Owning a vacation home can be wonderful in your retirement. You may be a snow bird who flies south to sunnier, warmer weather in the winter. Or a grandparent who would rather own a home near their children and grandchildren than deal with the expense and logistics of staying in a hotel. Or maybe you’ve bought a second home as an income property.
One thing is clear: buying a vacation home is a good way to ensure that you’ll have a place to escape to, but you’ll need to take care of your investment, securing and sustaining it during its vacant months.
Your vacation home is a valuable asset that needs to be treated well to ensure that your return to your second home is as worry-free as possible when you arrive next time.
Potential problems that might develop during your time away include bugs, rodents, mold, fire, frozen pipes, leaks, theft and vandalism and issues with your condo association, swimming pool care or lawn and landscape maintenance. But, thankfully, there is help.
Good homeowners insurance is a must, but you’ll also want to look at what services are available in your vacation community. Caring for a vacation home differs according to location. For example, the issues in Florida, such as heat and moisture, are not the same as those in Vermont, where freezing temperatures and snow can have a big impact on a property. There are many commonalities, but each area does require separate treatment.
Electricity and water
Your first instinct may be to turn off your electricity and water to save money, but this decision depends on where the house is located and what systems you may want to keep running while your property is empty. If you leave your electricity on, you can keep your energy bills lower by unplugging all your appliances while you’re away, including your water heater. If your home uses gas, turn off the gas supply to the house for safety.
Heating and air conditioning may seem like a luxury to maintain when no one is in residence but keeping your house at an even temperature and monitoring humidity can prevent expensive issues such as mold or frozen pipes. If your vacation home is in a hot, humid area, you may want to keep the air conditioning set to 78 to 80 degrees to avoid dangerous mold or damage to electrical devices from humidity. In a cold climate, keeping your heat on even at a low temperature can help prevent pipes and appliances from freezing. The temperature setting you choose depends on the climate where your home is located and the level of insulation of your pipes.
While you may want to turn off the circuit breaker for some systems in your house such as the ones for appliances and your water heater, you should at least leave on the electricity that powers your alarm systems and your lights. You can use an app on your smart phone to program your lights so they turn on and off, which makes your home look occupied and therefore is less vulnerable to thieves. If you decide to turn off the electricity to your refrigerator, be sure to clean it out, put some baking soda inside to absorb moisture and leave the refrigerator door open to prevent mold.
Shutting off the water to the house when you leave the property is often advisable as it reduces the chance of water leakage and subsequent damage. If your home is in cold climate, you’ll need to drain the water lines to prevent freezing.
If you decide to leave the water turned on, make sure that any necessary sprinkler systems are either watched or maintained to ensure they don’t malfunction and create water drainage and damage problems for yourself or your neighbors.
It’s a good idea to invest in smart home technology that detects water leaks and can alert you to an issue before it overwhelms your house. Before you leave for the season, it’s smart to identify a company and a neighbor you can call if you live far away to check on the situation if you get an alert about a water issue.
Weather and pests
When your vacation home is in a warm and humid climate, you need to be particularly vigilant about mosquitoes and other bugs invading your property. But even in a cold climate, you need to be concerned about pests such as squirrels or rodents making your home their retreat during the winter months. Keep up with any treatments such as sprays for ants or termites and make sure your vacation house doesn’t have any easy entrances for larger pests; inspect the exterior of the house for any cracks or holes in the foundation, siding or windows where mice or rats can crawl in. Remove any overhanging tree limbs, as they may allow raccoons, roof rats and squirrels to take up residence in the attic insulation, damaging rafters and ceilings with their droppings and gnawing.
Thoroughly cleaning your house before you lock it up until next season can help prevent an infestation. Get rid of all your food other than canned goods to avoid attracting bugs and rodents. You can keep your bedding and mattresses clean by storing everything in plastic while you’re away. Take your garbage to the dump and securely store your garbage cans. While you’re outside, bring in your grill and outdoor furniture to keep it from being knocked around in a storm or just getting dirty or rusty.
