Updated July 2017 — Do you have a tried-and-true routine you follow when you get ready to leave your house for an extended period of time — over the holidays, for instance, or when you're wistfully leaving your summer home after Labor Day? You probably double-check all the doors, make sure lights are turned off, adjust the thermostat to conserve energy, and maybe even give your neighbor a key to bring in your mail and water your plants.
But even with such attention to detail, sometimes things just happen.
Lynn Rasmussen, National Leader for Private Risk Management with Wells Fargo Insurance, recalls a client who flushed the upstairs toilet just before she and her family left for vacation.
"When they came back, the entire house was severely flooded," she says.
Accidents will happen, but paying attention to these tips may help ensure that your home — whether it's your primary or secondary residence — stays safe when you're not there.
To avoid water damage, Rasmussen suggests that homeowners shut off the water when they're leaving a home for a prolonged period of time. Even a tiny crack, which can develop in your summer home during the winter months when you're absent, can cause a lot of damage. If you're having someone water your plants, show them where the shutoff valve is, so they can turn it on and then off again.
A technologically advanced alternative is using water leak sensors. These Wi-Fi–friendly devices can be placed next to anywhere you might worry about leaks — from the dishwasher to the toilet — and will alert you via your smart phone if they get wet. Most electronic water sensors require a connection to a "smart hub" in your home. The advantage of having a hub is that it can connect several different types of Wi-Fi–enabled monitoring systems, allowing them to "talk" to each other.
New "smarter" locks can be opened not only with a key, but also with a code. Lock your door from your tablet while you're on the road or unlock it from a distance when a family member realizes they've forgotten their key.
Putting lights on a timer and halting mail and newspaper deliveries are some tactics to prevent your home from being a target for intruders while you're away. A monitored security system is another option. But for the tech-savvy homeowner, there are myriad ways to secure your home.
Wireless detection systems have gotten easier to install and monitor, meaning you can DIY the project and track your asset 24/7. You may not want to put cameras in the house for privacy concerns if you're renting a property, but you can still monitor the outside of the home with magnetic, battery-powered cameras that offer high-definition video feeds and night vision, and will automatically start recording (and notify you) when they detect motion. Some companies even offer a week's worth of storage of any video footage through the cloud. A wireless doorbell with video capabilities gives you the ability to virtually answer the door even if you're not at the house, a nice deterrent for would-be thieves.
Even locks have gotten "smarter." Reputable firms such as Kwikset, Yale, and Schlage now make locks to replace your deadbolt that can be opened not only with a key, but also with a code that you can generate and change as often as you'd like. Lock your door from your tablet while you're on the road or unlock it from a distance when a family member gets to the home and realizes they've forgotten their key. Connect your e-lock to a smart hub, and you can unlock the door, turn on the lights, and turn on the A/C all at the same time.
Whatever type of lock you select, also evaluate the strength of the door jamb against unauthorized access. Consider installing the strike plate for exterior doors with longer screws or even look into a door jamb reinforcement kit.
Designating someone local, who can respond should the alarm be activated, is key. And no security system can substitute entirely for a caretaker. "If you have neighbors you know and trust, it's great to have them keep an eye on things and watch for unusual activity," Rasmussen adds.
The type of insurance you need may depend on the part of the country where your house is located. For example, if you're in Aspen, Colorado, Rasmussen recommends purchasing flood insurance specifically to cover mudflow, which can occur in the event of a heavy snowmelt. In almost any area of the country, flood insurance is helpful to have and it's not covered under a traditional homeowners policy, she says.
Homeowners should also consider a separate policy to cover valuable collectibles in the home often called a schedule or floater policy. It covers assets like artwork, as homeowners insurance policies typically only cover replacement costs and many of those items can't be replaced. A schedule of insurance lists the items and their agreed upon value. A schedule or floater policy typically "has much broader coverage," Rasmussen says, even applying to something you may break in your house, provided it's accidental. To be sure you're properly covered, consult a private risk advisor to review your insurance program.
If you're entrusting care of your primary or vacation home to personal staff, it's always recommended that you have a qualified security firm run a background check on each person. Rasmussen cautions to be wary of the inexpensive online security checks common in web ads. Personal security firms typically run more extensive background checks on domestic staff.
Taking these measures to create safeguards for the places where you create so many memories may help you enjoy your time away just a little bit more.