CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Roz and Don Cole, both in their 70s, have had fabulous experiences with home exchanges. Roz does most of the planning and research on her home computer in Kailua.
Although Roz and Don Cole haven't kept a scrapbook of the houses they've stayed in since they began exchanging homes in 1980, they have vivid memories of every one.
There was the house in Monterey, Calif., right across from the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, whose owners asked them to feed a cute but rather bold visitor. "A raccoon would tap on the back door, then stand about eight feet away," Roz recalls. "We'd open the door, put out the food, close the door and watch him come and eat. He seemed very grateful."
Then there was the house in Portland, Ore., that came with three pages of instructions on how to care for the family's 12 pots of prized African violets. "In my experience, you can kill African violets pretty easily," says Don. "I'm happy to say we didn't have a single casualty."
In Baltimore the Coles stayed in a house where every surface was covered with knickknacks. Says Roz, "They had collections of everything you can imagine -- watches, clocks, even puppets hanging from the ceiling in the powder room. The place was a collection of collections!"
Such is the fun of home exchanging, which Roz, 72, a retired social worker, and Don, 77, a retired electrical engineer, assert is a great way to travel.
Basically, you pick a destination you'd like to visit and, through a home-exchange service, find suitable options in the area (the size of the house and proximity to places you wish to see are among factors to consider).
Next, you contact the owners to see if they are interested in visiting Hawaii and staying in your home while you stay in theirs. If they are -- voilà! Schedules are coordinated and the swap is made. All arrangements are handled privately by the two parties.
The Coles' favorite exchanges include a cottage in a tiny rural village in Scotland. "One morning," says Roz, "I was looking out the kitchen window and saw a herd of cows trotting up the road all by themselves; there was no man or dog in sight. We watched them go about three-quarters of a mile, then they all came to a halt. One cow turned around and started walking very slowly back the way they had come, and the others followed. A neighbor later told us nonchalantly, 'Oh, yes, they do that sometimes.' I guess they need to keep relearning that the grass isn't always greener on the other side."
DIGSVILLE HOME EXCHANGE CLUB
Swapping homes with someone in Colorado offers a white Christmas.
Seniors are good candidates for home exchanging because they're usually flexible. Not tied to set vacation periods, they can entertain more offers and travel in off-peak times to take advantage of cheaper air fares. They also often have the freedom to take longer trips, which, especially in foreign countries, allows them to immerse themselves in a different culture and lifestyle.
The Coles have exchanged their modest one-bedroom Kailua home for accommodations that have run the gamut, from a cozy apartment a block from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to a gorgeous hilltop manse in New Zealand, with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and miles of pristine beaches. They estimate they've made about 25 exchanges in the same number of years, including five back-to-back swaps in the United Kingdom in 2000. Roz describes them as "excellent experiences all around."
One of the prime benefits is savings: no exorbitant hotel bills, lower meal costs because you have use of a full kitchen. Those who arrange to trade vehicles save on car-rental fees, too.
You'll also enjoy niceties such as laundry facilities, computer access and ample room to roam. Some houses even boast a private pool, gym or barbecue.
Plus, living in a "real" neighborhood allows for experiencing a destination from an insider's perspective. You'll meet local folks who can offer tips on the best places to dine, shop, even get a haircut.
Some people might feel uncomfortable having strangers in their home, but Don notes, "Remember, we're living in their house while they're living in ours. We haven't had any problems about security. We've also never come home to messes, a sink full of dirty dishes, broken things and the like. We've found home-exchangers to be trustworthy, respectful people."
That said, the practice is not for everyone. "You have to be patient and detail-oriented," notes Roz. "You have to be a meticulous planner. Arranging a home exchange takes a lot of coordination. After we decide where we want to go, I send out my information to as many people who live there as my fingers can manage on the computer, and wait for the responses."
Some say the Coles' house is too small or they can't travel at the requested time or they've already committed to another exchange.
Says Roz, "One guy didn't want to exchange with us because he thought our 8-year-old car was too old! Many of them don't work out, and you just have to keep going. Sometimes I send out dozens of inquiries before one clicks. It took me 18 months to pull together our five back-to-back exchanges in the United Kingdom."
Still, the Coles are avid advocates of home exchanging, and have gotten their grandson and several friends involved. "We get into our spiel because the more exchangers you have, the more choices there are and the better it is for all exchangers," Roz says.
She adds that many home-exchangers are so enthusiastic, they fill scrapbooks with notes and photos of all the swaps they've made. "But we haven't done that. We're too busy thinking, 'On to the next house!'"
Roz and Don Cole offer the following suggestions for anyone interested in home exchanging:
» Exchange photos of your homes, so everyone knows exactly what to expect.
» Both parties should sign an agreement that details responsibilities, including how to handle property damage. Exchange companies usually explain how to draft such agreements.
» Specify any house rules. For example, the Coles don't allow smoking in their home.
» Empty a section of a bedroom closet and a few dresser drawers and label them "Guest."
» If you know your exchangers will be arriving late, prepare a meal such as a casserole for them.
» Maintain a current selection of maps, brochures and other information about popular visitor attractions.
» Prepare a detailed folder of "housekeeping" items -- from when to put out the trash to where to find the first-aid kit.
» Inform your neighbors that guests will be staying in your house and that they have permission to use your car.
» Provide guests with a copy of your itinerary and the names and phone numbers of relatives and neighbors who can be called if needed.