How to keep house safe and maintained while gone a lot
May 31, 2013 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Two months ago I accepted a new assignment at work that will require me to be away from home a lot over the next year. For example, right now it looks like during June I will only be home twice for a stretch of 3 days each time, and it will probably continue like that for most of this assignment. When I took this job I had a long term, live-in boyfriend, so I wasn’t concerned about my house at all. We have since broken up (the house is 100% mine). So, now I’m trying to figure out all the things I need to do to make sure my house is ok while I’m gone.

So far I have:
-gotten a PO box and forwarded all my mail to it
-canceled the paper
-set one of the downstairs lights on a timer (I plan to get some more for other parts of the house)
-gotten a plan in place for lawn mowing
-will be giving my contact number to a neighbor
I’m not really close with any of my neighbors, beyond a friendly wave, and most of my friends live a least 30 minutes from me, so having someone come by frequently is probably not going to work. I did have a guy from work volunteer to swing by my house after any big storms to check things out.

Anything else I’m missing – either safety or maintenance?
posted by Sabby to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You could hire a house sitter. Any universities nearby?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:16 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the winter you'll want to make sure your walk and driveway are shoveled. If the house is big enough consider getting a very responsible housemate.
posted by mareli at 7:18 AM on May 31, 2013

I normally think security systems are a paranoid waste of time, but in this case it's probably a good idea. Provided it is monitored by a service that can act autonomously when you aren't around. Maybe not so much for theft, but for damage.

Things I do when I am away for more than a few days: shut off circuit breakers for non essential things. Turn off the water. Bar the windows.
posted by gjc at 7:22 AM on May 31, 2013

Put your smaller valuables and paperwork away, maybe in the freezer (in a packaged food box), or offsite in a safe deposit box?
posted by mamabear at 7:22 AM on May 31, 2013

I just looked at your profile and noticed that several mefites live very close to you. Check them out and see if any one of them might want to make a little money checking on your house every couple of days. Yes, valuables in a safe deposit box for sure.
posted by mareli at 7:24 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you have a friend/friends who live with roommates, they may enjoy the offer of an occasional nigh/weekend on their own. This offers you the benefit of both having someone to notice any issues at the house, but also makes the house appear more lived in.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:25 AM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Double-check your indoor and outdoor faucets for any leaks. Otherwise your list looks pretty good to me. Cancel and cable or satellite TV service? or maybe just rollback to some super basic level or service? Your neighbors may keep a closer eye on the place than you think, especially if folks notice (or word generally spreads) that you are gone for extended periods.
posted by jquinby at 7:26 AM on May 31, 2013

I agree with the roommate idea. The house is looked after and you offset some of the mortgage. And it's a bit radical but you could even rent out the entire house - the rent should cover six nights in a hotel.
posted by payoto at 7:26 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find a local property management service, and contract with them to come by on an agreed upon weekly or monthly time-frame to check the house and the grounds.

As part of this agreement, many PM companies will open all the windows for a while to get some air in the house, flush the toilets and run all the faucets to get the water running and check for leaks, and turn on new and different lights. Depending on how often they do this, it can be rather affordable.
posted by lstanley at 7:29 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I haven't used this personally, but there's a device that makes it appear like a TV is being watched at night (without the power consumption of having an actual TV on):

Also, if you have computer with a webcam that you'll be leaving at home, you can turn it into a security camera that detects and notifies you when there's motion in the room:
posted by bluecore at 7:44 AM on May 31, 2013

If you get a security system, get one with a heat sensor. My family learned this through experience.
posted by jgirl at 7:49 AM on May 31, 2013

Light timers: Make sure the timers are manual and not power dependent. Some cheaper digital ones will reset (or older ones if the capacitor is blown) and screw up the lights.

I have manual timers on varied daily times, digital on m-f s/s schedules, and dumb timers that have a "one push for random" setting. Even when we are home I use them on some lights (hall light, bedroom peanut light).

Entry and egress: I'd also change some of your locks to be digital; so you can have a code for the couple of people who are in and out (individualized). There are some systems (I looked a briefly a while back, none of my research is handy) that you can specify the code only works during certain times (the example was you only want the housekeeper's code to work on Tuesdays between 9 and 11).

Major appliances: I'd get an HVAC service agreement or start putting away pennies for failure issues. I keep the Service Agreement on the fridge so it can be found when needed (and I needed it monday!).

Utilities: I'd speak to the local electric utility about putting something on your box we can get down here - it's a special surge protector for major appliances. Additionally, you can save money by putting yourself, in some utility districts, on a list - like Okay to Brown or something so when there is a huge power demand you can cut back the electricity to your house (this will mess up your timers!).

