Both as a friend and as a Realtor, I end up taking care of vacant homes for people. Often I get asked for my “checklist” of what to look for and how to take care of a home. When someone is asked to care for a home, it’s often a simple, “will you watch over my home for me” with no real guidance or instructions, and while that works for a short vacation trip, it doesn’t work when the homeowner is gone for a much longer time period. As a result, I’ve written out these instructions to give to the many people who ask me how to take care of a home.
One thing I would suggest is up front, determine how the person taking care of the home is going to be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket expenses. There will be some things that regardless of how much “stuff” the homeowner leaves behind, he won’t have left enough or the right things and the person caring for the home will have to go buy – whether it’s light bulbs or insect spray or leaf bags. Does the homeowner leave $100 with the person taking care of the home and then send more money as needed? Does the person caring for the home keep receipts and then settle up at a set time? It’s up to you, but it needs to be decided in advance.
When it comes to caring for a vacant home, there are differences based on location - the issues you will face in a southern climate are different then those you will face in a northern climate, but there are some very basic starting points. First is to define why you are taking care of it. Watching a home for someone who is away on vacation or deployed in the military for an extended time period and is coming back to their own home and you want to make sure that they aren’t ticketed by the local municipality, has damage that no one catches until it’s a big problem or their home is marked as “empty” by thieves is totally different than keeping a home in a show-ready state when it’s on the market to be sold. As you go through my list, please keep that in mind.
Take care of the exterior – make sure the yard is watered and mowed and weeds trimmed (and that included not just flower beds but the cracks between the sidewalks and driveways). Keep vines under control as they can grow up and force their way into a home through windows and cracks. In the fall, rake the leaves. In the winter, at the minimum if the home is not being shown, open the garage door and drive a car through the snow from the street to the garage and out to make it look like the home is being used and shovel the walk. If the home is for sale, then shovel the drive and the walks (this helps to prevent a buyer from slipping and falling on the snow as well). If you have an exterior storm drain close to a door (in St Louis, we have a tendency to have them close to a basement door on the outside), keep them clear of leaves and debris – if they get covered and can’t keep the rain water going down the drain, it will go back into the home. Keep downed branches and brush picked up and take out any dead bushes.
Pick up the free newspapers, phonebooks and marketing materials that are left on the doorstep and on the door handles and in the mailbox. Even when the mail is stopped, you will periodically have a temporary mailperson assigned to the route who will deliver the junk mail without paying attention to the fact that it is an empty house, so check the mailbox periodically.
When the seasons change and it gets cold, make sure that hoses are disconnected and taken inside, and that outside faucets are turned off from inside the home if at all possible. If there is a sprinkler system, disconnect it and take off the multi-hose connections at the faucets. Sometimes I invest a little bit of money (a couple of dollars) in putting the Styrofoam covers over outside faucets if I can’t find the inside faucet shutoffs. Make sure that all water is allowed to run out of sprinkler hoses and the end caps are taken off as well. If you are in an area where children may turn on the faucets to play with the water or neighbors may help themselves to watering the yard or washing the car with your water, you may want to disconnect the outside faucets (just put a note in your files so you remember that they are shut off or put a note at the shut off valves inside the home) If a home is really vacant and no one is going to be there, then the utilities may be turned off and the water shut off and antifreeze put in the system (toilets and water heater will be drained then) but a sign goes up warning people or someone WILL use the toilet and then it is a mess (in which case you carry bottles of water to the home and manually flush it)
After any large storm, someone should walk around the outside of the home and check it for damage and walk around the inside of the home and check for broken windows, damaged roof, leaks, water coming UP drains, etc. Any damages should be taken care of right away. If a hurricane is coming, put up the shutters and boards.
