Image: Couple in Paris © Corbis

My wife insists she came up with the dream; I'm pretty sure I did. But you don't trifle over a great idea. Paris is the City of Lovers. So Nancy and I, who have declared that after 45 years of marriage we are more in love than ever, wanted to soak up that atmosphere -- for a month.

The question, of course, was how to finance it. I am retired from journalism, which mostly pays you just enough to starve with dignity. Nancy is an RN, still working a couple of days a week to keep her nursing jones tamped down. We enjoy life, but we do have a budget. And it does not include spending between $6,500 and $10,000 on a hotel.

Instead, we spent $120 -- total -- for 29 nights of housing in Paris. All we had to do was temporarily swap our condo in San Diego for someone's home in Paris.

Finding a place to stay

Because it was our first venture into home swapping, we went looking for a company that specializes in such things. There are plenty -- this site lists nearly four dozen -- that handle the estimated 100,000 Americans who swap homes each year. Nancy is our in-house travel agent, and she selected, mostly, she said, because she found it easy to place photos there. The $120 (actually $119.50) bought us a year's membership, good for all the exchanges we could put together.

Then the search began. We didn't know what to expect, but we thought our condo had a lot to offer: San Diego's best-in-America weather, a golf course and big-sky view, 1,800 square feet of living space, a green belt (OK, brown this time of year) with coyotes, rabbits, soaring hawks and the more-than-occasional deer. All within 20 minutes of downtown, the airport and beaches, the famous San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

We first posted without photos but got no bites. When the pictures went up (free registration may be required to view link), the response was immediate. Mary wanted to swap her New York City brownstone; David his condo in Pak Kret, Thailand; Daniele her 18th-century lake house near Rome. Every offer -- except Iceland in February -- seemed enticing. Still, the closest we came to what we wanted in Paris was Jacques' offer of his home overlooking the Mediterranean in Cannes, France.

As far as our own search, we responded to only two listings: Sylvie in the Saint-Germain area of Paris, and Junichi in the close-in Parisian suburb of Puteaux. Neither answered back. We talked, just a bit sadly, about going to Cannes.

Making a deal

About a week later, Junichi contacted us through He and his wife, Felicia, had already arranged a swap for a condo on the San Diego waterfront, but were interested in staying in San Diego for an extra month. Would mid-April to mid-May work? We jumped at it.

In our excitement, we told most of our friends and relatives about our plan. To our surprise, the response was muted. Almost to a man, my golfing buddies asked, "Aren't you afraid they will steal all your stuff?" One of my neighbors promised -- and he seemed quite serious -- to call me immediately when the moving van showed up to haul away all our possessions. The women seemed more enthusiastic, but at least a few expressed distaste for the idea of total strangers living in their homes.

We talked to a couple of people who had done home exchanges; they had encountered almost no negatives, much less theft or damage. But we still began to fret a bit when, after agreeing in early November by email to swap condos, computers and cars with Junichi, we heard nothing for more than three months.

Still, we did our trip preparations, buying plane tickets, getting reservations, doing all the things suggested. We prepared a "contract" for signing, got letters of reference to give to Junichi, created a binder containing instructions on how to operate our electronics, appliances, heating and air conditioning, as well as condo rules and lists of golf courses, services and restaurants. And, we began to plan on which of our few "valuables" we would lock up.

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Finally, on Feb. 20, we emailed Junichi, delicately mingling the questions about contracts and references with more mundane items such as key exchanges. He responded immediately, writing: "We have already agreed to exchange with you, so we do not need references from you. We have done many exchanges and have not needed them."

It was our first swap, but their 11th through, so Nancy and I just shrugged and decided to flow along with the veterans. Perhaps sensing our unease, Junichi emailed us eight times over next two months, asking an occasional question but mostly giving us detailed information about such things as when to water the plants, how to operate the window canopies, names and numbers of friends to contact for help or translating. A lot of it was just chitchat about grandkids or their visits to our longtime home of Seattle.

"Well," I joked to Nancy. "If he's trying to rip us off, he's sure playing the long game."