It's an alluring vacation idea in a recession: To beat pricey hotel rates, you swap homes with a family in the city you want to visit.
But when push comes to shove, you might have doubts about home exchange programs that open your home to strangers and the possibility of theft, property damage or injuries.
As people look for ways to trim traveling costs this summer, the risks and rewards of home swapping are getting closer scrutiny. In a perfect world, the idea is to save money and get a glimpse of life among local residents, all while keeping the conveniences of home.
"Home exchange isn't just about money. It's about getting off the tourist track and really caring about what other cultures are like," said Helen Coyle Bergstein, founder of the swapping site Digsville.com based in New Paltz, N.Y.
That said, here's what you need to know to arrange a successful home swap.
Q: How does it work?
A: The traditional home swap is when you trade places with another homeowner at the same time. There are other ways to do an exchange, however. You might go on a cruise while they stay in your home, then they might hunker down with relatives when you visit.
Without hotel ratings to give you guidance, be prepared for varying accommodations. Asking the right questions should prevent unwelcome surprises.
"It's all about communication," Bergstein said. "You need to be clear about everything, especially if you're traveling abroad."
Don't be discouraged if you live in a small town, either. There might be someone out there with family, friends or work to tend to in your neck of the woods.
Q: Are there any costs?
A: You'll most likely need to pay for membership to an online home exchange site. This gives you access to a bank of listings and boosts your chances of finding a suitable swap.
Membership fees vary, but are usually between $40 to $100 for a year.
Even if you only use the site once, the fee acts as a type of safeguard against opportunists, said Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com.
Beyond that, it's up to you and your swap partner to work out any financial matters. Home swapping sites often offer template agreements that cover issues such as utility costs and what food is OK to eat. The agreements usually aren't legally binding, however, so it doesn't eliminate risk altogether. The idea is to make it clear what each party expects.
All told, home swapping can save big money, especially if you make it a habit. While hotel room rates are falling across the country, the national average is still about $100 a night, according to Smith Travel Research Inc. Average rates in major cities are of course much higher — $193 in New York City and $180 in Miami.
Q: How do I know people are trustworthy?
A: Home exchange sites don't screen members, so you need to do your homework.
As with eBay or other peer-to-peer sites, home swappers can be rated after a stay. Don't be shy about reaching out to reviewers. Ask about their experience. Did the swappers keep the house clean? Did the online photos accurately portray their home?
If you're exchanging with a first-time swapper, you might want to ask for a referral from a neighbor or co-worker, although this isn't as common.
"This shouldn't offend people — they'll understand you're just doing due diligence," Kushins said.
Listings usually provide brief profiles of the homeowners, including their line of work, interests and a description of the family. A fuller picture should emerge once you reach out to them.
"You can really read people in an e-mail or telephone call," Bergstein said. "If you're asking a lot of questions and people are not open or generous with information, that might be a red flag."
Finally, remember that your exchange partner probably has similar fears. It's one reason people go to a home exchange site rather than anonymous newspaper listings.
Q: How do I protect against property damage or liability due to injuries?
A: Generally, home exchange partners are treated as any other guests under homeowners and renters insurance policies. So if your exchange partner breaks your lamp or steals a computer, you're covered, according to Kate Hollcraft, a spokeswoman for Allstate. The normal deductibles apply.
The same is true if your guest is hurt on your property, unless the injury is the result of reckless behavior (i.e., diving off the roof into a swimming pool).
If your exchange partner breaks or loses his or her personal property, their insurance would need to cover it.
Because policies differ, call your insurer to be sure you have appropriate coverage.
Q: What if one of us has to cancel the trip?
A: There aren't many options to protect against trip cancellations. But one option is getting a policy offered through CHECtravel. The policies, which are written by TravelGuard, start at about $15, or 5 percent of the coverage amount up to $50,000.
That covers any nonrefundable costs, including cancellations for plane tickets or car rentals, said Joe Murray, the founder of CHECtravel, which develops a code of conduct for home exchange sites.
You also have to be a member of CHECtravel to buy a policy. Membership costs $15 a year.
Q: What is the most common reason for dissatisfaction?
A: Cleanliness. Standards vary widely, so be honest about your housekeeping and don't be afraid to ask about your partners.
Don't rely on photos alone. If you're afraid of seeming rude, volunteer information about your own habits. Be sure to indicate whether you smoke or have pets.
Most home exchange sites have a component that describes housekeeping styles. Said Bergstein of Digsville.com: "It keeps the Felixes and Oscars from crossing paths."