Modesto's John Mensinger and family vacation the 'home exchange' way

01/25/2009 6:36 AM

01/25/2009 6:38 AM

When it comes to vacation travel, there's an alternative to hotels or staying with friends and family.

You can also do a home exchange -- trading your home for someone else's.

John Mensinger, president of Modesto's American Lumber, and his family have swapped houses with families in northern Europe 12 times with great success.

He enjoys home exchanges so much that he started an informational Web site --

-- and self-published the book "The Guide to Trading Your Home," which is available on

Mensinger, 54, first took his wife and three kids, then ages 3, 5 and 7, on an exchange in 1997. He prefers to trade with families that have similar number of kids so the houses will be prepared with video games, bicycles and other things children like.

He talked with The Bee about the basics of how home exchange works and his best and worst experiences.

Q: How did you get interested in home exchange?

A: First of all, I'm a cheapskate and like to get good value for money, so it was a way to get a really great vacation at a really low price. I love being overseas. I've lived overseas, my wife is British. We like taking a vacation every year to someplace. You have a higher-quality experience when you trade a home. When you stay in a place for a while and you have locals help you, you get to know a place better and you feel more at home.

Q: How does a home exchange work?

A: It's very personal. You decide you want to trade with this family. You go through agencies on the Internet and you put a listing as an advertisement saying where you want to go and some kind of time frame -- the dates. There are some sites that will specify square footage. Others will specify we have three or four bedrooms. These days, there's so many photos. If they don't put up enough photos, you demand more photos.

Q: What was your best home exchange?

A: We've had a number of really outstanding experiences, and the cover of the book shows a very nice house with a pond in the Netherlands. The first home exchange in Stockholm was fabulous. We had one in rural southwestern Wales where we were on a hill overlooking this beautiful river valley.

Q: What was your worst home exchange?

A: Only once have we had a house where there were kind of some issues. We had a house once where it had four bedrooms but they were all small. But it was still a great experience. The house was well kept. Their children were teenagers, so our kids appreciated the fact that the rooms all had stereo systems. It was in an incredibly beautiful region within a national park and they had arranged for the neighbors to take really good care of us. We met some won- derful people to take us out to dinner, take us mountain biking or take us pub crawling, and it was just a fabulous experience. Even though there was some slight discomfort, it was still a very good home exchange.

Q: What precautions do you take to protect your belongings when people stay at your house?

A: We manage the risks. All of my person financial records are kept at work in my locked office. We don't have anything at home that is that sensitive. I don't think we have too many skeletons in our closets that are waiting to be discovered. Certainly our house is insured. We just really don't worry about it at all. You can argue that if you're going to be taking vacations, you're better off with a family in your home that you can consider house sitters.

Q: Isn't it scary to let strangers stay at hour house?

A: When you read their listing on the home exchange Web sites and you then engage in a negotiation with them by e-mail, the purpose of that negotiation is to make sure that everything is going to work out for everybody. The secondary purpose, which I think is very important, is getting to know them. Of the 12 families we've traded with, four or five have become really good friends. There's a French family that we traded with in 2000, we've seen them once in California and three or four times in France. They sent a daughter to stay with us for a month and we sent our son to spend a couple weeks with their family in France. All of the families we've traded with have been good.

Q: Is it hard to convince people to come to Modesto?

A: Occasionally, we do get people that don't like Modesto. But that's the exception. We have discovered that people in northern Europe want to come to California for a regional vacation. During the summer, they don't mind if it's hot because their weather can be terrible during the summer -- it rains. They really like the guaranteed sunshine. We put in a pool a couple of years ago and that significantly increased the attractiveness of what we have to offer. We have no end of families with wonderful homes in wonderful locations willing to come.

Q: When did you finish this book?

A: I first started writing it maybe 18 months ago. It took awhile. There are times in my life when I am incredibly busy and there are other times when I am not so busy. It finally came together this fall. I had a university English teacher edit it for me.

Q: Why did you want to write the book?

A: A home exchange is kind of a strange thing to do. It takes some skill and expertise. The purpose of my book is to provide a balanced view, to provide comprehensive information. I have a Web site and people can get most of the content of the book without paying for the book. It's totally free. I'm just happy to help people do this because I think this is a good thing to do.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or

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