Susan Stoutz has had 12 vacations since last October, and in all of them, the Philadelphia grandmother enjoyed top-notch accommodations without spending a dime.
A subscriber to the swapping serviceHomeExchange.com! , Stoutz has vacationed in Mexico; Virginia; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Montreal; the Hamptons; and the Poconos. As part of the deal, she exchanges her home with residents of those cities while she's away.
"I've never returned home to find anything in less than perfect condition, and I have always left homes in the same way," she says. "In fact, the worst thing that happened was someone broke the switch on a lamp, but then they left me $25 for a $4 switch!"
Home exchanges have steadily gained popularity over the past decade, and as the economic recession continues its stranglehold on the world, it makes more sense than ever to take a vacation without paying for accommodations.
HomeExchange.com!  is the largest home-swapping site on the Internet, with some 28,000 listings. Half of them are in North America, and up to 30 percent represent second homes or cottages, according to Ed Kushins, company president.
"Depending on the length of your stay, you'll save between $1,000 and $10,000 by doing a home exchange," he says. "And when people are done with the exchange, what they remember most is not the money they saved, but that they lived in a house that was much more comfortable than staying in a hotel and experienced their vacation destination as if they were a local."
Dianne Thornton agrees.
"It is interesting and fun being exposed to different ways of living and also being afforded the opportunity to have an 'inside peek' at life in different countries," says the Toronto resident.
She did a home exchange for an apartment in central Paris, where the kitchen chairs were hung up in the bathroom to save space. She's also participated in exchanges in Prague; Amsterdam; Halifax; Chicago; Montreal; Lancaster, Pa.; and Rochester, N.Y.
Who Are These People?
"The economic angle of home exchanges is obvious -- no hotel room or restaurant expenses, plus all the benefits of having a kitchen, laundry facilities and more space to relax after busy days of sight seeing," she notes. And "without the stress of a big hotel bill, one can really explore the new area in a more relaxed manner, instead of trying to fit everything into a few days."
Initially, you might be worried about the kind of people that will stay in your home.
After all, how do you know they won't rifle with your personal possessions, stain your carpets or violate your privacy?
Some of it is common sense, affirms Stoutz.
"You don't leave important papers around, nor your expensive jewels, and if something breaks, you replace it," she says.
"The people who do this trust their fellow human beings and treat the home they are visiting with as much respect as they would their own," she continues. "One has to put aside suspicion and the fear of strangers in order to have a happy and successful time."
Frequent communication helps to eliminate misplaced expectations and future problems, concurs Kushins: "A lot of people go into a home exchange with a bit of apprehension, but if you spend time on the site before you post your listing, you'll see there's so much information that you get quite comfortable. You see how people describe themselves, their home and their neighborhood, and once you read that and start communicating with a possible exchange partner, the fear of strangers dissipates."
The rule of thumb in an exchange is to prepare your home as if you were having a guest come to stay. That means clean sheets and towels, a bit of closet space and perhaps some food in the pantry, so they don't arrive starving to find empty cupboards.
Some home exchangers even leave their vehicle and car keys; Kushins leaves his kayak, bicycle, rollerblades and boogie board.
"I remove anything I wouldn't want to find in the fridge, and leave soft drinks, fruit and perhaps a bottle of wine. My pantry is completely open, and my only request is that if they finish off a particular item -- like, say, the ketchup -- they replace it. Guests are considerate, and tend to leave the house exactly as they found it," says Kushins.
For her part, Stoutz leaves food for breakfast, in addition to a bottle of wine and crackers with cheese.
"Most people do the same," she says, "although on one exchange the family has left a whole meal of lasagna for us."