If you're a vacationer considering alternatives to high-priced hotels — say you just want a place to hang your hat, prepare an inexpensive meal, and mingle with the locals — home swapping may be the ticket. For a few weeks you relinquish your house keys to another family and, in exchange, take up residence in their home — maybe in a different country, maybe elsewhere in the U.S.

Sound a little scary? True enough, home swapping is not for the faint of heart. But following a few simple precautions can help ensure that your house remains safe and secure during your absence. And by avoiding costly hotels in expensive tourist areas, you may even return with a few extra dollars in your bank account.

If you're contemplating a home swap, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Search for a suitable swap partner. Several websites — for example, homexchange.com — will let you list and post photos of your house and allow you to search thousands of available houses for trade. Before handing over fees to any agency, however, be sure to follow up with the Better Business Bureau and, if possible, contact others who have used the company.
  • Check insurance policies. Make sure your home policy covers house swaps and your car policy allows you to add a named driver (if you plan to let the swap partner use your vehicle).
  • Watch for extra charges. These might include fees for using the Internet or emergency repairs to the vacation home.
  • Ask about the neighborhood. Is it safe to take a walk at night? Are there grocery stores, retail shops, and parks nearby? You want a pleasant vacation, not an excursion to a combat zone.
  • Call, e-mail, Twitter — communicate! Build a relationship with your swap partner before trading homes. You'll gain a sense of the family who'll be staying in your house, and they'll build trust in you.
  • Check references. Don't take their word for it. If the family has swapped homes before, it's reasonable to contact previous swap partners to ask about their experiences.
  • Confirm all arrangements in writing. Written agreements should include exchange dates and an outline of expectations. If something goes awry, a written contract can prevent misunderstandings.

If you're pondering a new adventure or just looking for a low-cost vacation alternative, home swapping is worth considering. Just use caution.

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