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Longboat Key Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 12 years ago

Cover story: Lively Exchange

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

The home is two minutes from the Gulf and two minutes from the bay. Located in a duplex on St. Judes Drive, it has two bedrooms, one bathroom, a fenced-in yard and what its owner, Margot Walbert, describes as “old-Florida charm.”

The home is available for approximately one month next summer.

The cost: nothing. As in $0.

The catch: Walbert is seeking a person, preferably one who owns a home in the countryside of France or Italy, who would be willing to swap homes for the month.

Walbert wants to do a home exchange, an agreement in which two homeowners swap residences for a vacation. Both parties save the money they would have spent on a hotel or rent. Both get the conveniences of a home, such as a kitchen stocked with dishes and appliances and a washing machine. And, in some cases, the parties also exchange cars.

Walbert, who is originally from Germany, said she first heard about home exchanging from friends in Europe, where she says such arrangements are more common.

Longboat Key residents Heidi and Kent Lagro exchanged homes in June 2008 with their friends, Christa Buckley and Gerard Prichard, who live in Nice, France.

Heidi Lagro said she’s surprised more people on Longboat Key aren’t doing home exchanges, given the savings and the convenience.

“I wonder if people are aware of it,” she said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

‘It felt like home’
For two or three years, Buckley and Prichard had discussed exchanging condominiums with the Lagros.

They had vacationed on Longboat Key since 1992, staying at Beachplace, The Beachcomber, Longboat Harbour Towers and The Arbomar and paying anywhere from $2,000 to $3,200 per month, depending on the season.

Buckley and Prichard had done two previous home exchanges, both with a friend of a friend who lives in Australia. Although the Lagros, who had never made such an arrangement before, wanted to try it, the timing was never right. The Lagros didn’t want to visit Nice during August (many French workers take off the entire month for vacation), because they worried that southern France would be crowded. But, as a business owner, Prichard could only visit Longboat Key during August.

But last year, when Prichard sold his business, the timing fell into place. So Buckley and Prichard flew to Longboat Key in June and stayed for the month in the Lagros’ two-bedroom, two-bath condominium at The Arbomar on the Gulfside beach, while Heidi and Kent Lagro traveled to Nice to stay in the couple’s two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium.

Buckley and Prichard got to enjoy the things they’ve always loved about Longboat Key: the ocean and the peacefulness — minus the price tag.

In addition to the savings, the Lagros got to experience the culture of Nice in a way they might not have otherwise. Rather than dining out for most meals, which they might have done if they had stayed at a hotel, they walked to a nearby outdoor market almost every day and bought fresh foods to cook in the condominium’s kitchen. They brushed up on their French skills by chatting with neighbors and asking locals for directions. And they walked to sites, such as the Chagall Museum, that other tourists usually visit by bus.

“Without condo sharing, we could not stay in a country someplace else and experience it like that,” Heidi Lagro said. “It felt like home.”

Both couples say they felt comfortable with the arrangement because they are friends.

“I like to do exchanges with people I know,” Buckley said. “I would not just go to an agency and exchange with any strangers.”

But Village resident Brian Clark said he didn’t worry when he and his wife, Patricia, exchanged their home with strangers through a Key West-based agency.

The Clarks used the agency to swap homes in 1994, 1996 and 1999 to visit their native England.

On each occasion, Clark said, all parties underwent background checks. The Clarks also communicated with the other homeowners extensively by phone and fax before staying in one another’s homes.

“You feel like you know them before you go,” he said.

Before you turn over your key
Most home-exchangers agree that the arrangement works best when it is made between similar parties. In other words, families with young children should exchange homes with other families with young children, and retired couples often match best with other retired couples, because their daily needs are similar.

Lagro said that the home swap with Buckley and Pichard worked well because the spaces they exchanged were similar — both had two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Most of the preparation work that goes into home exchanges consists of cleaning, emptying drawers and putting away valuables.

Because Buckley and Pichard knew the Lagros before the swap, they just left each other a few notes with instructions. For example, Lagro wrote a note telling Buckley and Pichard not to put a certain set of dishes in the dishwasher. And both couples left each other instructions for their computers.

Both couples hope to exchange homes again, but not with each other. The Lagros would like to exchange their condo for a residence in Italy or Australia, while Buckley and Pichard want to visit Longboat Key again.

Walbert is planning to advertise her house on a Web site such as or, which allow users to list their homes for a fee. Because the person she is matched with will likely be a stranger, she said she will use caution. She plans to be in touch with the person(s) by e-mail prior to and during the exchange. She will also contact her insurance company to ask about liability before she agrees to let the visitor drive her car.

But those concerns aside, Walbert just wants someone with a countryside cottage to share who can appreciate her old-Florida style home.

“It needs to be someone who appreciates old Florida and doesn’t need the Taj Mahal,” she said.


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