Considerations when leaving a home empty for extended periods of time?
January 24, 2023 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Calling all vacation and second home owners or long term travelers - what should I think about when closing up the (home)shop for a while?

I anticipate needing to leave the home I am currently in for a few weeks to possibly months at a time over the year. What do I need to think about before I go?

So, this is a meh-quality track home in the Southwest built 30(!) years ago. It has already had 2 significant leaks because shoddy and/or aging pipes, and I am worried about leaks while I'm gone.

Is the solution to call a plumber and have them turn off the water main?

Other things I've thought of:
- call plumber to turn off water as above (anything else I need to do with water/pipes?)
- unplug appliances (except for the fridge)
- take out trash
- get a timer for lights?
- keep thermostat set at...65?
- we do have a SimpliSafe so it's monitored
- should I not put the keychain type locks on so that the house can be accessed if need be?

What else am I missing?

This is an unusual situation in that this was my mom's home and I'm looking after it for the time being, so am unfamiliar with what to do here (and she had never left for long periods of time before.)

Please assume a house sitter or neighbor check in is not an option. Thanks in advance.
posted by Eudaimonia to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does your home insurance require someone check the house every two weeks or so while you're gone? Ours does in case of possible damage from leaks, weather, etc. You said it was your mom's home so I'd take a look at what the insurance covers for folks who have to leave for extended periods of time.
posted by Kitteh at 12:41 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

You probably don't need a plumber to shut off the water - in a 30-year-old house there's almost certainly a valve somewhere reasonably accessible. If you turn off the water, you need to turn off (and probably empty) the hot water heater as well (if the hot water heater leaks, that's a lot of water, and then the heating element can burn out). If you're turning off the water, you probably want to empty the pipes, too.

Alternately you might be better off buying a few leak sensors (I'm sure SimpliSafe has a compatible model) and having someone you can call in case of emergency.

65F seems wildly warm for an unoccupied house to me - I live in the Northeast and I set the thermostat to 50F when I'm out for an extended time; I think my dad sets the emergency heat at 40F in his ski condo (mostly heated with a woodstove).

If you're going to be gone for months, I'd empty and turn off the fridge and prop the doors open.

For letting people in: I know a lot of people who use keypad locks (or smart locks) for this. You can hire a handyperson or locksmith but it's pretty easy to change a doorknob/deadbolt yourself (I did mine just by following the instructions on the box and usually you only need a screwdriver).

Another popular solution is a garage door opener with a code, and then you leave the door from the garage into the house unlocked (obviously only works if you already have an attached garage with automatic door opener).

Lockboxes also work (you can put them somewhere unobtrusive, they don't have to be those big ones that hang from the doorknob), or you can leave a key with a neighbor.
posted by mskyle at 12:47 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]

I don't think you'll need a plumber to turn off the water --there should be a lever (mine is in the basement) you just need to pull to shut off the water supply to the house. You may also want to deal with mail-have it forwarded or held or something. Also, is there anything that needs to be kept up outside the house? Lawn to be mowed or snow to be shoveled or anything like that?

I would encourage you to have some way for someone local to be able to access the house if you need them to. I have a key inside a realtor-style lock box that I can tell someone the combination to, and that has come in handy more than once.
posted by mjcon at 12:48 PM on January 24

Is there a chance of freezing weather that could cause a pipe to burst? Even in Maine, 45F should be fine, 50 if you're a worrier. AC does not need to be on. If damp is an issue, run a couple fans or a dehumidifier.

I shut down my house, water off & pipes drained, RV anti-freeze in toilet bowls, twice, for winters when I was away. You can learn to do this. Have a plumber show you, and label stuff.
I left a light on a timer, because LED bulbs make it cheap, but snow made it obvious no one was home. Tracks in the snow would have alerted neighbors.
I left the fridge on; in the cold it didn't have much work to do.
I left a key outside in a jar and one with a neighbor. A lockbox would work. A hidden spare key can be super handy, though. It's in a small brown Marmite jar in the garden shed, covered in dust.
Unless mail goes into the house through a slot, let the mail carrier know.

I have since installed a Nest thermostat so I can monitor or adjust the temperature in the house when I am away for a week or 2.

