Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Exchanging means a home away from home

It is a great idea after all, esp if you have kind of good house to share with others world wide. I may stick to my backpacking mode though.

by SANTHA OORJITHAM

Not all Malaysians are horrified by the thought of letting someone they’ve never met into their house. SANTHA OORJITHAM meets some adventurous couples who signed up for home exchanges.

HEARTBROKEN in Los Angeles, Amanda (Cameron Diaz) goes online to find a getaway. She’s drawn to an ad for home exchanges and immediately contacts the equally heartbroken Iris (Kate Winslet) — owner of a cottage in Surrey.


Within five minutes, Amanda offers, via instant messaging, to swap her mansion for a fortnight. “Is tomorrow too soon?” asks Iris. “Tomorrow’s perfect,” replies Amanda.


That’s Hollywood, of course. The above is a scene from The Holiday, a romantic movie about two women with guy problems who swap homes in each other's countries, where they each meet and fall in love with a local.


In real life, it takes a little longer to sign up for house swapping — and to get to know someone well enough to trust them with your home.


Romance with a Jude Law or Jack Black look-alike may not come with the exchange.


But homeowners in Malaysia are gradually warming up to the practice — which offers all the facilities and comfort of home, a chance to mingle with the locals, and longer holidays since you don’t have to pay hotel bills.


Former banker Datuk Abdul Samad Yahaya was surfing the Net in March this year when he came across www.homeexchange.com.


“The next thing I knew, I’d enrolled,” said the frequent traveller.


It cost US$99.95 (RM349) for a one year “Silver” membership for him and his wife Datin Marina Samad, retired communications manager of Esso Malaysia Bhd.


(Gold memberships, for about 1,000 “high-end, luxury” homes, cost US$500.) They listed their home at a golf resort. Within a month, they had offers. The one that attracted them was from Stephane Dumont, an export director who lives with his wife Beatrix and eight-year-old twin daughters Kayleigh and Sidney in Dambelin, France close to the Swiss border — near the “original” Colmar.

Sidney at the entrance to Marina and Samad’s home. — Pix by Stephane Dumont.
Sidney at the entrance to Marina and Samad’s home. — Pix by Stephane Dumont.

“We really hit it off,” said Marina.


After three months of emailing, both families were ready to set a date for the exchange, which took place in July.


They plan to exchange with a couple in Melbourne next September. “We’d like to travel like this once or twice a year,” said Samad.


When he joined in March, there were only five homeowners registered in Malaysia. Today there are 14 — including a couple offering the use of their yacht at Sutra Harbour in Kota Kinabalu.


That’s a mere drop in the ocean of over 29,000 listings, of which about a third are in the United States and a third in Britain.


“We would love to have more Malaysian listings as we have more demand from other members to come to Malaysia than we have listings there,” said HomeExchange president Ed Kushins in reply to emailed queries from Life & Times.


About 120 members already want to come to Malaysia and more would be open to offers, he estimated.


Richard and Christine Amery, for example, are semi-retired from their financial planning business in New Zealand and travel to Europe for three months each year, stopping over on the way there and back.


Before they joined HomeExchange 11 years ago, “we could only afford cheap hotels and cramped apartments, which are OK for a week or two but for three months you need all the comforts of home,” said Richard.


Malaysia is one of their favourite stopovers. In 2007, they exchanged their holiday home in Rotorua, New Zealand for Ranita and Kenneth Smith’s apartments in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi.


They used the apartment in Kuala Lumpur as a base to explore the city and do some shopping. In Langkawi, the apartment was part of a hotel complex, which meant that breakfast was included. The couple hired a car and drove all over the island. Afterwards, they headed for another exchange apartment in Penang and next year they’ve slotted in an exchange in Kuantan. “We can’t come back often enough,” said Richard.


Members in Malaysia get a wide range of offers. Former British Trade Commissioner Gordon Reid, who retired here with his wife Marinella on Malaysia My Second Home, said most of the enquiries come from Europe, North America and Australia. He’s had offers from France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, among others.


What exchangers look for is the same thing that house buyers look for, said Gordon: “Location, location, location. We don’t have to be in the city centre but there should be transportation links.” Also key is a computer with high-speed broadband access.


“I wouldn’t exchange without Internet access,” he said.


These travellers enjoy the “immersion” experience.


“We wanted to live as locals,” explained Marina. Since only one couple, friends of the Dumonts, spoke English in the village, they had to “bone up” on French and enjoyed listening to their hosts’ collection of French music.


They ate breakfast and dinner at home and had lunch in the village’s only restaurant — where locals spotted them and helped translate the menu.

Home exchangers often sign an agreement (samples are provided on the website) spelling out who’s responsible for cleanup before and after the visit, who pays the utility bills, whether the cars and boats are also on loan (about half of them do loan their cars), who’s responsible for damage that is not covered by insurance, whether compensation must be made if there is a cancellation, etc.


Richard, now a veteran of about 80 exchanges, started out cautiously, exchanging only his holiday home and not including the car. But it was so well looked after that nowadays they are happy to let people use their main home, car and the two small boats at their lakeside property in New Zealand. “We have never been let down by finding damage,” he said.


“It is a higher risk than renting the house out because it comes with everything in it,” noted Gordon.

“But you can email and even skype until you get to know the member better.” When they exchange with a semi-retired software engineer in London next June, the Reids may remove one or two invaluable or irreplaceable objects and lock them in one room.


Their domestic helper has keys to their penthouse and will come in “and tell us if there’s anything we should know.” Marina and Samad were not worried about their first exchange. Their domestic helper Elena lives in but even if she weren’t there, they would still have felt comfortable.


As Samad pointed out, their night at a three-star hotel in Zurich on the way over and back cost RM740 per stay: “We calculated that by staying in their place for two weeks, we had saved so much that anything that happened, any small breakages, we could forgive.” In the end there weren’t any accidents, at either home.

The Dumonts had wanted to meet before the handover. Both families had half an hour together at KLIA before Samad’s son Aris drove the Dumonts home — where Samad had spent months preparing a contact list of doctors, mechanics, contractors and repairmen as well as a manual with information on how to use equipment in the house, how to get to the nearest grocer, shopping mall, etc.


In Dambelin, Stephane had prepared similar contact lists and information and organised a “welcome moment” with a couple of his friends who met Marina and Samad at the train station and took them home for dinner. It’s important for the guest family to have some local friends they can count on during their stay, he said.


For Marina and Samad, that was probably the best part of the exchange. Both the Dumonts and the other couple have become friends and stayed in contact via email, Samad said.
“If we had started doing home exchanges earlier, we would have had a global network of friends by now!”

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