Vacationing in the north of Israel would normally set the Avitan family back thousands of shekels. "No matter what the destination or whether we stayed at a hotel or a zimmer, the prices are simply insane," says Yossi, a father of three from Jerusalem, using the German term adopted by Israelis for a vacation cottage or bed and breakfast. "Until now we'd always look for deals or wait until the last minute, hoping prices would go down. If that didn't happen, we'd simply stay home."
But like many Israelis, this year Avitan found a way to beat the high cost: The family swaps homes with a family in another part of the country. Israelis are mainly familiar with home exchanges abroad, but now the practice is taking hold within Israel.
There are plenty of resources for gathering information on home-swapping opportunities. Several Facebook pages host daily postings featuring homes for exchange and desired dates. One page, Home Exchange Israel, is mainly geared to swapping homes here with homes overseas but often has postings for homes in Israel.
In addition, people looking to swap homes often post on websites such as thebarter.co.il and localista.com, as well as on forums and websites that are not dedicated specifically to tourism.
You don't need to live in a large house with a pool in order to join the action, nor does your bedroom window have to provide a breathtaking view of Lake Kinneret.
"It doesn't matter if it's a single-family home or an apartment, if it has a yard, if it's in the city or in a village; there's always someone who will be interested," says Lior Student, who administers home-swapping pages on Facebook. "What you consider humdrum might be special in someone else's eyes, so nobody needs to think their home isn't relevant."
But unlike hotel rooms and zimmers, that can usually be booked at the last minute, home swaps require more consideration and should be coordinated well in advance.
"I encourage people to respond to offers that interest them, even if it doesn’t fit their needs at the moment," says Student. "Simply send a message saying you're interested in the home but not right now, and ask for them to contact you next time."
She also suggests that you never leave your home empty. "Your home needs to work for you," says Student. "It doesn’t need to be a simultaneous exchange. People going on a trip or for a family visit can let others stay in their home, and on another occasion those guests can make their own home available."
Little treats for the kids
"If it weren't for house swapping I am sure we would travel much less," says Shiri Regev-Balali. Shiri, partner Maayan and their son live in a house with a yard in the center of Jaffa, near the flea market, and have already hosted three families in swaps. The couple uses beofen-tv.co.il to find swaps.
The last time they paid for vacation accommodations, they spent NIS 700 in northern Israel for a "dusty wooden cabin with unpleasant hosts," according to Shiri. "Since then we decided not to stay in zimmers anymore, not only because of the expense but because we don't enjoy it. Moreover, swapping homes takes us to nice, interesting places we wouldn't get to otherwise. Who ever thought we'd vacation in Beit Zayit or Even Sapir?"
The main concern when it comes to house swapping, for most people, is about the idea of strangers poking around their house and potentially stealing, causing damage or invading their privacy. "There have been people who approached me and I immediately told them it wouldn't work out because I felt something wasn't right," says Adi. She lives on a kibbutz in the north and exchanges homes when she goes to visit family in the center of the country. "Intuition is very important and swapping shouldn't be forced. If someone sounds suspicious – then give it a pass," she says.
"I admit that at first I felt it would bother me having people I don't know staying over, but I've had only good experiences," she adds. "It's a thrill and has strengthened my faith in people when they let me live in their private space while they're away."
When Michal Naor and her three young children end their stay at another family's home, before returning to their home in Jerusalem they always leave little surprise gifts for the kids living there. "Whenever we return home we're always curious to discover what our guests left us," she says.
"I always look for homes with children live because they're friendlier and more kid-tolerant," Naor says, adding, "It's also fun to discover the games of other children.
Daniel and Nessia Cohen, who live in Safed with their three children, say that going to live in the Jerusalem home of a family with seven children for several days, without exchanging photos, was akin to a blind date. "We heard about another family from Safed that swapped with them last year and we knew the house was great," says Nessia.
The twist was in the home's location – in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. "The swap was done during Ramadan so every evening there was pandemonium at dinner time and at 3 A.M. they would get up to the sound of drums and wake everyone, in order to eat before sunrise," Nessia recounts.
"We knew what would be happening so we were ready," she adds. "Despite the location being a bit problematic, I would swap with them again. If we hadn't exchanged homes, I suppose we would have slept in tents at Lake Kinneret or by a stream, which is what we normally do.
"The wife [in the home in the Old City] knows there's no parking close by so she told us to bring as little as possible so as not to carry too much," explains Nessia. "She told us not to bring shampoo, towels or sheets, and even said we could take clothes for the children from her own children's closets. They also explained about the neighborhood and said we shouldn't leave the house when the Muslims go to pray on Friday on the Temple Mount."
It's always best to provide a detailed description of your home, its advantages and disadvantages, as well as your expectations from the other party.
"There are several things worth asking in advance, like about keeping kosher, bringing pets, pet allergies and the like," says Student. “You should also settle the issue of cleaning before leaving the home, and if there are things that are difficult to operate or appliances that act up - such as a toaster that sometimes blows a fuse - disconnect them in advance and put them away.”
Adi: "At first I thought it would bother me having people I don't know stay over, but I've had only good experiences. It's a thrill and has strengthened my faith in people."