It boasts a deck with a hammock overlooking Lake Macquarie and is usually filled with the mischievous laughter of her daughters playing, but Nicci Richman didn’t realise just how idyllic her Belmont home was until she opened the doors to guests from all over Australia.
A human resources advisor for an engineering consulting firm, Richman leaves her home at least once a year with husband Adam and their impish daughters Olivia, five, and Bridie, two, to visit her native Hobart.
But after returning from their Christmas 2010 trip to the Apple Isle to find their housesitter had damaged their home, the family thought there must be a better solution to keeping it occupied.
Richman stumbled across website aussiehouseswap.com.au and uploaded details and photos of her home.
‘‘It’s a two-storey house mid-renovation, with some lovely bits and some tired bits,’’ she says. ‘‘I actually didn’t think anybody would be interested in staying there.
‘‘It wasn’t until I started drawing up an information book for our visitors that I realised how much we actually have to do around here – it’s made me realise how lucky we are.’’
Richman’s family is only one of the hundreds throughout the Hunter experimenting with home swapping.
It’s an idea enjoying a revival in popularity, which some attribute to the 2006 romantic comedy The Holiday.
Participants offer their homes as accommodation for visitors and in exchange, organise to stay in their guests’ home.
While home swapping in itself is not a new idea, it has never been easier or cheaper than now. Just a few minutes on a house swapping website and users can be uploading photos of their property and exchanging emails with prospective swappers.
Nick Fuad came up with the idea for Aussie House Swap in 2004 when he and his wife Kylie, a teacher, were living in the Aboriginal community of Papuna, 300kilometres west of Alice Springs.
They would travel to the brighter lights of Alice Springs every weekend and stay in a motel.
‘‘It was exciting for the first month and then we got over it – we would have loved a house,’’ Fuad says.
With their home in Nambucca Heads sitting empty, the couple pondered whether someone with a property in Alice Springs may be willing to lend their home to the Fuads in exchange for staying in their Nambucca Heads property.
They placed a notice in the Alice Springs newspaper and searched online, but all the house swapping websites they visited targeted those who wanted to swap with overseas home owners.
The couple ended up renting out their Nambucca Heads property and continued staying in Alice Springs motels, having already come up with the business idea that would change their lives.
Fuad now operates the Aussie House Swap website as well as house sitting websites in Australia, New Zealand and America.
Whereas previously people used to only swap homes with friends or family, and later looked up potential swaps in magazines, Fuad says more people than ever are taking advantage of the idea because the internet had made it so easy.
‘‘I think it’s one of those areas that will never die,’’ he says.
‘‘Living for free in a major city or anywhere, not paying accommodation costs suits everyone, even if you are wealthy. People will always want free accommodation.
‘‘In the old days when it was only international [swaps] I think it was more inclined to be retirees or wealthy couples who could afford the expensive airfare and take time off work, so offering a domestic service opens it up to families and young couples who’ve just bought their own home.’’
He broadened the website four years ago to the international market after receiving emails from people wanting to travel to Australia.
There are 300 international members, but the 2500 Australian and Kiwi members make up the majority, with most seeking homes in coastal holiday destinations or in capital cities, for between one and three weeks.
Some, however, want to swap for a weekend, the school holidays, or in one case, a year.
‘‘There’s quite a few people who want to spend Christmas with their families but don’t want to actually live with them,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s not necessarily the location, but the convenience.’’
For Richman and her family, it’s a way to make short domestic trips on a budget.
Her first experience swapping homes was when she was searching for a place to stay in Tasmania over Christmas last year.
‘‘I’ve always stayed with family in Hobart but as my family have children and I have children it’s becoming harder to stay together,’’ she says. ‘‘[With swapping] I wasn’t getting in anyone’s way so we could have us time, as well as extended family time.’’
Her search led her to a Tasmanian couple with a renovated home at Taroona on the River Derwent. They wanted to stay in Belmont to watch their son compete in a sailing championship race.
