, who make up 20 per cent of our members," Wosskow says, "because of the opposite seasons to Europe and the US.
"A third of our listings are for second homes," she adds, "which makes non-simultaneous swaps easier."
One experienced house-swapping family from Glebe in Sydney's inner west, members of the Homeexchange.com site since 2004, have completed several non-simultaneous exchanges.
In one domestic swap, they stayed for three weeks in a four-bedroom property in Noosa Waters, enjoying the use of a BMW, a boat and kayaks. The Noosa family have yet to have their return stay in Sydney.
The Glebe family also recently accommodated a Turkish family from Bodrum in their three-bedroom converted warehouse and haven't yet completed their part of the swap.
According to Love Home Swap, Sydney is among the world's most desirable house-swapping destinations, along with London, Paris, New York and Milan.
Beach houses, ski chalets and properties in Tuscany are also much sought-after.
Sydney's north shore and inner suburbs are particularly popular, as are other state capitals and Byron Bay.
"I find that the majority of house swappers are more interested in location than the house," the owner of aussiehouseswap.com.au, Nick Fuad, says.
If you are lucky enough to own a pad in a desirable location, the odds of finding a suitable swap are excellent. The Glebe family receive an average of 10 inquiries a month, mainly from Europe. If that home is luxurious, the world is your oyster.
The Fox family only listed their stylish waterfront house at Sydney's McMahons Point on Love Home Swap last year, but it has attracted strong demand.
"We've completed exchanges in Phuket, Singapore, Queenstown in New Zealand and Sapphire Beach on the Coffs coast," owner Jennifer Fox says. "And we're visiting Provence next."
The exchange with Singapore saw the Foxes take up residence for nine days in a colonial-style mansion built in 1900. The home's expat owners, wanting to visit family in Sydney, made the initial approach.
"Singapore was the last place we were thinking of going because we knew it well," Fox says, "but then we saw the house online. It was spectacular.
"When we visited, it was even more of an eye-opener. Ten minutes from Orchard Road, beside a jungle with snakes and monkeys, and everything twice the size of how it looked in the photographs. Staying in this stunning house opened up a whole different side to Singapore."
The chance to live like a local is seen as one prime advantage of house swapping over staying in a hotel.
"Surprisingly, it is regarded as more important than cost savings, with 70 per cent of our members citing it as the biggest motivation for swapping, against 30 per cent who said it was because it saved them thousands on accommodation," Wosskow says.
Another benefit of house swapping is the potential for longer holidays.
"We went to Phuket for three weeks over Christmas and New Year and didn't feel like we had to do something every day," Fox says.
"In Australia," Aussie House Swap's Fuad says, "not having to pay for accommodation and having your own cooking facilities makes a domestic holiday much more affordable."
Other advantages include having your own space and the possibility of having access to a vehicle and another family's children's facilities.
For seasoned house swappers, there are few downsides. "You don't have to pack up your whole house as you would do to rent it, just clear a cupboard in each bedroom," Fox says.
The Foxes, who exchanged multiple emails and Skype calls before completing swaps, have not had any security worries. The Glebe family did turn down one owner after getting to know them online, an eastern European who sent a picture of himself in a spa bath. The family has not had any significant breakage during an exchange.
If you do decide to swap, however, it's important to inform your insurer. Love Home Swap is developing a policy to protect members worldwide, offering five nights at alternative accommodation should a promised swap not materialise.
Other problems occur with house swapping because of people's high expectations and differing standards of cleanliness.
"When you engage with a potential swapper, make the communication as good and clear as possible," Fuad advises.
"Put yourselves in your guests' shoes," Wosskow adds. "Provide them with as much information on your area as you can, telling them why you love this cafe, why this market is the best."
The secrets to successful house swapping include flexibility and open-mindedness. You'll also need to post good-quality photographs of your home, be realistic about its merits, and expect to exchange on a like-for-like basis.
Yet, as our experience attests, there is no harm in aiming high. You never know where you might end up.
House v hotel
A comparison of properties in three popular destinations, across three price ranges, suggests renting a house or apartment saves hundreds of dollars over staying in similar standard hotels.
High End — Byron Bay
Described by Garth Brien of Byron Bay Holiday Rentals as "the creme de la creme" of the coastal town's homes, Vantage Over Byron is available in the January peak season for $13,000 a week. The five-bedroom house has views over the ocean, hinterland and town. In January, accommodation in five superior suites (if available) at the similarly luxurious Byron at Byron resort costs $14,875 ($2975 a suite a week). Rental cost saving: $1875
Mid Range — Paris
How about a romantic break in Paris? Last April, friends found this "beautifully light and private" one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the Marais district via Airbnb. Five nights in late March 2013 cost $717 (plus $79 service fee) for two people. A superior double room for the same period at the charming Hotel Saint-Louis Marais, 1 Rue Charles V, costs $1158 via booking.com. Rental cost saving: $441
Budget — New York
If you're looking for budget New York accommodation, an artist's loft on Manhattan's Lower East Side might suit. Situated on Lafayette Street in Soho, it has a huge living space, large bedroom and costs $360 (plus $43 service fee) for three nights in mid-July 2013. Also on Lafayette Street is the Hotel Azure, where a small queen room costs $602 over the same period via Trip Advisor. Rental cost saving: $242
Best house-swap sites
Best for international and luxury properties
Although based in the US, homeexchange.com, founded in 1992, has more than 43,000 listings in 140 countries. Lovehomeswap.com is rapidly catching up, doubling its membership to 7500 across 105 countries in the past three months. Eighty-two per cent of its members have never exchanged before. The site is aiming for 100,000 listings. Membership costs $175 a year.
Best for Australian properties
Launched in 2004 by Nick and Kylie Fuad when they couldn't find a domestic site on which to list their Nambucca Heads property, aussiehouseswap.com.au now has 2500 Australian and Kiwi members. Membership costs $65 a year.