Check lists: I'd also have a simple check list for whomever. Check furnace, run all faucets a few min, flush all toilets, check water heater, open windows for fresh air while they are there (and close again!). Also, list of "where to find this" for things like the HVAC/Appliance service contract and a list of the local utility phone numbers. Keep electronic version with you.

Supplies: I'm in FL so I keep a handy hurricane box; I'd leave a handy storm supply box at your place in case they get there and have to stay while dealing with a "can't leave the house emergency". Since you won't be home, keep it in the fridge - easy to eat food, handy flashlights, water, etc.

Door to door detritus: I'd enlist a neighbor to grab flyers (I do this for my out of town neighbor so the local menus and phonebooks don't pile up).

Look like you live there: Fake plants you and/or your friends move around on the front porch or in the windows. Open and close curtains (subject to not exposing that the lights are on timers). If you leave a car in the driveway, have them move it every so often (as well as run it around the block a bit).

Routinely change things up: I love brightnest. Reminds me to change my air filters, but can be used with your helper(s), too; for the curtain and plant things, for yourself for the quarterly things and season things (storm windows, pipe insulation, et cetera).

Humidity control: Not as much of a problem as here in florida, but look into having a dehumidifier if necessary, draining into the bathtub.
posted by tilde at 7:51 AM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, oh, for the check list of in-house people things to do - fiddle with the timers just enough to vary things up. Get simple enough timers and/or make detailed instructions.
posted by tilde at 8:10 AM on May 31, 2013

How about a Nest thermostat that can put itself in away mode, as well as be controlled remotely via your phone/internet?

Mine has honestly saved us about 15%-20% per MONTH on heating and cooling bills.
posted by matty at 8:24 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you live in an area where the basement can flood (hot water heater in the basement, sump pump that can fail, etc), an alarm that can SMS and/or dial-out to alert someone to that. ("and" because depending on storm severity, cell phone or land line can be cut off.)

My sister had a house in the midwest where they went through a horrendous clean-up after a series of events that caused the sump pump to fail and the alarm to not notify anyone. I believe they ended up with redundant pumps and a moisture sensor that had both alarm modes.

And if you don't have irrigation, shut off the house water before you go. If you do have irrigation, consider routing it so that you can isolate and shut off the house water and leave it running, but add a master valve to the irrigation line (most irrigation controllers support this).
posted by straw at 8:29 AM on May 31, 2013

Power Outages: You really, now that I think about it, need a "reboot the house" checklist. You need a couple of clocks that will reliably survive a simple surge, and some that will fail if you breathe on them funny. They'll act as a cross check to see if the power just flickered or was OUT.

Gone Long Time prep list:

Power Strips - put TVs and major non fridge appliances on appropriately rated surge protection/ power strip kill switch and kill or unplug while gone.

Freezer food viability - freeze a half glass of water. Put a penny on the frozen block. Fill with more water. Keep in freezer

Passive water alarm - Put towels or "soak and toss" wet pads around doors, under faucets, etc, to catch water leaks (minor). Crumple tissue or something on top of them (or sprinkle some unsugar color powder, like Crystal Light) on it so you can see if they got wet and then dried out. use in conjunction with the other water alarms people mentioned.

Antimust- Hang up bathmats that might mildew, put mothballs in closets and drawers (or cedar)

KILL THE BUGS - Put out pest traps (and starve the buggers out, too)

Reboot the house - list of how to reset all the timers (master list and quick reminders on each timer)

Have a quick "clean up" list - paper towels, bags, gloves; so something can be cleaned up and tossed if needed.

Power Outage Checklist:

- Check all appliances for basic turn on if left plugged in (lights for microwave/oven, dryer, washer).

- Check the penny in the freezer. Toss food if the penny has dropped.

- Verify the timers are all still set, and adjust their times to the correct realtime if there was a significant outage. I had a timer on a manual switch outlet and it drove me CRAZY that I couldn't get the timing to "stick" - forgetting I was turning off the timing part when I killed the switch

- Check the water telltales (disposable water pads with unsugar colored powder) for leaks. We had a slow leak that was a pain to find until we FINALLY found it (expensively and later).

