Snowbirds: Winterize Your Home For When You're Away
If you are a snowbird heading south for the winter, there are several key things you can do to help protect your vacant home. Taking these steps can help protect your home from theft, water damage, heating or electrical system malfunctions and other possible threats while you are away for an extended period of time.
1. Prevent Your Home From Appearing Unoccupied
- Forward your mail, stop newspaper delivery, and ask a friend to pick up items that may be left at your door.
- Arrange for someone to remove snow after storms.
- Put motion-sensitive exterior lights and interior lights on timers and set them to come on at varying times to discourage prowlers.
2. Take Steps to Protect Your Home from Thieves
- Confirm that your alarm systems are in working order and have been activated.
- Secure external doors and windows with deadbolt locks, security-type hinges. Install slide locks or other equivalent security locks on sliding glass doors.
- Store valuables that you are not taking with you in a safe deposit box or other secure offsite location.
- Avoid posting your vacation or travel plans on social media sites, as potential thieves can use that information to learn when your house will be vacant.
3. Protect Your Pipes to Avoid Water Damage by Turning Off Your Water Supply
- If a pipe bursts or leaks while you are away, it could cause significant damage. Consider completely turning off the water supply if you will be away for an extended period of time. If your home is heated by an older steam heating system, consult with your heating professional to determine if it is safe to turn off the water supply for your particular heating system. Also, if your home is protected by a fire sprinkler system, make sure that you do not turn off the water to this system.
- If you have turned off the water supply, drain your pipes of all water by opening the faucets, and flush your toilet to clear the water from the tank and bowl. Consider pouring antifreeze in toilet tanks and bowls to prevent any remaining water from freezing.* Always use non-toxic antifreeze rated for plumbing systems.
- You may wish to hire a licensed plumber to complete these steps. The plumber can also confirm that the pipes have been fully drained by blowing compressed air through the pipes.
4. Keep Your Home and Plumbing Warm if Your Water Supply Stays On
- If you decide against draining your water pipes, keep the furnace running to help ensure the home stays warm and the pipes do not freeze.
- Set the temperature at 55°F or higher to help keep the interior of the floor and wall cavities, where the water piping is likely located above freezing temperatures. Keeping room and cabinet doors open can also help heat to circulate and warm the areas where pipes are located.
- Shut off the water to washing machines and dishwashers where possible, to avoid any leaks or broken hoses while you are away.
- Turn off the heat source and water supply to hot water heaters (if separate from your boiler).
- Consider shutting off and draining outdoor faucets to prevent water damage due to freezing.
- Have a water flow sensor and low temperature sensor installed on your main water supply pipe and hooked into a constantly monitored alarm system or your smart phone.
5. Perform Routine Maintenance Before You Leave
- Have your heating system inspected and serviced by a licensed professional before the onset of cold weather. Have your fuel tanks filled before you leave and make sure you have set up periodic fuel deliveries, if needed. Have someone check on heat and fuel levels regularly while you are gone.
- Be sure to maintain electrical power if required to keep the heating system running. If electrical service to the home is to remain on while you are away, consider having a licensed electrical contractor inspect your main electrical panel, wiring and outlets. Repair or replace anything that may be defective.
- Have your roof inspected and clean your gutters to help prevent ice from building up.*
- Remove dead trees or large overhanging limbs that could damage your house.
- Unplug all unnecessary appliances, such as your stove and microwave, before you leave.
- Make sure you can periodically retrieve messages on your home answering machine or voicemail while you are away so it does not indicate "FULL" suggesting you are away when someone calls.
6. Make Your Home Unattractive to Pests
- Clean your home thoroughly to help discourage new “residents” from moving in.
- Clean, defrost and unplug refrigerators and freezers, wiping them dry and leaving doors propped open to prevent mildew. Also clean the oven.
- Inspect your home for openings that animals could use to enter. For example, make sure your fireplace flue is closed, as bats, birds and squirrels are known to get inside this way.
- Check weather-stripping, insulation and exterior doors and windows to ensure no major deficiencies are present. Water and insects can enter through these openings.
- 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.
7. Be Ready for Emergencies
- Notify the police department that the property will be vacant, and provide emergency notification numbers.
- Install smoke detectors on at least every floor (preferably tied to a constantly monitored fire alarm system so the fire department will automatically be notified in case of alarm), and confirm that the sensors and system are tested regularly.
- In higher wind-exposed or coastal areas, install storm shutters (or consider using other mitigation measures, such as 5/8” marine plywood) to secure windows. Properly anchor personal property that will remain outdoors.
- Ask a trusted friend, neighbor or relative to keep an eye on your home and be available in emergency situations. Give them access to your home so they can regularly monitor heating, electrical and water systems.
- If the weather turns frigid, have them look at the edge of the roof for ice dams and look for leaks inside. Make sure they have your contact information and a list of local contractors they can reach if repairs or service are indicated.