Two days after returning from Tasmania they had a request from a Brisbane family, suggesting a swap in a week when Richman was scheduled to fly to the city for work.
They decided to turn it into a family holiday, with the house so big Richman’s mother was also able to stay.
While Richman worked, her husband and their daughters swam in the pool, played with the family’s puppy, made trips to art galleries and visited Dreamworld three days in a row.
For both of the trips Richman used phone calls, Skype and Facebook to build trust and a relationship with the homeowner.
She wouldn’t rule out sending friends to go and meet the potential swapper.
Richman always takes her valuables to her inlaws and locks away items she would prefer were not used, saying this was the norm in the house swapping community.
In September the family will visit a Gold Coast hinterland property on an acreage, swapping with owners who want to show their three children the NSW coast.
Richman said her family would never have been able to travel so frequently if they weren’t able to house-swap.
‘‘If we were paying for a holiday there’s no way we would be doing that,’’ she says. ‘‘If you look at family accommodation you’re saving thousands.’’
Richman said it’s a way to broaden her daughters’ understanding of the world and offer character-building experiences.
‘‘I also think about the holidays when I was a child always created beautiful memories,’’ she says. ‘‘So it’s about giving them lots of beautiful memories and making it an easy holiday for them because they’ve got their toys to play with, they’ve got things to do and see, they’re not sitting in a hotel room twiddling their thumbs watching television.’’
House swappers are also increasingly looking beyond their own backyard.
As the world becomes more globalised, international flights become cheaper and the high Australian dollar makes travel more affordable, many are seeking a more authentic overseas experience.
Charlotte Bay freelance travel writer Daniel Scott is eager to use house swapping as a way to live like a local.
‘‘Can you imagine swapping your rural NSW property for a Parisian pad? It wouldn’t be bad, would it?’’ he asks, his intriguing accent showing traces of his Wimbledon upbringing.
‘‘So the world’s your oyster really, that’s the wonderful thing.
‘‘You might be idly flicking through what properties are on there but it might be that something comes up in Belize and if the dates were to work, I’d be there in a flash, let me tell you.’’
Scott’s work has taken him to 99 countries and given him assignments including a story for the Australian Financial Review visiting 36 of the world’s best hotels.
When planning a six-week family holiday to the UK and Greece with his wife Sarah and daughters Mila and Freya, he wanted somewhere to stay in London and also outside of London to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Instead of relying on years of expertise to choose the perfect hotel, Scott opted to join lovehomeswap.com, a website for those seeking stylish and luxury homes, mostly for overseas swaps.
London-based website founder Debbie Wosskow was sick of spending 80per cent of her travel budget on accommodation when she established the website with brother Ben 12 months ago.
The website has homes on offer in more than 80 countries.
Wosskow said the average person on her website saves $2000 on accommodation. She said swappers included families, solo travellers, expats, businesspeople and retirees.
‘‘Home swapping is very common in the US – it’s an established market,’’ she says.
‘‘In Australia we have found that 35per cent of Australians would most like to swap with Australia or New Zealand, 31per cent with Europe and 18per cent with USA or Canada.’’
Wosskow says that London was the most requested swap destination for Australian members.
‘‘With hotels costing an arm and a leg, home swapping is the perfect way to see the city like an insider or visit family based in the UK,’’ she says.
The Scotts agree.
‘‘Six weeks in the UK, if we manage to cover it, is [saving] thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars – and think about it, our property would be sitting more or less empty,’’ Scott says. ‘‘We’ll certainly have a friend coming to stay while we’re away and people looking after the place, but there is that thing that you’re actually wasting your own home in the meantime.’’
And what a home. The family moved into the house on 1.4hectares at the start of 2009 after buying it just before it was completed. The Scotts built decking around the house and a wet-edge swimming pool and wake every day to kangaroos feeding on their lawn.
‘‘The reality is now with this house – and it’s no boast, it’s a genuine feeling – when I go away I find it quite hard because we live in such a beautiful place,’’ he admits.
