By Candice Choi -- AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It's an alluring vacation idea in a recession: To beat pricey hotel rates, you swap homes with a family in the city you want to visit.
But when push comes to shove, you might have doubts about home exchange programs that open your home to strangers and the possibility of theft, property damage or injuries.
As people look for ways to trim traveling costs this summer, the risks and rewards of home swapping are getting closer scrutiny. In a perfect world, the idea is to save money and get a glimpse of life among local residents, all while keeping the conveniences of home.
"Home exchange isn't just about money. It's about getting off the tourist track and really caring about what other cultures are like," said Helen Coyle Bergstein, founder of the swapping site Digsville.com based in New Paltz, N.Y.
That said, here's what you need to know to arrange a successful home swap.
Q: How does it work?
A: The traditional home swap is when you trade places with another homeowner at the same time. There are other ways to do an exchange, however. You might go on a cruise while they stay in your home, then they might hunker down with relatives when you visit.
Without hotel ratings to give you guidance, be prepared for varying accommodations. Asking the right questions should prevent unwelcome surprises.
"It's all about communication," Bergstein said. "You need to be clear about everything, especially if you're traveling abroad."
Don't be discouraged if you live in a small town, either. There might be someone out there with family, friends or work to tend to in your neck of the woods.
Q: Are there any costs?
A: You'll most likely need to pay for membership to an online home exchange site. This gives you access to a bank of listings and boosts your chances of finding a suitable swap.
Membership fees vary, but are usually between $40 to $100 for a year.
Even if you only use the site once, the fee acts as a type of safeguard against opportunists, said Ed Kushins, president of HomeExchange.com.
Beyond that, it's up to you and your swap partner to work out any financial matters. Home swapping sites often offer template agreements that cover issues such as utility costs and what food is OK to eat. The agreements usually aren't legally binding, however, so it doesn't eliminate risk altogether. The idea is to make it clear what each party expects.
All told, home swapping can save big money, especially if you make it a habit. While hotel room rates are falling across the country, the national average is still about $100 a night, according to Smith Travel Research Inc. Average rates in major cities are of course much higher — $193 in New York City and $171 in Miami.