Home security is a huge topic, especially during vacation months when families arrive from long car drives or plane rides to take over a property they have seen only online.
Are owners constantly concerned that renters will trash the property? Are home exchangers leery that strangers will pocket personal property before heading out of town?
According to Christine Karpinski, author of the best-selling "How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner," trouble with renters is usually an isolated incident and usually can be avoided by preparation and screening.
"It rarely happens," Karpinski said. "Whether they find you online or go through a property manager, most vacationers understand that they’re guests in a private home. As such, they are likely to treat it more respectfully than they would a hotel room.
"And remember, if you rent by owner, you are the judge and jury when it comes to choosing your occupants, and you can always turn down business if you get a bad "gut feeling" about a potential renter. Just make sure you take the proper precautions when accepting renters."
In a recent column exploring the booming business of home exchanges, one of the first hurdles for new subscribers is handing off the keys — usually to their primary residence — to complete strangers, according to Shelley Miller, house swapping blogger and speaker at HomeExchangeExpert.com.
"It’s a question that many people ask," Miller said. "I guess when you get to know somebody online and especially with social media, people are becoming more and more comfortable with it. However, obviously with social media, you’re not inviting them into your home but you’re developing a relationship, and that is what you do with home exchange. …
"Most people have intuition skills. If you use them and you don’t feel comfortable, then don’t exchange with that person."
There are more than 70 home exchange organizations around the world. The United States is home to about one-third of them, and the largest – HomeExchange.com – has more than 41,000 listings in 149 countries. Many swaps are simultaneous, but some trades involve different dates. Most of the time, the arrangements are made by the traders, though some of the sites assist in arranging a trade that can also include cars and pets. Annual membership fees range from free to more than $100 per listing.
Home insurance companies, which used to accommodate house swapping as long as there was someone present to keep an eye on the property, have started to scrutinize their coverage. Some are refusing to extend insurance for home exchanges, so interested parties should check their policies before welcoming traders.
In addition to adequate insurance, Miller said owners need to use common sense when dealing with heirlooms and other valuables.
"Items like jewelry or sterling silver are easily stored at the home of family or friends," Miller said. "When we lived in Europe for five months and traded homes with five different families, my jewelry box and sterling silverware sat in a cupboard at my girlfriend’s home."
Joe Murray, the founder of home exchange information website Knowyourtrade.com, pointed to a recent study that has calmed many security fears.
"All home exchange clubs state that it is extremely rare to have any problems during a home exchange," Murray said. "An international, vacation home exchange survey, polling over 1,000 home exchangers from the United States and 40 other countries, returned a finding of not one case of theft. Even incidents such as a party where exchangers consumed bottles of wine and didn’t replace them were few and far between."
Trading pets and/or cars involves a deeper level of trust, but has become relatively common.
"We did a home exchange in Seattle," Miller said. "They had a dog and we had a dog … and they left their van at the airport. We never met. She called me and said, ‘OK, it’s in Level B19.’ They put the keys under the mat. We flew into Sea-Tac Airport, went to their van, and found the keys and drove to their home. There was their cute standard poodle. We took care of their dog and they took care of ours and everyone was happy, including the dogs!"
Such arrangements do not happen with one email or reservation. Take ample time to communicate about the number of occupants, dogs, cats and cars before you leave the keys under the mat.