If you plan to leave your home unoccupied while you travel, you will need to take care of a number of issues to prepare for your trip. Here is a list of some of the main tasks you should perform when leaving your home unoccupied for a long trip.
Arrange for an Overseer or Caretaker for your home
Regardless of how well you prepare your home to leave it unoccupied for long periods of time, it’s still a good idea to have someone check on the place periodically just to be sure nothing serious has happened to your residence. Just about every year or two there is a bad windstorm in our area that results in trees falling on at least a couple houses. Imagine that house is yours and you don’t have anyone checking on your house after the storm. Not a comforting thought.
The best option is to have a neighbor who you are friendly with keep an eye on the place for you. If you don’t have a neighbor who will do it as a favor, you can approach a neighbor you trust and offer to pay them a fee to check on the place once a week and make sure that it hasn’t been vandalized or robbed, or a tree hasn’t fallen on the roof. Another options it to use a friend or family member who lives nearby. If you have no trusted neighbors and no family members nearby, you may want to consider negotiating with a local property management company to check on the place periodically. These companies typically do a lot more than just monitoring properties, but you may be able to hire them to do a minimal amount of checking for a smaller fee.
See this post about tasks you can ask your house caretaker to do while you are away.
Turn off the water supply to the house at the main shutoff, or at the meter, before you leave. If you are planning to be gone during the winter and you live in an area where temperatures drop below freezing, you should drain the water lines after the water is shut off to prevent the pipes freezing. If you are just afraid of the pipes spontaneously springing leaks while you are gone, you can drain the lines as well. You do this by opening one or more of the lowest faucets in the house (basement or low outside faucets) and let the water run out of the system. Close them when you are done. If you are traveling in the summer and you need water to be on in order to maintain your lawn and outside plants, have someone come by to check for leaks and or disasters occasionally. Your home security system may have a water detection sensor you can install on the floor (usually near the water heater or other sources or flooding).
In our city, we can notify the city water bureau that we are shutting off our water and they will put come to our house and put a lock on the main water shutoff valve. By doing this step they waive all the flat rate water charges except for a few small fees for maintenance and surface water management. Combined with the savings from no water usage charges, this can provide considerable cost savings. Check with your local water bureau to see if they offer a similar service.
If you choose to leave the water on, you could have the person who is checking on your place turn on the water and run the faucets, flush the toilets, and run the dishwasher, maybe once a month. This will help keep plumbing fixtures lubricated.
Turn off the power to the water heater. Usually the water heater is on its own circuit breaker, so you can shut it off at the breaker panel. Most advice I’ve read says you don’t need to drain the water heater, but if you are concerned about the water heater leaking while you are away you may choose to drain it. If you have a gas water heater, turn off the gas supply to the water heater as well.
Pool and\or Spa
If you live in an area where you normally close your pool for the winter and you plan to travel during that time, follow all your normal procedures for winterizing and closing the pool before you leave. If you live in a warmer climate where you don’t normally close your pool during the year, and you will be gone for at least a couple months or more, you may want to winterize and close the pool anyway…otherwise you will need to arrange to have someone monitor your pool’s chemical levels, water level, and make sure the filter is running enough to keep the pool in shape. You can run the filter on a timer or just leave it running fulltime, but if the water level drops too low that won’t do you much good. If you have a family member, friend, or neighbor who can check your pool and add water or chemicals periodically, you are good to go. If not, you may want to hire a pool service while you are gone. Many pool companies offer vacation pool maintenance service plans.
If you have a spa, drain it, clean it, and turn off the power.
Clean your toilets well with disinfectant cleaner before you go on your trip. If you are leaving your water supply on, water in toilets can collect bacteria, which can cause stains. To prevent this you can put a half cup of chlorine bleach into the water in the bowl. Or you can have your house minder flush the toilets every time they go through the house. If you’ve shut off the water to the house, once you’ve flushed the water in the tank and bowl you won’t have to worry about this. You may want to leave a container of water in one bathroom for your house minder that they can use to fill the tank in case they need to use the facilities while they are in the house.
As mentioned in the article on home security, a continually dark house is a signal to a burglar that no one is home. Put selected lights on timers to do your best to fool any potential intruders. Consider using LED bulbs which last a lot longer than regular bulbs and consume little electricity. Install outside LED lights with sensors that turn the lights on when the ambient light levels are low, or install motion activated lights outside the house. Have your house minder check to make sure the bulbs are ok and replace any that burn out.
