Bill Sanders, a Seattle attorney who spends half of the year in Washington, D.C., tries to make the most of his small two-bedroom home in the nation’s capital when he’s not using it.

"A lot of people think when you exchange homes that the trade has to be simultaneous," Sanders said. "You know … you take mine for two weeks and I take yours. But we often pay it forward with our D.C. house, allowing people to use it now in exchange for theirs at some future date. Rarely do we exchange at the same time."

Home exchanges historically have involved staying in other people’s homes while they stay in yours — sometimes using each other’s cars and boats. Exchange services have been around for decades, but the appeal of the cost savings has recently been augmented by an aging population’s desire for the comforts — and safety — of home during extended travel time.

Thanks to the increasing popularity and acceptance of the Internet, home swaps all over the world are easier to organize and execute, especially for last-minute people who do not have to worry about academic calendars or youth sports tournaments.

Representatives from three of the biggest online home-trading companies — Intervac, HomeLink and — say the swap business also has been pushed along by retirees who seek a comfortable alternative to the same old condo they have been visiting in the sun every year.

Sanders and his wife, Terri, an interior designer, also own a small Queen Anne condo. They are big believers in using home exchanges when they travel and pay $119 a year to expose their D.C. home on one of most popular exchange sites. According to Joe Murray, the founder of home exchange information website, there are more than 70 sites serving homeowners who would rather swap their homes than pay for a vacation rental or a hotel.

"Some people think that unless they live on the water or own a wonderful getaway in the mountains that nobody would want to trade for their home," Murray said. "But they forget about the family who might be in town for a family reunion, wedding or basketball tournament. There are also individual professionals who come to your area to work who would rather stay in a nice home than be cooped up in a hotel for a week or two."

Sanders said he prefers to make his D.C. home available during spring break and early summer for the number of families flooding into Washington.

"It’s really prime time." Sanders said. "If I can be in Seattle, or traveling with my wife at spring break, why not open it up? One year a couple wanted particular days so badly that they traded us 10 days in San Francisco for five in D.C."

Annual costs for home-swap memberships vary from free to $3,000., the largest company, charges $119.40 a year.

When you join a home exchange facilitator, you are asked to provide details about your home and your contact information, as well as preferred swap locations and available dates. You then gain the same information from other members, allowing you to initiate deals with potential swap partners.

Once you’ve found a match through emails and phone calls, make sure you cover the small details. For example, if a car is involved, it’s common to make a written agreement on the terms of its use, such as mileage and responsibility for repairs and damages. Many exchange companies have such agreements on their websites.

Similar detailed agreements are also advised for the use of a house and its contents, covering computer equipment, long-distance calls, utility bills, replacement of cooking staples and other housekeeping matters. Be clear on smoking (especially with Europeans) and pet issues.

It’s always a good idea to tell the neighbors what has been arranged and ask them or a friend or family member to keep an eye on the house and to help the visitors settle in.

Be sure to leave space in closets and drawers to accommodate visitors’ gear for the typical one- to three-week exchange. Appliances should be in working order, and it’s a good idea to provide some basic groceries for the visitors. Take the time to leave emergency numbers for doctors and handypersons.

Next week: Should you really hand over the keys to your home to a stranger?

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