Tips for unoccupied or vacant homes and properties

When properties are left vacant or are unoccupied, steps should be taken to prevent or mitigate losses due to heating system, electrical system, water damage, vandalism or other causes.

Heating system/Electrical

  1. The heating system should be cleaned and inspected by a contractor to help ensure it is working properly, especially through the winter months, to reduce potential damage from fire and freezing.
  2. If LP gas, propane gas or oil heat is used, ensure the fuel levels in the tank are checked periodically to prevent running out of fuel.
  3. If the home is not to be heated, have the fuel turned off at the main shut-off valve to reduce the malfunction/ explosion potential. The valve should be checked to ensure it is working properly.
  4. The home should be checked regularly (at least once a week) to ensure the heating system is operating properly.
  5. Be sure the electric power is not shut off since this will shut down the heating system. If electrical service to the home is to remain on, inspect main electrical panel, wiring and outlets; and repair or replace any defective or deficient items.
  6. Chimneys should be inspected by a chimney service and, if necessary, cleaned to ensure that they are free from obstructions such as nesting birds. Install chimney guard screen-caps to help prevent any infestation.

Water damage

  1. If the heating system is to be turned off completely, have the plumbing system drained (or properly winterized) to prevent freezing damage.
  2. If hot water heating system and/or water pipes will not be drained, have a water flow sensor and low temperature sensor installed and hooked into a centrally monitored alarm system; and keep thermostat at a consistent temperature throughout the winter months.
  3. If water will not be turned off, shut off dishwasher and washing machine hoses to prevent serious water damage losses. Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls so the water supply will be less likely to freeze. Follow manufacturer’s instructions closely if heat tape is used on piping to prevent fires. Open cabinet doors to allow heat from the room to get into concealed spaces. Drain and shut off outdoor water faucets to prevent vandalism and freezing damage.
  4. If a separate hot water heater is present, inspect for leaks. If in an earthquake area, confirm it is retrofitted (e.g., strapped to the adjacent wall).
  5. Check weather-stripping, insulation, and exterior doors and windows to ensure no major deficiencies are present. Water and insects can enter through these openings.
  6. Inspect roof for any evidence of damage, leaks, missing or worn shingles/ridges; and replace or repair damaged, worn or missing shingles to help prevent wind, water damage or damage resulting from water backup of ice that forms around the edges.
  7. Inspect for ice dams on the roof that can prevent melting snow from draining off the roof, which in turn can back up and cause interior water damage.
  8. Inspect attic and basement for any evidence of water damage or mold. Fix all leaks, keep appliances clean, and increase ventilation to prevent the growth of molds and bacteria and reduce potential for invasion from unwanted insects or rodents.
  9. Gutters and downspouts should be checked and cleaned, if necessary. Clogged gutters can result in basement flooding when the snow melts in northern climates and/or water damage to interior walls in any climate as the water is no longer channeled properly. Check the downspouts and extensions to make sure water is diverted away from the house and does not pond next to the foundation.

Vandalism

  1. Notify the police department that the property will be vacant, and provide emergency notification phone numbers.
  2. Clear snow from driveways, sidewalks, hatch covers and dryer vent openings to reduce slip-and-fall liability losses, reduce the potential for the home becoming a target for vandals by appearing to be unoccupied or vacant, and prevent melting snow from leaking into the home and causing damage.
  3. In temperate climates, make sure lawn is mowed and maintained regularly (e.g., free of debris or garbage).
  4. Promptly repair any significant hazards (e.g., missing or broken railing or steps, broken windows, etc.) to increase the appearance the home is regularly occupied.
  5. Have mail and newspapers forwarded to appropriate address or picked up on a regular basis. Even if all mail is stopped, the home should be checked at least weekly to ensure unread mail, flyers, leaflets, etc., do not build up and add to the vacant/unoccupied appearance of the property.
  6. Secure external doors and windows with high-quality deadbolt locks, security-type hinges, and sturdy door frames that cannot be spread apart. Slide locks or other equivalent security locks should be installed on sliding glass doors or French doors.
  7. Install variable light timers to increase the appearance the home is regularly occupied, and ensure the lights do not turn on and off at the same time every day.

Miscellaneous

  1. Remove dead trees or overhanging large tree limbs from the property that could cause damage.
  2. In higher wind-exposed or coastal areas, install storm shutters (or other mitigation measures, such as 5/8” marine plywood) to secure windows ahead of a potentially damaging storm. Anchor fuel tanks and other storage tanks.
  3. Install smoke detectors on at least every floor (preferably tied into a centrally monitored fire alarm system so the fire department will automatically be notified in case of an alarm), and confirm that the sensors and system are tested regularly. Install carbon monoxide detectors and test them monthly, especially if the home will be shown to prospective buyers periodically.
  4. Have the home tested for radon and lead. If the level of either is unacceptable, take appropriate steps to correct the problem (e.g., install a radon reduction system, encapsulate lead paint, etc.).

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