Maintaining unoccupied home?
May 28, 2010 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Tips for maintaining unoccupied home?

Failing health compelled my mother to leave her two-story frame (vinyl-sided) home of many, many years. Chances of her returning to live there are unknown at this point, though not good. Even if she doesn't, final decisions on disposition of the property may take 6 to 12 months.

Leaving aside issues of regular maintenance (already pretty much under control), what are the maintenance issues that arise from the house being unoccupied for so long, and which are easily overlooked?


- Summer daytime temps will be in 90's. If window A/C units (which were removed for winter) are not installed/run, what is potential for damage from heat build-up?

- Should J-traps be treated in some way to mitigate build-up of (and smell from) bacteria?

Busy lives and travel distances will mean that available time will mostly be spent visiting her where she is. At the same time, it would be shortsighted to allow the property to deteriorate, especially when we will someday need to sell it. Help us make smart moves!
posted by John Borrowman to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard that filling the toilets and sinks with a lightweight oil (vegetable oil) will prevent sewer gases entering the home from when the water evaporates out.

You should probably also make sure that the water leading to the laundry machine (if she has one) is shut off, so that if there's a hose burst you won't get a flood.

It's probably a good idea to install a burglar alarm to keep out vagrants and teenagers.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:51 AM on May 28, 2010

Winter is obviously a huge concern here. Is the house somewhere where it gets below freezing for much of the winter?

I don't think heat buildup could be too much of an issue, so I wouldn't worry about that one.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:06 AM on May 28, 2010

It would help to know where the house is.

Different environments/climates have different issues.

If you get snow, you'll have to worry about snow buildup on roofs/gutters/snow blowing in doors with gaps in them, etc. Frozen pipes could be an issue, too.

If you live in a desert environment, little spiders and tarantulas can squeeze through cracks and build nests in the house.

If you live in a bad neighborhood, squatters can set up shop inside the home.

Other thoughts:

If any of the locks on the doors are rusted or not working, you make it easy for someone to come in and strip the house of its valuables.
posted by dfriedman at 7:11 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shut off the water and drain the pipes. I know someone who failed to do this and their house was flooded, they walked from their mortgage and the bank is pursuing them anyway so now they are filing for bankruptcy. Ouch. You will probably want to hire someone to check in now and then if no one else can. You will still need someone to mow the lawn and shovel the sidewalks etc. Heat is not to big of an issue.
posted by caddis at 7:12 AM on May 28, 2010

There are companies that secure and "weatherize" houses for periods of non-occupancy. (I mostly know this because someone in my neighborhood got foreclosed on and the house was empty for quite a while.) I don't really know anything about them, but I imagine a realtor or a local bank with foreclosures would know who to talk to. Possibly the city government would have information about this (my city has some rules about unoccupied property and how it has to be maintained). The company that did the house in my neighborhood did a good job, it came out of its year of non-occupancy well-maintained and without damage from frozen pipes or wild animals or that sort of thing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on May 28, 2010

My family has made preserving unoccupied houses an artform. My great aunt died sometime in the late 80s, and my grandmother has preserved her house since then completely as it was when she was alive. Leaving aside the strange monument-to-her-life stuff, there are practical things that my grandmother has done that help keep the house in perfectly livable condition at any given moment.

- She cleans it as regularly as she cleans her own home. This may sound simple or even a little unnecessary (nobody lives there, why does it need to be cleaned!?) but I think this is the primary key to her success.

- The only food that she keeps in the house is in a freezer. It's essentially like extra storage for her. Otherwise, no food in the house, whatsoever.

- Regular maintenance and upkeep on a seasonal basis. Yardwork is done as regularly as if someone lived there. The wooden steps are replaced and/or painted every spring. And the basement is checked for leaking or flooding usually when the yardwork is done.

