Five Rooms, View Of The Seine, Near Metro. Wanna Swap?

It was a fantasy induced by the dread of another subzero winter: We would persuade some adventurous couple to trade their house on the Hawaiian island of Kauai for ours on Chicago's North Shore. Just for a week or two. In February.

Blithely, we paid $50 to list our house with the Vacation Exchange Club, a leading exchange service based in Hawaii. Banking on our quaint colonial's prime location, we waited for the offers to roll in.

We're still waiting--and have been since last July. But we did learn an important lesson for anyone thinking about house-swapping: If you don't live on the East or West Coast or in Florida, prepare to be extraordinarily persuasive and patient. That's especially true if you're looking for an overseas trade. Says five-time exchange veteran Marshall Kilduff, who is a San Francisco resident: "I don't think Europeans know anything about the U.S. but skyscrapers and surfboards. That's a hitch for people in the Midwest."

EARLY BIRD. But if you live in a place such as New York, Orange County, Calif., or Palm Beach, Fla., you're in luck. There's plenty of interest from people with 200-year-old English cottages, Paris apartments, and Spanish beach pads to trade. You can find everything from palatial spreads with yachts, chauffeurs, and cooks to modest dwellings. And you can even find a few listings in Eastern Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Since Europeans have been swapping houses with each other for much longer than Americans have, you can choose from Euro-listings galore. Many house-swappers are looking for summer exchanges, and the best houses and locations go quickly. So the trick is to make sure you get the first book of the year, which usually comes out in January or February. Vacation Exchange Club publishes four a year, and Intervac U.S. puts out three.

Intervac (800 756-HOME) takes listings all year round, with a November deadline for the first--in February. It catalogs 8,000 properties, grouped by country and region. To get the book and your house listed for one season costs $45.

As soon as the books arrive, circle all the houses or apartments that look interesting in the region where you want to vacation, and call or write to the owners immediately. Don't assume you'll get your first choice. In fact, the safest bet is to get in touch with a dozen or more potential swap-mates.

Our mistake was being way too complacent. Instead of selling potential swappers on the good points of wintering in Chicago, such as invigorating cross-country skiing opportunities, we sat by and expected them to call us. "It's important to be active," says Debby Costabel, co-owner of Vacation Exchange Club (800-638-3841), which has 10,000 listings in 57 countries. "You should send letters and call the people you're really interested in."

ON YOUR OWN. Once you find someone to trade with, make solid plans about such details as dates and exchanging keys, and agree on a contingency scheme in case a problem arises. Since the exchange services offer no guarantee or protection, you're on your own: Ask for references, and seek out experienced swappers.

Lori Horne, co-owner of Intervac, says she hears few complaints. Since swappers occupy the home of the people who are staying in their house, most of them take extra care. "If for some reason you feel uncomfortable about strangers sleeping in your bed, don't exchange," warns Horne, whose family has successfully swapped a dozen times since 1980. "It won't work."

But if you're not too fussy, house-swapping can be a way to have an affordable holiday in a fabulous place. Mary Allen, a retired child-development specialist, has swapped her three-bedroom Manhattan apartment five times since the mid-1980s--twice to go to Paris and once each for places in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Rome. Her favorite was a 17th century flat in Paris near the Place de la Bastille.

Although it's probably too late to arrange a summer exchange this year, swappers interested in fall and winter trades should get listed and order the books soon. Anyone want a quaint colonial on Chicago's North Shore for next February?

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