Abigail Klein Leichman
May 12, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012

House swapping allows travelers to sample each other’s hometowns without paying for hotels. The trend is catching on in Israel.

JewishSwap.com founders

Yirmie Elkus, left, and Amitai Richman of JewishSwap.com

Batya and Gershon Burd are always on the lookout for a good vacation deal. When traveling, they usually rent out their home in Jerusalem’s Old City. But now they are trying a new tactic: house swapping.

The couple registered with JewishSwap, a free site launched in March by Ra’anana businessmen Amitai Richman and Yirmie Elkus.

“I trust the arrangement more if I’m swapping with somebody rather than renting to a stranger, because we have mutual responsibilities to each other,” Batya Burd tells ISRAEL21c.

The notion of exchanging homes is already popular in other countries, as reflected in the 2006 Kate Winslet-Cameron Diaz film, The Holiday, about a London-Los Angeles house swap. And now it’s catching on with budget-conscious Israelis and Holy Land tourists.

“Israel is a destination for people all over the world, and we want to cater to everyone looking to stay here,” says Richman.

A good way to ‘feel’ a different country

The larger home-swap sites, most of which charge a fee, all list Israeli properties – Sabbatical Homes has 54 of them, HomeExchange has 96, HomeForExchange has 126 and there are 145 Israeli listings at 1sthome Exchange.

Orna and Arnon Meroz of Nirit registered at a site Arnon’s cousin had used successfully several times, Orna tells ISRAEL21c. “When we go abroad, we want to ‘feel’ the country and live with the people and not in a hotel,” she says.

After posting photos of their home and answering a detailed questionnaire to provide a profile of their house and family, they received inquiries from people in many countries – even Australia and Thailand – and chose the house of a Dutch couple who used to live in Israel and wanted to return for a vacation.

The couple met them at the Netherlands airport and drove them to their house before their own flight to Israel. Aside from the fact that the location was a 45-minute drive from most tourist attractions, the Meroz family loved their pastoral (and free) accommodations.

Renting a vacation apartment

People who don’t want to trade houses but prefer a residence to a hotel have more options in Israel lately as well.

Meroz family vacation

Orna and Arnon Meroz and their family on vacation.

Yoni Shapira founded Home4Trip as an alternative for friends visiting from Europe. “Hotel prices are very, very high and I saw that there are thousands of [foreign-owned] apartments standing empty in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Netanya,” he says. “My vision was to turn on the lights in all these dark apartments and let others enjoy them,” while providing some income to the homeowner.

Shapira says that staying in a residential neighborhood gives both vacationers and business travelers a feeling of being much more integrated with the city and the people. “For families, it makes a lot of sense because they get more space and the use of a kitchen and laundry room.”

The same factors make house exchanges appealing to many tourists.

London on a few shillings

In the summer of 2009, Amitai Richman wanted to take his family of six on a European holiday without breaking the bank. He posted on several house-exchange websites but couldn’t find a match with a kosher kitchen. Then, friends visiting from London told them about a kosher family who wanted to come to Israel during the same time period.

“And that’s how it worked out,” says Richman. “I took my family for two weeks to London and stayed at a beautiful three-story house with a big yard in an excellent location. We also swapped mini-vans. Our home-swap partner watered our plants, took in the post and kept our home safe and well-tended. We fed their pet cat.”

Aside from flights, food and activities, the Richmans paid nothing but $337 for auto insurance, and also made new friends with their home-swap partner.

When he returned, he told Elkus about the experience over a business lunch and JewishSwap was hatched as a hobby. Though the site is not exclusive to Jews, the concept makes it easier to find accommodations near kosher restaurants and synagogues. However, of the first 100 registered users – mostly Israelis and Americans — 40 percent do not have kosher kitchens.

Some may have chosen the site because it is free, but Elkus believes there is also a comfort factor involved. “There is some anxiety attached to wondering who will be in your house, but since the world’s Jewish population is so small it’s easy to do a reference check,” he explains. “Before agreeing to a home swap, one can and should check references through mutual acquaintances.”

Apartment swap

Max Ashkenazi posted his California home on JewishSwap, hoping to find a match with someone in Israel.

Jewish families often have common times they are looking to trade homes. Summer and holiday seasons, when hotel rates are sky high in keeping with demand, are ideal times for swapping houses.

Max Ashkenasi posted his California home on JewishSwap, hoping to find a match with someone in Israel. “I would like to be able to stay for several weeks with my wife and kids, but rent in Israel is not cheap, and a summer vacation could be very costly,” he says.

He heard about the concept of house swapping and found out about JewishSwap through Facebook friends. The site does not advertise.

“Home swapping is growing a lot by word of mouth,” says Richman. “The phenomenon is growing from one happy home swapper to the next.”

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