Home exchanges offer holidays on the cheap
Hongkongers who yearn for a holiday but do not want to part with wads of cash have the option of using their home to fund a trip abroad.
Just as in the film The Holiday, featuring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet on a home exchange between Britain and the United States, householders can use specialist websites to post details of their homes and arrange holiday swaps.
Operating in essence like internet dating for your home, home exchange holidays allow householders to share their home or holiday house and see the world.
A relatively unknown concept in Hong Kong, it has been in operation for a couple of decades, particularly in Britain and the US.
Small apartments in city centres, such as those inhabited by many residents of Hong Kong, are just as attractive to home exchangers as luxury villas or romantic rural retreats, as they provide an opportunity for people to have a base for exploring the area.
There are plenty of reasons why people should consider doing home exchanges, not least the chance to maximise their assets.
Using your home for a holiday exchange is an easy way to save money, especially when there has been a recession.
'Home exchanges are not only a low-cost method of holidaying but offer additional benefits, particularly closeness to the local way of life,' said Howard Allson, founder and manager, business and customer support, of British-based Home Xchange Vacation.
One such example of the local touch is the chance a home exchange provides to experience the friendliness of neighbours who want to make a visitor feel welcome.
'This type of vacation appeals to holidaymakers that eschew the square box hotel experience,' Allson said.
Instead, it is tailor made for people who are looking for more local texture and a warmer experience with a human touch.
'The popularity of second holiday homes also allows owners more variety in their holiday destination by swapping their holiday house for a short period,' he said.
Exchanging your home does, however, present a few pitfalls. The success of a house swap rests on building trust with your exchange partner.
Both parties needed to be able to see each other's honesty and openness - and this involved building friendships, Allson said.
'It is a richer, more interactive process than booking a hotel or villa through a tour operator, which is usually transactional,' he said. 'The assurance of a good exchange arises from developing a genuine understanding with someone new, which in itself adds value to the experience.'
Other pitfalls arise from attempting to treat the process on the same terms as a hotel booking where universally accepted rules apply.
The terms of an exchange need to be agreed in enough detail to avoid any misunderstandings.
For example, it was important to reach an agreement on all the practicalities of how your home and the home you are visiting worked, from specific dates of the swap to who was going to feed the cat, Allson said.
In terms of the nitty gritty, setting up a home exchange does involve some paperwork.
'Most insurers prefer a home to be occupied while the owners are away on holiday and this actually offers greater protection from burglary,' he said. 'It is important to ensure your home insurance company is aware of the house swap, establishing any exclusions or conditions.'
House owners also need to prepare their homes for an exchange and to bear in mind safety and security issues.
For example, it makes sense for personal items to be locked away and for the property to be clean and tidy.
'The approach is to think of how you would present a house when friends are coming to stay,' Allson said.
Any special safety information, such as baby gates or window locks to ensure child safety, needs to be clearly identified and explained.
Householders also need to plan for when things go wrong, such as breakages or damage to their property. It was equally important that exchangers made time to get everything down in writing, Allson said. 'Remember to include things such as the number of people who will be staying and who will pay utility bills or phone bills, etc,' he said.
It is also worth agreeing the consequences of any accidental damage that is too small to make an insurance claim possible or worthwhile.
Indeed, until agreements have been signed, it is inadvisable to make any travel arrangements.
Ultimately, the exchange system is based on mutual trust, and agencies bear no legal responsibility for things that go wrong. However, members were struck off if it was believed that they had broken an agreement or abused the system, Allson said.