When the house was shut down, copper pipes expanded and contracted in the cold and then sunny days, and a couple needed to be re-soldered. It was otherwise uneventful.
posted by theora55 at 12:51 PM on January 24

Keyless doorpads are useful. There are fancy ones where you can enable & disable guest codes, or assign a guest code to a specific person, etc.

Agree with turning off water & emptying pipes -- turn on the lowest faucet and wait for water to stop.

I happen to know that for our house, heat at 60 is necessary to prevent frozen pipes if temps get down to single digits. So I leave ours at 60 if we leave for weeks in winter.

Post office will hold mail, and you can manage that online.

Light timers, yes. Maybe LED bulbs, so that those lights won't fail due to bulbs.

Have someone local who can drive by every now & then to take away the things random people leave (advertisements, local paper "freebie", etc).
posted by Dashy at 12:54 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I would consider hiring for these services, either together or separately:

Someone to stop by (every week or two weeks, perhaps) to gather the mail and any packages that might have been left, check the outside of the house for anything amiss (did a windy day blow trash into the yard, for example), and do a walk-through the house to do a check to make sure everything looks okay.

Someone to mow the lawn or do some very basic yard maintenance, perhaps every two weeks, depending on the time of year and how fast things grown. The goal here is to make it look like the house is inhabited or at least not abandoned.

And then I would make sure you have contact info for folks like a plumber, handyman, etc, in case anything does come up while you are gone.

And echoing what other folks say: leave a light or two on and/or on a timer, let the neighbors know you'll be away, etc.

If it'll be for months and you have some warning, I'd consider if you could get a short term tenant.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:59 PM on January 24

My parents have a trailer home that's only occupied part of the year, the summer. They 'winterize' the plumbing because the insulation is really poor. They turn off the water, drain the hot water heater, and turn off most of the electricity, leaving only the fridge on.

I leave my home for weeks to months in the summer. I don't do anything in particular, but I do have a neighbor to get our mail and check the place once a week for any major issues, and mow the grass. I have a NEST, I set it to 55/85F. Neighbor has a key.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:08 PM on January 24

Definitely make sure the house is being checked on a timeline that complies with insurance. You'll void the insurance if you can't prove checks were happening.
posted by Ftsqg at 1:09 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

Maybe consider a camera by the door as well.
posted by pinochiette at 1:13 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of these answers so far!

Follow up question: what's the max amount of time you'd leave a place empty with the water on? I'm going on a 7-10 day trip later this week and was thinking of just getting water sensors for now (@mskyle SimpleSafe does have compatible ones, thanks for that tip!)

Beyond this time frame, I'd turn off the water/drain (the draining pipes/water heater seems daunting to me for a short trip) Thanks again everyone!
posted by Eudaimonia at 1:29 PM on January 24

My tenants' insurance (Canada, apartment) required someone to check on the place 3 times a week (!!!) in order to remain valid.

Once I returned home from 2.5 weeks away and the bathtub tap washer had dried out to the point that hot water was dripping. It had been going on long enough that the bathroom was steamy. The plumber told me that this happens with toilets, too, so a big leak begins because things dry out. Now when I go away I have someone turn all the taps on/off and flush the toilet when they come by.
posted by lulu68 at 2:25 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Title insurance is a good idea if you can get it. If a house is left unoccupied for any length of time it sometimes happens that someone breaks in and claims to be a legal tenant who cannot be legally evicted, or obtains fake id under the name of the owner and puts it up for sale.

Check if notifying your local police that the place is untenanted is a good idea or not. In some communities it is a good idea, but in others it isn't. You might want to have your name and contact info on file with the police department, should some shenanigans occur, so they can call and let you know if it was the source of complaints for being an airbnb party house and ask if you started renting it out.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:03 PM on January 24

I turn the toilets off if I'm going to be gone overnight, and the whole house if it's longer than a weekend. Because water damage happens very, very fast.

Now, the last house I lived in, in Los Angeles, we would turn off the water coming into the water heater, as that was the entry point of water into the house. This did NOT turn off the water to our outdoor faucets or sprinkler system - to do that, we had to call the city to come turn it off. I learned all this when the plumber couldn't figure it out and told me to call the city, and when they came they were like "we hate y'all's knuckleheaded plumbers breaking our shit, call and schedule a cutoff from us, I promise we're fast and responsive and also we will fine you if your knucklehead breaks our shit". So! Find out who should be turning it off if that's your configuration, but shutting it off before the water heater should be easy and reachable (and if it's not you should have a plumber come replace the valves so they are) if that's your primary concern.