Alarm System and Cameras
If your alarm system, remote cameras, smoke detectors, etc. run on batteries, install fresh batteries just before you leave. Test your system using your remote monitoring apps to make sure you can access your monitoring devices while you are gone. Dust and remove spider webs near your motion sensors and spray around them with insect repellent, since spiders can set off your motion detectors if they crawl over them or build webs in front of them. If you are using a camera system with a remote monitoring application which provides alerts via emails or text message when the cameras detect activity, you will want to adjust and configure the cameras and software to avoid sending false alerts. For example, we have Nest Cams installed inside and outside of the house which send us alerts when movement is detected by any of the cameras. The camera software allows you to break up each camera’s field of view into zones. You can then choose to receive alerts only if there is activity in particular zones. This helps reduce false alerts from things like car headlights, wind moving bushes and trees, and so forth.
You will typically want to leave some power so you can maintain a minimal amount of heat in the house to prevent mold and mildew and to power selected lights and your alarm system at the very least. Our insurance agent told us that a homeowner doesn’t maintain some level of heat in the home, insurance will not cover the house for damage to the home. You can shut off circuits for the oven, washer, dryer, water heater, and any other circuits which will not need power while you are away. In rooms that still have power, unplug all electrical devices from outlets.
If you have gas only for water heating and\or gas cooking appliances, then you can shut off your gas at the main house shutoff valve. If you also have a gas furnace, you will need to leave the gas on so you can supply a minimum amount of heat to the house while you are gone.
Keeping some heat on in your house during the winter helps prevent mold and mildew (if you live in an area which is more humid in the winter) and also provides passive heating of your pipes from heat loss through the floor to prevent them from freezing. If you have drained your water pipes and shut off the water before leaving I assume you don’t have to worry about keeping the empty pipes warm, but mold and mildew is another matter. I’ve seen arguments for setting your thermostat’s minimum temperature anywhere from 40-60F while you are away, with the most common recommendations between 50-60F. If you have anything that is more temperature sensitive in the house that requires higher or lower temperatures, such as sensitive house plants or pets you may need to go higher.
Letting your house get too hot and humid can have more serious consequences, including damaging drywall materials, warping or cracking of hardwood floors and furniture, mold and mildew growth, increased breeding of dust mites, paint bubbling, artwork damage, and even electronics malfunctions. High attic temperatures can even reduce your roof lifespan. Heat and humidity go hand in hand, since hotter air can hold more moisture. In the Pacific Northwest we don’t really have to worry about the house getting too hot in the summer, but in really hot parts of the country, you will want to set your air conditioning to come on at anywhere from 80-85F, from most of the recommendations I’ve seen.
Arrange for your house minder (if you have one) to clean the filters in your dehumidifier or AC if you are gone long enough for them to need it.
Sinks and Drains
Run your garbage disposal and pour boiling water with a half cup of vinegar mixed in it to disinfect it to prevent bacteria building up while you are gone. Check for leaking pipes or faucets. If you are turning off the water to the house and draining the system this isn’t necessary.
Refrigerator and Freezer
Empty the refrigerator and freezer of all food before you leave. Defrost and clean them thoroughly and unplug them. Leave the door propped open to prevent mildew and mold.
Start using up perishable or short-shelf-life food items from your pantry long before your trip and don’t restock as your departure date approaches. Anything perishable that you still have just prior to leaving you can donate to friends, neighbors, local charities, or the garbage man.
Leaves, Snow, and Ice
If you are traveling during the Fall and you know leaves will be coming down during your trip, you’ll want to arrange for someone to come by and clean your roof and gutters during your absence. If your trips starts after most of the leaves have fallen, clean off your roof and gutters before you leave and you should be fine. If you are in snow and ice country where heavy ice can collect on your gutters, arrange to have someone come by and knock the ice off occasionally.
Accumulations of leaves and snow (especially snow with no tire tracks or footprints that indicate someone is coming and going from the house) are a signal to thieves that the house is unoccupied. You should arrange to have someone come by and periodically rake leaves and shovel snow from your sidewalks and driveways. If you only have a small amount of snow occasionally, as we do in Portland, you could have your house minder come by and tramp through the snow in your driveway after a snowstorm to make the place looked lived in.
Mow and rake your lawn and trim your shrubs shortly before your trip. If you are gone during months when the grass or bushes will be growing enough to require regular mowing or pruning, arrange for someone to do the yardwork while you are gone.
Suspend your garbage service while you are gone. Hide your garbage cans in the garage or a shed so it is less obvious to thieves that you haven’t placed them at the curb on garbage days.
If you don’t need to have Internet access enabled while you are gone, for example to support your security system or remote camera system, then see if your provider has an option to suspend service to save money while you are gone. Our provider has this option but we must leave our wi-fi active to support our remote security cameras.
If you are gone for more than 30 days, you will want to have your mail forwarded to someone you trust to receive and keep it for you, preferably a person you trust enough to open your mail to determine if there are important items you should be aware of, such as jury duty notices, subpoenas, bills you weren’t aware of, etc. We forward our mail to our daughter who can scan important mail and email the scans to us if necessary. See this post for more information about handling mail while you are away.