Vacationing in high style is no problem for David Drake, a venture capitalist who can easily afford a great hotel anywhere he goes. But on a recent trip to Texas, he decided to swap homes. It was, to say the least, no ordinary exchange. He could offer his 4,000-square-foot Soho loft—baby grand and plasma TV included. What he was getting: a 2,000-acre cattle ranch located an hour from Houston. “It was amazing! We got to shoot, we got to ride,” he says. “Rather than pay $5,000 per night at the Four Seasons to get a really nice suite, why not?”
House-swapping is, for many, a budget way to see the world. Listings are usually run-of-the-mill stuff in the back of college-alumni magazines or on the Web—a quick scan of Craigslist nets dozens of studios and one-bedrooms, many of them not so pretty—but lately, moneyed homeowners are getting in on the act, too. Why? It allows them to “get a flavor of the local culture,” something you don’t ordinarily get if you stay in the usual tourist spots, without giving up the comforts of luxe life, says Margaret Carr, owner of ExclusiveExchanges.com, a Website catering to affluent swappers. In exchange for a week at his Tuscan villa, Joe Caruso, a Chicago entrepreneur who claims to receive dozens of inquiries a week from Italophile New Yorkers, has been offered everything from a top-shelf postwar co-op to a $3 million Manhattan penthouse. Last month, when Drake wanted to leave town, he bartered for an 8,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion that came with a chef and maid. “We were really taken care of,” he says.
Carr says her customers don’t worry much about having strangers in their personal space because the homes they trade aren’t primary residences; instead, they barter with their vacation homes, where privacy is much less of a concern. Besides, the vetting process is fairly rigorous, sometimes including not just interviews and references but even an on-site spy. (Caruso, for example, has a caretaker who stops by the villa’s grounds daily.) Swapping’s not for everyone, Carr allows, but New Yorkers so inclined will always be valued. “It’s the top destination,” she says. (Paris comes second.) “If you live in New York City and want to swap, you can go anywhere.”