He’s keen to participate in the program beyond the upcoming trip and to offer the stunning property to Australian-based families for weekends away.
Scott is hoping to use home swapping as a way to take his family to dream destinations including Canada, South America and Europe.
‘‘We’ve looked at places in Italy, villas in Italy and so forth, it’s always been a dream of mine,’’ he says. ‘‘We’ve rented places but the idea of swapping our sort of rural property with a Tuscan farmhouse is fantastic.’’
It’s not just houses that are in high demand – for slightly more adventurous travellers, sometimes just a couch or mattress will do.
Couch surfing is already one of the most popular ways for Europeans to see the world and Australians are catching on, too.
Couch surfers move from one person’s house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, usually a floor or couch, for a few days before moving to another house.
Financial planner and globetrotter Craig Osland, 39, joined website couchsurfing.org before a four-month trip to Africa in March 2008. He intended to use it as a way to interact with other travellers and locals.
But after returning to his Cooks Hill apartment, he had a request through the website from two 19-year-old Swedish women asking to stay on the couch in his lounge room.
He seems the ideal host – worldly, cheeky and always up for a laugh.
‘‘I always just think, ‘Well, what would I want if I was staying at a place?’’’ he says. ‘‘I just say to them ‘There’s the laundry here, do you want to wash your stuff?’ Of course, doing laundry when you’re travelling is a pain.
‘‘‘There’s a computer, do you want to jump on the internet? Here’s a towel so you don’t have to use the same towel that’s been damp in your pack for the past four weeks’ – that type of thing.’’
Osland carefully screens profiles of guests and hosts to avoid unsafe situations. He has hosted 25 times, a mix of singles, pairs and couples. He says about 75per cent of them have been German.
‘‘The Germans have just got this whole thing about sharing and minimising damage to the environment,’’ he says.
He said he’s surprised at Newcastle’s popularity with couch surfers.
‘‘It’s home for me and I love it,’’ he says. ‘‘But for me the things about Newcastle are it’s good to stay there, but I’m not sure it’s that much of a touristy destination.’’
He said the city was a combination of a well-guarded secret that intrigued travellers who wanted to know more about it and a convenient stopping point between Sydney and Port Macquarie.
Osland has already perfected a road trip to show off his home town.
He starts on Scenic Drive, pointing out the impressive view of the city sprawled out before the eyes and follows the coast along to Nobbys, the foreshore past Queens Wharf and sometimes over to Stockton to look back on the harbour.
He never fails to stop at Blackbutt for photos with koalas.
‘‘Australia Zoo charges about 30 bucks for that but at Blackbutt, in good old Newcastle, you can do it for two bucks and a cup of food.’’
Sometimes his guests cook him dinner, but he is not interesting in getting anything from the experience but goodwill.
‘‘I’ve done a lot of travelling and backpacking myself and it’s kind of like pay it forward rather than pay it back,’’ he says.
‘‘I like the idea that there is this community out there that if you wanted to stay somewhere cheap or you get stuck for a hostel or something like that there’s people who are quite happy to open their house to you and spend some time with you and show you around like a local and all that sort of stuff.
‘‘I quite like the concept, even if I’m not getting something out of it myself.’’
Three months after Osland returned from his 2008 trip to Africa he embarked on a major trip through Europe, northern Africa and the US. While there are some travellers who try to travel cheaply and couch surf for their whole trip, Osland looked for hostels because they were a good way for a solo traveller to meet lots of people.
But he turned to couch surfing when he left his bookings too late or when he had just a few days to spare while waiting for a connection.
But perhaps the most memorable experience was missing out on hostel accommodation over Easter in Cardiff, Wales.
‘‘I ended up staying with a girl in Cardiff who basically got three or four of her friends together and just went up into the Welsh hills and did a hike for the weekend and stayed at one of the local pubs there,’’ he says. ‘‘It was just a bunch of friends hanging out and I was in that bunch of friends for that weekend.’’