Homes away from home

Swapping houses is proving to be an inexpensive way to travel abroad and save on accommodation.

baka house 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
baka house 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the economic crisis has left many Jerusalem families feeling that Pessah travel is an impossible luxury, a new accommodation option has been attracting a growing following among the adventurous of heart. It offers all the conveniences of home, is a great way to experience the local culture and, most compelling in these troubled times, it is free. "Beautiful just-built penthouse overlooking the Judean Desert. Kosher kitchen. The porch is 100 square meters - perfect for entertaining. One-hundred-square-foot kitchen. It's the perfect holiday home for a family," reads one ad. The most intriguing feature is that the apartment is available for the precious Pessah period - when hotel costs rise significantly - at absolutely no cost. If it seems like a dream opportunity, too good to be true, that is because there is one condition. In exchange for this gorgeous penthouse, the owners request the privilege of staying in your New York or Paris apartment. It is part of the little-known yet well-established practice of home swapping. Home exchangers trade their places in Jerusalem for the right to stay in their swap partners' homes abroad - anywhere from the traditionally popular New York to more exotic locales like Madrid and Sydney. This Pessah, many Jerusalem families are devising novel strategies to finance their annual getaways. Some have transformed their apartments into vacation rentals. Others are offering Pessah cleaning services to create extra income. One particularly enterprising man promises tours of Jerusalem to families who will give him a "place to lay his head" when he goes abroad. The biggest trend, however, has been home exchanges. Thirty percent more people have advertised for Pessah home exchanges this year than last, according to Shimon Wanine, who runs the largest Israel-based home exchange Web site, Passepar Tour. The Pessah increase has been even more dramatic than the overall 20 percent rise in interest in the last six months, which Wanine attributes to the economic recession. Much of the appeal comes from the simplicity of the concept. Potential exchangers put up ads on home exchange sites several months before they plan to leave for their holidays. Once exchangers coordinate dates, basic expectations about cleaning, vehicle use and kosher standards, all that remains is to leave a key with the neighbor and jet off to the locale of choice. "Three-bedroom apartment. Beautiful furniture and decorated. Very well located in the heart of Old Katamon. Kosher kitchen. We are looking for Pessah and August. We are interested in US cities and European cities," reads one typical ad from Jewish Home, a US-based site. Pessah is the perfect time for home exchanges because, along with Succot, it is the rare week when many Jews around the world take lengthier vacations, according to Tali Aronsky, who exchanged her studio apartment in New York for a one-bedroom in central Jerusalem last Pessah. For Aronsky, who lived in Jerusalem for several years, the main advantage of a home exchange is that it allows her to feel like a Jerusalemite again, "not just another American tourist." Traveling to Israel for Pessah feels like coming home, Aronsky says, which made a home exchange a less risky, more comfortable option. "It was nice to be in a neighborhood. It felt more homely." Israel is the ideal place for home exchanges, she says, because people share so many connections. "It feels more familiar. I know the neighborhoods. I know the people. There are fewer degrees of separation here. Chances are that whoever you are exchanging with will know someone you know." Aronsky's exchange partner was a young, single, professional woman like herself, which she said gave her an additional feeling of connection. When her Israeli exchange partner, who arrived in New York a couple of days before Aronsky left, saw the former Jerusalemite packing light summer clothing, she warned her that it had been unseasonably chilly here. Aronsky returned the favor by recommending local New York cafes and discount clothing outlets. "It was fun that way. It didn't feel anonymous." Pessah also presents more weighty challenges for home exchangers, as families try to coordinate standards for hametz cleaning. This requires a clear and frank conversation beforehand, emphasizes Miriam Raphael, who runs Jewish Home Some families agree to kosher their kitchens as part of the general cleaning process in preparation for the exchange. Others, like Aronsky, just choose to eat out, which is straightforward in Jerusalem but can be more challenging in other cities. Most Web sites, such as Jewish Home Exchange, are free and run by dedicated exchangers. This makes house swapping an economically appealing but risky option because administrators do not monitor who can post or the claims they make. "My husband likes to say house swapping is like MAD - mutually assured destruction. You have to trust the other person to take care of your home like they trust you," says Gillian Kay, a Jerusalem resident who exchanged with a family in New York and now runs a Facebook group for kosher house swappers. Despite the seemingly enormous risks of leaving one's home in the care of strangers, house swappers remain enthusiastic proselytizers for the experience. "Where do I start?" exclaims one woman, who has swapped four times in as many years. All exchangers testify to the fact that it is cheap, easier than trying to rent out your apartment, a chance to experience the local culture and a great way to meet new people. Interspersed are fond reminiscences about their favorite exchange moments. The family the Kays exchanged with "fell in love with the place" and almost made aliya. "We met up at the end and had a meal. You really get a picture of what they're like. You see their books. their home." While exchanging began to take off in most countries during the 1990s as more people got home Internet connections, the movement has lagged behind in otherwise tech-savvy Israel. "Home exchanging tends to be slower to catch on in countries where people are more house proud," suggests Lois Sealey, whose Web site House Base Holidays is based in Britain, where house swapping has long enjoyed mainstream appeal. "Israelis tend to be very skeptical" about leaving their houses to strangers. "So are we American Jews, I guess," agrees Ayelet Goldberg, who lives in Florida and has been trying to set up a vacation exchange to Jerusalem or Caesarea for several years without success. Still, home exchanges have been gaining popularity in Israel in the last five or six years, according to Wanine. When he started doing home exchanges 12 years ago, he estimates there were approximately 200 exchanges a year in Israel. Now he says there are more than 1,500 swaps taking place through Israeli Web sites. His own site receives more than 25,000 hits a day. The economic crisis has focused media attention on home exchanges, leading to greater public interest. For example, U-Exchange, a site that coordinates trades of homes, as well as motorcycles, boats and services, received 450,000 hits between February 14 and March 14 last year. In the same period this year, the site saw a 147% increase - to over 1 million visitors. Yet many say that increased interest this year has not necessarily translated into more actual exchanges, especially in Israel. Web sites track hits, but most do not have a system for counting the number of exchanges that are actually completed. Many administrators and exchangers themselves say people are signing up because they are intrigued by the idea, but they tend to back out when it comes to making the actual trades. In some cases, the reason is classic cold feet about leaving one's home to a stranger; but many are also deciding that travel of any kind is too expensive right now. "Nada from the mass e-mail. Most of my guys seem to be staying put and keeping their shekels in their mattresses," is the response Aronsky got from one friend who offered to help her find an exchange partner for this Pessah. It is a bad news year for Pessah tourism in general, acknowledges Ariel Rotstein, the director of the Jerusalem Hotel Association. Most officials are loath to speculate about the beating that tourism may take. "There is a saying that when the prophets passed from this world, the power of prophecy was left to babies and crazies," one municipal official responds evasively. Still, Rotstein admits the city expects a 20% to 30% drop in tourism this Pessah. Although he says hotels are not worried about home exchanges in particular, which remain a fairly specialized practice, they are concerned there will be a general trend toward staying with family and friends and celebrating the Seder at home instead of going out. It is most likely too late for home exchanges to make a real difference to Pessah tourism this year. "It is very hard to change the consciousness," says Batya Kenaniel Bram. She works for the Web site, which has failed to facilitate home exchanges for the upcoming Pessah season. "It requires a change in our consumer way of thinking. But it might be something that will happen toward summer or Succot as we increase knowledge and understanding about it."