If your vacation home is in a location prone to hurricanes or strong winds, you may want to install hurricane shutters if you’re leaving it empty during the storm season and either move outside items indoors or anchor them so they can’t become airborne during high winds. If your home is subject to ice, freezing temperatures and snow, you may want to add shutters to keep the snow from damaging your windows. You can add window plastic to keep the temperature inside warmer, too. In an earthquake zone, you can secure tall furniture and shelves to the wall. If your home is in a flood zone, you first want to maintain your flood insurance, and also you can install moisture or water-level sensors to alert you to water issues.
If your vacation home has a pool, it will need ongoing care and maintenance. Never empty the water in an inground pool yourself—this can create substantial problems when not done correctly. On the other hand, water left standing can breed mold and algae. It’s best to hire someone to maintain your pool periodically while you’re away.
Depending on where your home is located, you may want to hire a caretaker or a landscaping firm to keep your property looking attractive and occupied as well as to keep it safe. If your vacation home is in a warm climate, you’ll need to keep the grass and shrubbery trimmed while you’re away. In a cold climate, you’ll want someone to periodically check snow accumulations, make sure there’s no ice damage or that trees haven’t damaged your property and that your roof is in good shape.
Depending on your situation, there are numerous services available to maintain your vacation home, including house-sitting, pool cleaning and security, for example.
Friends and neighbors who are permanent residents can be your best source of information, help and advice. At the very least, make sure they know how to contact you when you are away. You should also let the local police know that the house will be vacant.
Seventy-two percent of all residential burglaries occur when the home is unoccupied, according to law enforcement statistics. While many break-ins happen when residents are out for a few hours, leaving your home empty for a season could leave it more vulnerable to criminals and vandals. That’s why it’s so important to keep the appearance of your property in good condition so it looks as if someone is regularly visiting. In addition to keeping grass cut and the property free of natural debris, you should make sure no mail is delivered and that someone stops by to pick up flyers or free newspapers that can collect and make it obvious no one is home. Make sure when you leave your house for the season that every window and door is securely locked and you’re your dead-bolts are in place.
Installing a security system that you can monitor with your smart phone or internet access can provide additional protection and peace of mind while your home is empty. Motion-sensitive exterior lights and programmable interior lights can also help keep criminals away. In addition to protecting your home against theft with an alarm system, you should make sure your emergency systems such as a fire alarm, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are operational either with batteries or by keeping your electricity running. Test all your detectors and install fresh batteries before you lock up for the season. If you leave any valuables behind, use a fireproof safe or an offsite safe deposit box to keep everything secure.
If there are neighbors near your house who stay all season, let them know you’re away and give them your contact information so they can alert you to anything unusual at your vacation house. Make sure you have the number for the police and fire department readily available in case you need to call them to check on your property in an emergency.
If you leave a car at your vacation home, remember to keep it covered—snowbird destinations can become extremely hot during the summer, which can affect the paint and headlight lenses. In a cold climate, ice, hail, and snow can also damage your car. Store your car in a garage or carport or use a car cover.
In addition to keeping your car physically covered, review your car insurance coverage. If your car won’t be driven while you’re away, you can suspend your collision coverage to save some money. Don’t suspend your comprehensive coverage, though. It’ll keep you protected just in case unexpected damage, such as theft, hail, or a dent due to a fallen tree branch, should occur.
You might also want to remove the car battery, as it will lose its charge over time. If you want to make sure that you’ll be able to start the car immediately upon your return, consider putting it on a solar charger; these are inexpensive and will help ensure that your battery is good to go when you arrive.
Transitioning from your primary residence back to your vacation home can be a breeze when you’ve taken the steps to secure your winter or summer place. Log into your account to make sure you have the right insurance coverage for your vacation home as part of your preparations. That protection can give you the peace of mind to enjoy your vacation home and the anticipation of returning to it each year to make more happy memories.
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