Otherwise, the drapes are pulled and family members stay there maybe on a monthly basis (if that regularly) for long weekends when visiting. As far as I can tell, they have no plans to sell the house and as my grandmother gets closer to 90, her house will probably be added to the list of monuments to our family. My aunt lives in the same town as my grandmother, and the job will probably fall to her to care for the properties.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:44 AM on May 28, 2010

Be careful with the insurance company. Rates are much higher for vacant homes. If you can maintain the appearance of occupancy or otherwise get someone in there so that it is not truly "vacant" you may be able to address many concerns.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:50 AM on May 28, 2010

Check your insurance cover, some policies have an exclusion clause stating that all cover is void if the house is unoccupied for more than 2 or 3 months.
posted by Lanark at 7:57 AM on May 28, 2010

Definitely winterize it if you are in a place where freezing temps are a concern. When house shopping recently, we looked at a vacant foreclosed-upon house where the bank didn't winterize. Not only did the pipes burst and flood the place, but then mold grew everywhere. It was horrifying.

In some jurisdictions, (like here in the city of Chicago) owners are required to board up the first floor windows of vacant buildings to prevent vandalism/squatters/etc. Not all do, but just throwing it out there to check if you have any local city codes about vacant homes.
posted by misskaz at 8:42 AM on May 28, 2010

"Summer daytime temps will be in 90's. If window A/C units (which were removed for winter) are not installed/run, what is potential for damage from heat build-up?"

Houses will handle this temperature no problem (mine does every year when temps approach 40C as we don't have air conditioning). However plumbing P-Traps will dry out if you aren't using them allowing sewer gases into the house with potentially explosive results. If someone isn't coming in regularly to run some water in the drains you can pour mineral oil down the drains to form a non evaporative barrier; vegetable oil will work to but it'll go rancid and with water right next to it can grow mould. Toilets should have saran wrap stretched across the bowl (then newspaper taped on top lest you unintentionally prank someone).

You can unplug the fridge but wedge/tape something in the door(s) to keep them open a bit; it'll stop them from getting smelly. If it's not impossible to get to I'd shut the water off. Hot water tanks can be turned off.

Check the insurance policy, most require occupancy or someone to check on the property on a regular basis.

The best though is to get someone in to house sit. You can often work this out for free in exchange for rent.
posted by Mitheral at 8:57 AM on May 28, 2010

There's a reason that they call closing up a ship "mothballing" it...

The few things you'll need to get done immediately include winterizing the house (drain wet plumbing, fill drains with antifreeze) and removing all of the food. I would disconnect the appliances (heater, refrigerator, oven, etc.) and would probably shut off gas, electric, and water service. Then try to consolidate the things that are prone to damage or vermin occupation in one part of the house and seal it up good with pest controls in place. You can consult with an exterminator.

I would arrange for a 'caretaker' to look in on the place at least monthly. There are usually property management companies that can offer this service. They'll be responsible for checking for signs of pests or breaking/entry. The police in some towns may be interested in knowing that there is an unoccupied house so that they can check it themselves... this is not true in every area though, and some will laugh at the idea that they'd be concerned.

I would also second the note about lawn service / property maintenance. One of the risks you'll run is getting cited by the city (Or HOA or historical district if there is any) if the property falls into disrepair.
posted by SpecialK at 9:02 AM on May 28, 2010

Thanks for all the responses. House is in very small midwestern town where vagrants, squatters, etc. are not a problem. Yes, it can get very cold, though furnace will likely be on at minimum temp to avoid freezing issues. Lawn maintenance already arranged. Nothing on the exterior would reveal that the property is vacant.

Hadn't thought about insurance issues (will investigate) and suggestions to run water through drains (can be arranged) on a regular basis.

Thanks very much.
posted by John Borrowman at 10:23 AM on May 28, 2010

The toilets should be flushed regularly to prevent leaving a permanent ring.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:43 AM on May 28, 2010

2nd-ing turning off the water and checking the details of your insurance policy.

Also, if you can't do it yourself, it would be a good idea to find someone local who can swing by once in awhile just to check on things. Even just the occasional drive-by to make sure there's no broken windows or a tree hasn't fallen thru the roof is better than nothing.
posted by spilon at 2:52 PM on May 28, 2010

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