- Reset the clocks.
posted by tilde at 8:44 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

- Do you ever get water in the basement after a big rain? If so, make sure anything in the basement is up on 2x4s or pallets. It takes very little water to make a lot of trouble.
- Get an insulated lockbox for important papers, put it in a good hiding place.
- If you have expensive stuff like jewelry, silver, find a very good place to hide it.
- Go outside, imagine that you're locked out. How could you get in? Fix any weak points.
- Outdoor lights on light sensor + motion detector.
- Check for shrubs that would hide a person with bad intent.
- Does your electric/ water/ gas company need access to read the meter?
- Make sure your homeowner's and car insurance are up-to-date
- Where will your car be? Make sure it's in a safe place if you leave it for weeks at a time, maybe at the house and get a battery jumper in case because batteries don't love not being used.

I'd get a roommate, offer a lowish rent for use of this nice house solo a lot of the time, or I'd offer to pay a neighbor to visit every 3 days or so, move the car, in addition to keeping an eye on things.
posted by theora55 at 9:05 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Fake TV device. It's quite convincing. Make sure to place it so the device can't be seen thru curtains (second floor if possible).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:27 AM on May 31, 2013

There are services that will stop by your house a couple times a week, typically with costs varying according to how much you want them to do for you. The bonus is that you don't have to impose on friends or neighbours to help you for free, especially given the long-term nature of what you need.
posted by lulu68 at 12:02 PM on May 31, 2013

In addition to the fake tv, you might want to leave a radio on when you leave.

Even a cheap alarm system is a deterrent to burglars. Or at least get fake alarm stickers for your windows.

Auto sensors and/or timers on your outdoor lights are a good idea too.
posted by monopas at 12:03 PM on May 31, 2013

I'd advertise for a roommate. Give them discounted rent and have them do all the stuff you'd need doing around the house.

If you're not there most of the time, you can do a mitzvah for some poor grad student and have a responsible person in your home insuring that it's not falling to rack and ruin while you're gallavanting about.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2013

I think the insurance folk would regard your house as "unoccupied", but would not regard it as "vacant".

Under most insurance policies, if your house is unoccupied for more than four consecutive days during the winter season, your insurance will not cover water damage from the freezing of any part of a plumbing, heating, or air-conditioning system, or an appliance such as a washing machine or dishwasher.
For insurance purposes, a vacant house is not the same as one whose residents are temporarily away, on vacation, for example. In that case, insurer considers the house "unoccupied."

(One lawyer writing about Canada, for the general audience. YMMV.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2013

I wouldn't let your immediate neighbors know you won't be there if you don't know them.
I had a neighbor once break into my house and rob me blind. Took it all.

I'd say get a FM radio and set it to the talk station, turn up the volume, and plug it into a timer that is set to come one at random times like mondays 8am-1pm, then again at 10pm-midnight, do various/random times for each day of the week so no matter when someone might stand on the front porch, there is a great chance that they will hear voices from inside.

Beyond that, pay the measly amount it takes to have a security system installed, or at least look into them before you leave.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2013

Also Replace all your smoke detector batteries with new ones prior to leaving.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2013

Coming in to suggest a few things:
If you have your barbecue parked outside, lock it or put it away in the garage/shed if you leave one outside. Take away the propane tank or unhook the bbq from the natural gas hook up.

I would also get a security system installed. For the length of time you won't be home, it might be a good idea.

Maybe put a radio tuned to a talk station on a timer. At least that would give the sound of someone home.

My mom used to put broomsticks in the window stills/patio door to prevent prying the windows/door open. I know that if thieves want in, they'll find a way - this is just a deterrent.

If you have access to the inside of the house via the garage, make sure that door can lock, including the actual garage door.
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 6:12 PM on May 31, 2013

How about turning off the water hoses to the washing machine? Normally if they break it's a huge mess, but if they break while you're away for a week it's a colossal mess.
posted by sarah_pdx at 9:15 PM on May 31, 2013

Get those basement window rain shields. Turn off any dehumidifiers. Have the neighbor check for pizza/tree trimmer flyers/extra papers they give you to entice you to subscribe.

Consider putting a light/leaving a light on in the bathroom. You probably wouldn't be up at 3am in the laundry room but anyone might be in the bathroom at any time.
posted by Morrigan at 5:29 PM on June 2, 2013

Thanks for all the great ideas – you guys came up with a lot of things I didn’t think of!

I was really reluctant to consider the roommate idea. I’m picky about my surroundings and I think my recent break-up has made me even more sensitive. But the more I thought about it the more practical it seemed, so I decided to start asking around, seeing if anyone knew anyone looking for a place short term. The first person I asked has a co-worker who is interested!

So, I marked the roommate idea as best answer – though all of these ideas are very useful.
posted by Sabby at 1:46 PM on June 10, 2013

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