This calls for some scene-setting. High above the beaches of Malibu, we unsaddle our horses and return them to a corral. It is just behind the ravishing holiday home my wife found on HomeExchange.com, a home-swapping website. Ironically, we ride every day 6,000 miles away from here in the Yorkshire Dales but on an exotic break in California – traded for a week in Wensleydale – it is a delight, not a chore.
For an extra-special holiday without breaking the budget, swapping your home, car and fridge contents – and maybe even your horse! – with someone else’s somewhere glitzy was irresistible. No money changes hands, so the only fly in the ointment is finding the airfare. To make it work, you must live in a place a visitor will enjoy or you may struggle to find a taker. Are your vegetables award-winning, is the local beer famous, your local town historic or nearest theatre and seaside not too far away?
While our five-bedroom former farmhouse is on the weary side of rustic, it is a family home with bags of character. In an accessible village on the edge of grouse moor, it is close to country pubs, is criss-crossed with excellent walks and the ravishing local scenery has featured in screen and TV adaptations of All Creatures Great And Small, Heartbeat and Wuthering Heights. This makes it a sure-fire hit, particularly with Americans, which is why our no-nonsense hosts Nick and Penny Rhodes warmed to us online.
On the website, their Malibu home has a Gold listing to underline its stellar ambience. In going for Gold – for a higher annual fee of US$500 rather than the basic US$120 – you have exclusive access to 700 other Gold members in 60 countries. Rather pretentiously, it is where we listed our place with photographs of our two girls on a pony in the kitchen. “That’s what did it for us – we love that sort of thing,” enthuses Penny, who has lived in Los Angeles for 24 years with her TV producer husband.
Although sixty five per cent of swaps are simultaneous, Nick and Penny will not descend on Yorkshire until later this year. This meant that they welcomed us before moving out for a week.
It was the romantic comedy The Holiday – released in 2006 – that first caught their imagination. In the movie, two characters – played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz – meet online and exchange homes in the Cotswolds and Beverly Hills. “The women hook-up on the actual HomeExchange website,” begins Nick. “The concept appealed to us as we’re big travellers. We’d often leave our place empty for two to three weeks at a time and then pay to stay in a hotel in two rooms or a suite, so it got us thinking. While there are fixed costs in running your home whether you’re there or not, we now recoup the listing fees with our first night’s stay.”
Good-natured, polite and hospitable, they have exchanged homes in Copenhagen and Dublin. “There was a piano in the house in Dublin and we played at least an hour a day,” says Penny. In exchange, “our housekeeper is available if you would like and we leave a folder of restaurants. Everyone serves as a concierge for each other. I love the barter system – it’s a like a sweet exchange of goodness,” she says. “We scarcely even tidy up before we move out, rather we just clear some space,” laughs the mum of eleven year old twins, Dusty and Jade. “The last family staying here found an I-Pod, which we’d lost months ago.”
They bought their home 12 years ago. A Mediterranean villa with no corners, it is a stunning house on two levels that is always on the curve. It sits on a hill top 550ft above the bay where you can’t miss the anchored super-yacht owned by multi-billionaire, Larry Ellison. While it is warm at 25 degrees, it feels airy and there is no need for air-conditioning. Alfresco eating is encouraged with several outdoor hearths, ovens and barbeques to choose from when we stock the fridge.
The ground floor opens onto an outdoor pool with the sloping terraces of the surrounding gardens garlanded in a covering of drought-loving lantana and rosemary, and an orange grove that fruits twice a year. Upstairs, the master bedroom’s wide balcony looks down onto an unheated outdoor pool, which is warmer than the river we swim in at home.
The panorama inland is breathtaking with the Los Flores canyon in the near distance and high peaks beyond. “The entire mountain range is protected and is criss-crossed with hiking, biking and riding trails. Much of it belonged to actors Barbara Streisand and Jack Carson, who gave vast tracts of it away,” says Nick.
It takes just 15 minutes to drive to the beaches where you can learn to surf, body-board or simply swim or eat at an ocean-front restaurant. To see the famous sights in Los Angeles requires determination and takes 45 minutes when the traffic on the freeway into town is heaviest. It is worth it. Taking our life in our hands in a borrowed car, Penny sends us for a full-body exfoliation at Wi Spa, a Korean massage studio on Wilshire Boulevard before supper in The Parish in Spring Street, the latest take on an English gastro-pub.
Later in the week, we make it to Sunset Boulevard for lunch at Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood A-listers’ favourite hotel, where we meet Ed Kushins, the founder of HomeExchange.com, which is based in LA.
“When I started the business in 1992, trading homes wasn’t new but this was in a pre-internet age,” says Kushins, who lives on Hermosa Beach. “I’d just got divorced. I took my children on an exchange to Washington DC to a place with a pool. I was impressed.” With a background in marketing, he invested $40,000 and soon had his own business with 100 listings at $40 each, all of them in US. Then in 1994, the web changed everything and he launched the first online directory.
“It’s like internet dating,” he says. “For a first-timer, there is a little apprehension but it soon fades because you can verify the home and the owners with real-time videos and Skype. Most ask others what they think of a place and referrals are now the way many members decide.”
He admits that The Holiday was a public relations masterstroke; with the subsequent media coverage, subscribers leapt from 6,000 to 15,000 – many of them overseas. He now has 46,000 subscribers in 152 countries (2,500 of them in Britain), and there were 1.1 million enquiries in 2012, resulting in 75,000 swaps. “Exchanging homes can change your life,” he beams. “Some of our members are lucky enough to retire at 55 – since then, they’ve been using HomeExchange as a way to travel the world virtually for free.” If only!
For a house swap and to live like a local, visit www.homeexchange.com. For LA tourist information, visit www.discoverLosAngeles.com.