Published December 18, 2012
As snowbirds head south to escape the cold temperatures, the houses they are leaving behind are susceptible to damage from theft, vandalism and natural disaster.
Before heading off to more desirable weather, experts recommend seasonal homeowners take important safety measures to make sure all home and belongings stay secure when you gone.
Besides the standard stopping mail and newspaper delivery and having someone stop by the home, experts recommend homeowners have the right insurance, secure their possessions and take necessary steps to protect their homes before heading out:
Check Your Homeowners Insurance
If your home is empty for more than six months, you may need a different homeowners insurance policy, says Melissa Digby, national loss prevention director at insurer USAA. “From an insurance point of view, when a home is unoccupied for a long time, it becomes susceptible to burglars or vandals. If you’re visiting your home regularly, you wouldn’t need to make changes.”
Many policies require that you maintain your residence by keeping the heat and power on while you’re away, so be sure to check your policy for its requirements to avoid unexpectedly losing or not being qualified for coverage.
Insure Your Possessions
If something happens to your home, you want to make sure you have enough coverage to rebuild it from the ground up, says Digby. “It’s a good idea to contact your insurance company every three to five years, especially if you’ve made upgrades to your home.”
If your policy has a deductible, Digby suggests having this amount tucked away to avoid going into debt and to be able to rebuild or repair quicker. Personal property coverage typically ranges between 50% and 75% of your building coverage.
Protect your valuables. Homeowners policies may limit coverage of valuables that you leave behind, like jewelry, silverware, furs, stamp and coin collections. Experts suggest listing expensive items under a schedule for valuable personal property (VPP). Damage to valuables because of a power outage or flooding would be covered under a schedule since these provide for broader coverage than a homeowners policy, says Bob Welther, assistant vice president of risk consulting at ACE Private Risk Service.
If you put valuables in a safe before heading off, make sure it’s properly secured to the framing in your wall so that it can’t be removed, warns Lipford. “It’s worth it to put any of your valuables, like money and jewelry, in a safety deposit box.”
Premium credits and discounts. There are a handful of things you can do to get a premium credit or discount under your insurance plan, says Welther. For instance, insurers offer credits if you’ve an automatic standby generator that can power the house’s core systems or an automatic leak detection system that shuts the water off when it senses a leak.
Welther also suggests installing a centrally monitored fire and burglar alarm system that alerts a monitoring company and in turn, the police or fire department, if necessary. These systems cost as little as $1 per day and may provide for a premium credit on your homeowners policy. Before you go away, experts recommend having these systems serviced to make sure they’re functioning properly.
Keep Your Home Secure When Away
To avoid giving the appearance that no one’s home, install motion detectors for exterior lights that turn on if someone’s walking around the outside and timers for interior lamps, says home improvement expert Bob Vila. “Motion detectors on outside spotlights can alert the neighbors and discourage vandals.”
Consider installing a system that allows you to view your house remotely, turn the temperature up and down, lock and unlock doors, and turn lamps on and off, says Lipford. These services can give you peace of mind for as little as $10 a month.
Windows and sliding doors can be easy entry points for intruders, points out Vila and he suggests putting a piece of wood, like an old broomstick cut to the right length, along the track on double hung windows or sliding doors to help keep your home safe. He also recommends buying grates for the inside of basement windows. “It’s another point of break in that’s easy to fix,” he says.
Prepare for Natural Disasters
Vila recommends boarding up windows to prevent damage from high winds or if you live by the shore, sand that’s blown up that can cause long-term damage.
Unless your home is on stilts, there isn’t much you can do to protect your home except purchase flood insurance. “Snow falls in the winter and melts in the spring—that’s when flooding can occur,” says Digby.
Flood insurance is provided through the National Flood Insurance Program and because there’s a 30-day waiting period for a policy to become active, Digby suggests buying a policy to make sure you are covered for spring. Policies are available in areas designated as at risk for floods by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and premiums vary by your proximity to a flood zone and desired coverage.
To properly protect your home while you’re away, disastersafety.org lists all weather risks for your zip code.
Winterize Your Home
Before leaving your home for an extended period of time, experts say to shut the water off at the cut-off point or main water valve and then turn several faucets on to drain the pipes—leave the faucets on so there’s air and expansion room. If you live in a very cold climate, Lipford suggests putting antifreeze in toilets and sinks to prevent frozen pipes from the remaining water and to turn the water off to your washing machine.
“Definitely do not turn the heat completely off—turn your thermostat down to 55 degrees,” says Lipford. Close the damper or flue for a wood-burning stove or fireplace to keep cold air out and warm air in.
Sunlight beating on your house for months can fade furniture, pictures and paintings, according to Vila so if you don’t have drapes on your windows, cover furniture and move photos and pictures out of direct sunlight so they don’t get damaged.
To save on electricity, Lipford suggests turning your water heater off and unplugging every appliance that you possibly can, including your refrigerator if it’s empty. “There’s a phantom cost for keeping things plugged in,” he says.