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Barter or bust: What you need, what you have

Swapping items and services among your friends is an option, but the Internet offers a whole constellation of trading Web sites

By Alina Tugend  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Many years ago, when my oldest son was a newborn, we did what many new parents do — we exchanged baby-sitting services with friends who also had an infant.

It didn’t really work out. I realized that while I was perfectly happy to leave my son with them, I wasn’t so eager, after a long day, to take on the chore of caring for someone else’s baby.

Times were pretty flush back then in the 1990s and it just seemed easier to pay a baby sitter. My first bartering experience, in other words, was a bust.

Fast-forward 12 years to my second, admittedly accidental, effort. Last year, I asked a friend, who used to be a professional photographer, to take some photos of our boys. She wouldn’t accept pay, so I was going to get her a present.

Instead, she asked if I could help edit some of her daughter’s college entrance essays. It was a perfect trade — we were both using our professional skills to offer something that otherwise would have cost a fair amount of money.

Little did I know then that I was part of a growing community — offline and online — that is enthusiastically embracing bartering, particularly in this economy, when it is often more palatable to spend time than money.

As we all know, exchanging goods and services goes back, well, forever. But being a neophyte barterer, I was surprised, once I started checking around, at the deals some friends, and friends of friends, have negotiated.

Jane Heyman, an artist in Los Angeles who paints portraits, has traded her work for top-of-the-line haircuts, legal services and even plastic surgery.

“I had a show, and the doctor liked my painting of Warhol, which I gave him and I got a free nose,” Heyman said. “He liked my work and I liked his work.”

She figured it was a good deal — the plastic surgery would have cost about US$7,000, while her work sells for US$3,000 to US$5,000.

“I traded a portrait of an attorney’s son for legal services, and painted my pediatrician’s children for six months’ worth of pediatric care for my daughter,” she said.

A friend’s haircutter, who preferred to remain anonymous (because who knows what clients might offer if they realized that she sometimes bartered her services), has exchanged her barbering skills for yoga classes, fresh seafood, Web designs, massages, facials, acupuncture, astrology readings, child care, weekend houses, carpentry and Botox.

“Obviously I like bartering,” she said.

The ubiquitous Craigslist offers barters for anything (clean my place and I’ll give you a free massage, jewelry for high-end catering). But there are many sites that are item-specific and growing.

Swaptree.com, for example, is a Web site where people trade books (including textbooks), video games, CDs and DVDs online, paying only for shipping.

Since it started in 2007, “we’ve been able to double the site every three or four months,” said Greg Boesel, chief executive of the company. “In January, we grew 40 percent over the previous month.”

Now, he says, they have hundreds of thousands of members, and do thousands of trades a day. Registration is free. The company makes its money through advertising.

I tried it, offering the DVD Little Miss Sunshine to trade. Up popped 21,164 items that I could get for the movie. They included 17,188 books, 2,911 CDs, 978 DVDs and 87 video games. Wow.

I have 48 hours to decide if I want to close a deal. And to complete the trade, I would only have to walk as far as my mailbox. Swaptree knows the weight and shipping cost of every item on its site and lets you pay online and print a postal label immediately.

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