How to protect your sticks-and-bricks home before heading out on the road
We can probably all agree that traveling in a motorhome is the best way to take a vacation, and whether it’s for a long weekend or an entire season, getting away and going to new places and seeing exciting things is what fuels our desire to travel. But, what happens to your house while you are away? Many RVers have a traditional (sticks-and-bricks) house that sits unused when they are on the road in their motorhome, and that house can become a source of worry during a trip.
Leaving your house for extended periods of time exposes so many forms of risk that it can be enough to worry yourself into not having a good time. Theft, fire and water damage are just a few of the things that can ruin a trip. Thankfully, preparing your house before you head out on the road is fairly easy, and if you do it right you can enjoy your trip without having to worry about your house and its condition when you return.
We are going to break this topic down into three categories aimed at the main threats to an unoccupied home: theft, fire and water damage. Since theft is the most commonly discussed, we will start there.
These days, theft means more than property damage; it also includes identity theft, so the first thing you need to do is stop your mail/newspaper or arrange for someone to collect it daily. This stops a thief from getting your personal information and thereby “stealing your identity” and it prevents the telltale sign that nobody is home — an overstuffed mailbox.
Other things you can do to make your house look lived in are to make sure your lawn is mowed while you are away and to use timers on the inside lights and motion-activated lights outside. If someone is watching your house or brave enough to walk around it, you will want to scare them off with light. Since crooks prefer to operate in the cover of darkness, a well-lit house may be enough to send them somewhere else. If you are like most people, and worried about the power consumption, use bulbs that are either fluorescent or, better yet, LED. An LED bulb of 13 watts can replace a 75-watt bulb and they last for more than 20 years. LEDs also operate much cooler than an incandescent bulb so therefore are safer as well.
Another part of your theft-prevention program should be a monitored alarm system. These can be as elaborate as you wish with coverage for heat, fire, smoke, glass breakage, window/door openings as well as infrared motion detectors. Also post signs on your doors and driveway notifying the burglar that your house is protected with an alarm. If you really want to keep an eye on things, consider a camera-based system such as the Vuezone by Netgear (www.vuezone.com). It is Wi-Fi-based, super easy to install and easy to expand. The cameras are even battery-operated. A basic four-camera system can be purchased at Best Buy for $350 and you can have it up and running in about 30 minutes. Using a smartphone or tablet, you can actually see inside your house at any time and the motion-activated cameras can be programmed to email you a video file if it detects any movement. When you are not traveling, it can serve duty as a pet cam.
If your phone company allows call forwarding, that is another way you can make your house feel lived in. If you have neighbors, make sure one or more has your cellphone number so they can contact you if needed, and of course let them know you will be away so they can also help watch.
These days everyone loves social media, but nothing tells the world you are away from home more than your own posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc. You should really minimize these activities until you return home, or make sure the circle of people reading your posts is very small. Most social media sites allow you to restrict who sees your posts but Web forums are wide open for anyone to read, so keep that in mind.
Finally, if you have anything that is very expensive or important — such as jewelry, fine art, passports, deeds, bank records, etc. — they should be stored in a fire/theft safe while you are gone. If you don’t already have a home safe, consider one large enough to accommodate your valuables. You can also rent a safe deposit box at a local bank to store vital records.
Fire prevention/detection should be another part of your away-from-home plan. As mentioned above, the monitored alarm is a key part of fire detection because in-house fire and smoke detectors are of no value if you are not there to hear the alarm. So make sure you have hardwired alarms for fire, heat, and smoke and are subscribed to a monitoring service. If you live in an area where water is an issue or you have a sump pump, you should also consider a water alarm in your main
security system. Another thing you can do is unplug as many electrical devices as possible while you are away. Devices that are unused while you are away — such as TVs, audio equipment, computers, small appliances, etc. — should all be unplugged. Remember to keep your alarm, Wi-Fi, sump pump, HVAC condensate pump or anything else related to your security system operating.
An often-overlooked item is the water heater, which should be turned off at the breaker panel if you have an electric model; if you have a gas water heater, put it in “vacation” mode. While you are at the breaker panel you may as well turn off the washer, dryer, dishwasher, microwave and electric stove. Just make sure you don’t switch off the refrigerator or freezer. You will, however, want to rid the refrigerator — as well as your entire house — of any perishable food.
Thermostats have come a long way in the last 10 years starting with programmable models that allow you to maintain ideal temperatures while you are away. If you are traveling during the summer, you can significantly raise the thermostat to 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, which will save on your power bill, yet still keep things cool enough to prevent any damage to your house. If you want complete control, get one of the new Wi-Fi-based thermostats, such as the NEST or the Honeywell unit, that allows you to control it via a tablet or smartphone. These are widely available at most home improvement stores.
Water damage is something that we don’t typically think about, but it is perhaps the most common problem that occurs inside a house and the damage can be just as bad as fire. Something as simple as a frozen or split water line could result in thousands of gallons of water being released into your home. If you are in an area that is subject to extreme cold, make sure you select a temperature for your house that prevents water pipes from freezing. In most cases, 55 degrees is warm enough to prevent interior pipes from freezing.
The worst part about a water pipe failure is that it often goes unnoticed until you return home. The best way to prevent this is to completely shut off the water to your house. Usually there is a cutoff at the water meter or where the water line enters the house. If for some reason you do not have this option, or need to leave water on for lawn watering, etc., you will need to turn off as many other potential water leaks as possible. This means going to every sink and toilet, the clothes washer, dishwasher, icemaker, and water heater and turning them off. If you don’t have cutoffs then we strongly urge you to hire a plumber and pay the small fee to install a whole-house cutoff. Nothing “rains” on your parade more than coming home to a split water line that has been running for two weeks.
One more thing to consider is what to do about any automobiles you leave behind. To prevent the battery from dying on a short trip of a week or two, simply use your key fob and lock the doors. This puts the car in sleep mode and disables many of the features that drain battery power. For longer trips you may need to get a battery-maintenance charger and keep it connected to the car while you are gone.
Even though we haven’t covered every possible scenario here, if you follow our tips you will greatly reduce your chance of problems and greatly increase your chance of returning to a well-protected home that is just as good as the day you left. Hopefully, these tips will save you from potential threats and allow you to enjoy your trip without worrying about your home. After all, motorhome travel is supposed to be fun.
Stop mail or have someone pick it
- Stop newspaper delivery
- Have the lawn mowed while you’re
away on long trips
- Put lights on timers
- Use dusk-to-dawn outside lights
- Use a monitored alarm system for
- Post security company signs on all
doors and in the front yard
- Lock valuables in a safe
- Install a camera inside the house
- Remove perishable food from house
- Activate call forwarding on home
- Don’t post on social media about
- Unplug unused electrical devices
- Turn off the water heater (or put in
“vacation” mode if gas) and other
unused appliances at breaker panel
- Turn off main water line or each
sink, toilet, etc.
- Set programmable thermostat
Use key fob to lock all cars left
- Consider a battery-maintenance charger for cars during a long trip