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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
House swapping requires an adventurous spirit and a large element of trust, and it's not for the type of person who can't stand the idea of someone sleeping in their bed or touching their stuff
The Sars, a hassidic family living in Safed, don't think of themselves as people at the forefront of global social trends, but they were trading their home with another family for vacations long before the term "house swapping" became a buzzword.
"We swapped apartments with another Chabad family 16 years ago, when a neighbor of ours told us about a friend in Jerusalem who wanted to trade for a vacation," says Yehudit Sar, a mother of seven. "The next year, we posted a notice on our shul bulletin board, and met a very nice family whom we began swapping with nearly every year. Until we stopped doing it four years ago, we could easily take a 10-day vacation to see friends and shop for no cost."
It may not have seemed so vogue to the family at the time, but house swapping has become a popular way for travelers to vacation inexpensively, meet new people, and get an inside look at different cultures. Word of mouth is pass ; the growing industry of Web sites dedicated to the subject all proclaim that "everyone" is doing it. A new free site, www.jewishhomeswap.com, was recently launched to cater to the Jewish community niche. However, if you tell that to people here, you might get a different picture.
True, the on-line Israeli message boards are full of posts from people looking to trade apartments with someone in New York, London, and other American and European hotspots. For example, a quick search on Flathunting, a popular English e-mail list for finding apartments, yields American Jews searching for a swap during the High Holy Days, Israeli couples looking to vacation in Europe, and singles looking to relocate to small US cities for a temporary work assignment. Many of them, however, are finding that it is not so easy to get out of paying for a hotel room.
"I posted about house swapping but we've never actually done it. It was just one of our options," says Einav Grosser, a resident of Philadelphia who was looking to swap her apartment for one here. She and her husband ended up renting an apartment instead.
Ramat Beit Shemesh resident Matanyah gave similar feedback about her search for a London residence for three weeks. "Unfortunately, I don't have much to say since we have never done it before... we received no responses to our ad other than yours," she glumly responded.
That's not to say that the hype is unjustified; swapping houses can be a great way to vacation, says Avi Ben Zev, who moderates the Flathunting list. "You don't have to pay for expensive hotel rooms, and you sometimes get a place that is even nicer than your own. It can also be a great cultural experience, giving you a more authentic glimpse at the culture of another city than staying at a hotel with other tourists."
He notes that feedback he has heard from people who have swapped homes through the list has been overwhelmingly positive.
FLATHUNTING IS just one of myriad directories for renters and house swappers in Israel and around the world. Locally, most of the on-line billboards like Localista and Craigslist include house swapping ads for free, and worldwide sites like Homeexchange.com and Trading Homes charge $50 to $90 a year for access to large databases of potential swappers. Jewishhomeswap.com is free, although its young member database is still a bit sparse. Other resources, including testimonials, tips and sample swapping agreements are also available on-line.
On Flathunting, Ben Zev says that he has seen a steady increase in the number of requests to swap homes, although he concedes that the percentage of people who are interested is still pretty small.
"House swappers still make up only about 1-2 percent of all posts, and most of those are for trips during the holiday season," he says.
He notes that the East Coast and West Coast of the United States as well as some parts of England are the travel destinations most frequently sought by the list's English-speaking subscribers, although many, like Sar, prefer to swap with friends in other Israeli cities for an easy change of scenery.
Isn't leaving your home in the care of someone else a gigantic risk? A lot of people fear that handing over their homes to a total stranger is a clear invitation for disaster, theft and negligence, and things can go wrong even when swapping with friends.
Sure, house swapping requires an adventurous spirit and a large element of trust, and it's not for the type of person who can't stand the idea of someone sleeping in their bed or touching their stuff. However, most of the people who have tried it say they had no problems with theft or malicious damages. In fact, visitors say they usually feel obligated to take even better care of their vacation house than their real homes.
Talpiot resident Sylvia Hareven, whose family of five swapped homes with a family in Zichron Ya'acov last year, suggested the mutual risk that each side took helped ensure that both sides played fair.
"Neither side risked more than the other," she notes. "When we first spoke on the phone, things just sounded right, and we decided to do it. You have to start off with a basic faith that you can trust each other."
That, along with some similar interests, made the swap a great success. Hareven and her kids had a great time on the beach, but she said the best treat of their vacation house was the bookshelf.
"The adults in both families spent the whole time reading each other's books. We were both interested in similar topics, but they had a lot of books we didn't."
OF COURSE, things don't always work out so well, and swappers are usually advised to take steps to protect their assets. Some will require a list of references from a potential visitor, and others may ask for a $1,000 deposit to cover potential damages. Agreeing beforehand about how to handle charges for telephone and utilities can also prevent misunderstandings later on.
Jerusalem resident Ruth Sheffer, who swapped homes with some friends in Rosh Pina several years ago, adds that she would make sure to set up an agreement to cover damages beforehand if she ever decided to swap again. One of her kids did accidentally do some damage to a baby bed during her otherwise positive experience.
"We were lucky it wasn't anything serious, but I wish we had prepared for the possibility beforehand," she says.
Sar takes even greater precautions when she swaps homes. She insists she would only swap with other Chabad Hassidim, and only within Israel.
"That makes it a lot easier with kashrut and other religious issues," she says. "Also, I wouldn't be comfortable in another country if there was a problem at the house with the electricity or plumbing. When I am just a few hours away, I can easily call and fix any problems."
Sar recommends that swappers prepare a list of rules before their guests arrive, and set aside things that are off limits.
"You have to accept that people are going to be curious and rummage through your stuff, so if you don't want people looking at embarrassing baby pictures of your kids or playing on your computer, you should lock those away. You don't have to give them access to everything."
Sar also recommends giving clear directions about using things around the house, marking milk and meat utensils to make sure they don't get mixed up and explaining any peculiarities that a person would need to know to use the showers, appliances or house keys. If you also swap cars with your visitor, as many do, make sure to explain any quirk that could be an issue.
Despite all the potential for disaster, Hareven notes that virtually all house swapping stories seem to be good ones.
"Especially in the religious world, the community aspect seems to help keep people safe. But there is also the fact that the whole house swapping market is still relatively small. If everybody would start doing it, that could change quickly."