Tens of thousands of older adults head to warmer climates for the winter. As hips and knees begin to wear out, arthritic joints make shoveling snow an agony, and icy sidewalks become a fall magnet, heading south, for many, is as much a necessity as a luxury, and Covid-19 has not significantly impeded that migration. For most snowbirds (the nickname for those human migrants), it’s just as easy to shelter-in-place in a rented condo in Florida as it is at home in Minnesota or Maine. For boomers joining the migratory pack this year or next, it’s important not to ignore a few key chores that will make that permanent home safe and secure while it is unoccupied for those many cold months.    

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According to Travelers Indemnity Group data, 20% of homeowner insurance claims result from water damage resulting from pipe failures, including frozen pipes that can lead to leaks.. Additionally, homeowners with “smart” homes can monitor conditions inside the house, including leaks and temperature changes while they are away. In some situations it’s best to turn the water off completely and bleed the lines before vacating a house for long periods. In other situations, it’s possible to safely leave the water on if the thermostat inside the home is set for 55 degrees or higher. Plumbers can make an educated call on whether pipes are vulnerable to freezing

It’s also important to make sure a house doesn’t appear unoccupied. Stopping or forwarding mail and other deliveries, putting lights on timers, and scheduling snow removal are all important steps to take before relocating. Confirming that alarm systems are in good working order, storing valuables in a safe place, and securing doors with deadbolts are also important.  Again, smart home monitoring and security systems like Ringand Simplisafe offer another layer of protection and peace of mind for those who leave home for long periods of time.

Travelers also offers a good checklist for homeowners preparing their home to be vacant:

  • Forward your mail and stop newspaper delivery.
  • Ask a trusted neighbor or relative to regularly check on your home, and remove packages and other items that may have been left at your door.
  • Arrange for someone to clear snow from your driveway and walkways. 
  • Confirm that alarm systems are working, install or test motion-activated lights and set interior lights on timers. 
  • Secure valuables that you are not taking with you in a safe deposit box or other secure location. 
  • Install deadbolt locks, security-type hinges and sturdy door frames that cannot be spread apart. Invest in slide locks or other equivalent security locks for sliding glass doors or French doors. 
  • If you are not heating your home while you are away, turn off the home’s water supply and drain pipes completely. Add non-toxic antifreeze rated for plumbing systems to toilet tanks and bowls. 
  • If the heat will be kept on in your home, turn off the water supply (after verifying with your boiler servicing professional that it is safe to do so for your particular heating system), shut off water to dishwashers and clothes washers, and maintain heat in your home. 
  • Set the temperature to a minimum of 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and leave the furnace running to prevent pipes from freezing. 
  • Perform or schedule routine inspections and maintenance before you go, including heating system, roof, chimney, and gutters. 
  • Remove dead trees and large, overhanging limbs (weight from snow can be the final straw on unhealthy trees and limbs).
  • Replace batteries on smoke detectors
  • Unplug all appliances and phones.
  • Clean the home thoroughly, check for potential openings, and remove food to discourage pests.
  • Arrange for a trusted relative, neighbor or friend to be available and have access to your house in case of emergency.

A good rule of thumb is to overprepare, even if what you’re preparing for is unlikely to occur. Even in places like Northern California, Georgia, and Arizona, below-freezing temperatures for several days can happen. Preparation is cheaper and less time-consuming than repairing the damage.

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