Do not tell the police the house will be empty.

Set the thermostat to 50, if it will go that low and only during times when it is feasible that there might be a freeze, otherwise turn it off. You do not need to comfort-warm an empty house, and honestly you want heating elements to be turning on as little as possible.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:54 PM on January 24

the draining pipes/water heater seems daunting to me for a short trip
Your tolerance for hassle/damage may vary, but even for extended trips, I've never drained the pipes or water heater. I shut off the water at the shutoff valve in the basement, and flip the breaker to the water heater, but that's it. I leave the heat running but turned down, and my water heater is in an unfinished basement with a floor drain. I have enough smart home stuff that I'll be alerted if the heat goes off with (hopefully) enough time to figure something out. I figure that even in the worst case where the heat is out for an extended period and a pipe does freeze/burst, there's not really that much water stored in the pipes, so the damage would be limited. (The really damaging burst pipe scenario is when the pipe bursts and then pours water into the house for the entire remainder of your trip, which can't happen if the water is shut off at the meter.) If my water heater itself did freeze/burst (which would take much longer than a pipe just due to thermal mass) it wouldn't damage anything. When I get back, after I turn on the water, I pay attention to confirm that the water only runs for a short period refilling whatever got drained out by the furnace humidifier (rather than pouring out from a burst pipe), run the hot/cold to flush any air and ensure the water heater is full, then turn it back on.
posted by yuwtze at 5:06 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I read this question as being potentially broader than being only about plumbing, which might be wrong, but just in case it's not wrong, here are a few other ideas that haven't been mentioned upthread:
  • Dont forget to remove all house plants
  • Check kitchen cabinets, behind appliances, and nooks and crannies in the kitchen where food might have fallen
  • Set out insect traps
  • If there is a fireplace, close the flue
  • Check smoke detector batteries -- having a smoke detector start doing that battery-is-low beeping for days on end could be a tip-off to other people that no one's home
  • Take pictures of everything inside and outside (or do a video walk-through), to document the state of the house in case something happens
When we lived on the East coast but kept a place in California, we'd leave it unattended for a couple of weeks at a time, and I always stressed about making sure everything is clean, safe, and sound in our absence. I found it useful to have a printed paper checklist to make sure I didn't forget to do something before leaving.

Good luck with this!
posted by StrawberryPie at 7:27 PM on January 24

Two cautionary anecdotes about paying someone to come by now and then. Now they know when you're out of town.

One friend had a regular gardener for her house, who started using her backyard as equipment storage.

One acquaintance had a regular cleaner, who used the key to invite all their friends for a raucous party.

Trust but verify. I suggest with well-placed cameras.
posted by dum spiro spero at 11:52 PM on January 24

Regarding the fridge, regardless of whether you keep it running or not, make sure it's completely, completely empty and clean. Once I left an empty but not cleaned fridge and came back to find there had been a power surge that tripped the breaker the fridge was on a few weeks before I got back, and... let's just say you really, really want to clean your fridge before you leave.

If you decide not to keep the fridge running, absolutely make sure the door is propped open a bit and can't close.

If you leave automatic lights on, or anything else that's on a timer, be aware that power outages can sometimes leave the timers unpowered too unless they have a battery backup.

Yes to insect traps.
posted by trig at 12:49 AM on January 25

Oh, and if you turn the water off make sure the lawn can still be watered, if that's something you'll want to do.
posted by trig at 12:50 AM on January 25

I'm going on a 7-10 day trip later this week and was thinking of just getting water sensors

If the sensors go off and you're gone, what can you do about it? I'd shut the water off. Takes me less than a minute in my house to turn water off at the main, flip breaker on water heater, and let pressure out of system by running lowest faucet for a few seconds.
posted by LoveHam at 4:26 AM on January 25

Leave washing machine, dishwasher doors ajar to let them dry out and avoid mould.

Some strategic towels or cling film to avoid dust gathering in places that would be finnicky to clean (eg spice racks) might be worth it depending upon environment.
posted by Gratishades at 8:05 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

7-10 day trip later this week and was thinking of just getting water sensors for now

For 7-10 days, unless it's the deep dead of winter and serious freezes are possible, you don't have to do anything. Like millions of people take 10 day vacations every year. Houses aren't that fragile.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:33 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]

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