Bugs are a way of life, but spiders will take over a vacant home in a heart beat. Spray the interior and the exterior periodically, especially around exterior lights, exterior doors and windows – inside and outside. Take a stick and knock down the cobwebs even if it is close to Halloween, you don’t want spider eggs hatching and the more webs you have the more neglected the home looks. In some areas, you may want to put out mouse traps, bug glue traps (both those that go on the floor and those that hang down from the ceiling) and cockroach motels.
Water - Run water down the sinks and tubs/showers periodically to prevent the pipes from getting dry enough that sewer gases come back up (I do it at least once a month). Flush the toilets periodically – water will evaporate from the toilets leaving nasty rings – MAKE SURE when you flush that you stay around long enough to make sure that they stop flushing since the seals can dry up, chains can get hooked up, etc and the water can continue to run indefinitely with no one in the house to catch it (again at least once a month). Gaskets dry out. Both laundry and dishwashers need to be run every few months to ensure that the gaskets and hoses don't dry out too much or they will leak when they are run. Also the garbage disposal should be cleaned before the home owner leaves or accumulated soap, food particles, etc can essentially gum it up to the point that it will freeze and become inoperable.
My parents once had the ice maker and it’s water supply line for their refrigerator ice maker go haywire while they were out of town on a long trip and they came back to find their entire house flooded. After that they turned the water off to their home whenever they left town for more than a day or two and they would have to turn it back on when they got home again before they could get a glass of water, for many that would be overkill, but after having the water flood their kitchen, and then be absorbed by the carpet in the dining room, family room and living room and then seep into the basement and flood the basement and have to deal with the mold and mildew for years (and the collateral damage of not only the floors and walls that were ruined but cleaning and reupholstering the furniture, paintings were ruined , boxes of things stored in the basement were ruined, etc) they took no chances.
Electricity - If the utilities are on, the home owner may want to invest in motion detector lights or lights on timers that will come on periodically to give an illusion that the home is occupied. You may want to unplug the garage door opener. And turn off all the big appliances at the breaker box (just put a note that they are turned off). If there are outside electrical outlets, and the home is in an area where someone might "help themselves" by using the home's electricity, shut them off at the circuit breaker box.
Likewise, if possible shut off any outside phone jacks so no one runs up a phone bill.
Periodically check the thermostat – if it’s newer and has a battery, make sure the battery doesn’t go out, in which case the thermostat won’t work. When the seasons change, someone has to reset from one season to the next – turn off the a/c and turn on the furnace, turn on and off humidifiers, etc. In a hot, humid climate, the a/c may be left on just to keep the moisture down in the house to keep the mold and mildew from growing
Water heaters can be turned to vacation settings to keep utility bills lower.
Any refrigerators left in the home can be turned to their lowest setting (freezer and refrig)
Light bulbs and toilet paper and some hand soap (and if you’re really nice some paper towels or a small hand towel) should be in the homes as people looking at the homes (and those taking care of the home) do need to use the facilities). (I have small garbage cans under the bathroom sinks and kitchen sink (or plastic garbage sacks) that I periodically take home and empty (empty homes don’t have trash pickup).
If a home is being shown for sale, someone needs to check on the “nice cleaning”. Sometimes it’s a matter of dusting as well, or cleaning the windows (inside may stay clean but outside won’t). Periodically the floors need to be swept if people have tracked in leaves etc (you can ask the agent for shoe covers if the floors are carpeted to keep the carpets clean).
If there is a pool or hot tub, it may need to have the chemical balance checked periodically, so instructions and chemicals may need to be left by the homeowner.
Check the refrigerator, they do go out while they are running. If you stop using the refrig, make sure to unplug it and block the door open so you get enough air circulation inside so it does not develop mold and mildew inside.
Believe it or not, things that aren’t being used break. I walk through a home and look for “odd” things – is there a leak that has developed somewhere, is there a doorknob that is loose, is there a window that isn’t closed properly or that has cracked from a tree branch hitting it in a storm, a door that isn’t locking easily – I look for security issues as well as preventative maintenance as well as things that make a home look nice. I also try to keep air fresheners in the home and if the home has ceiling fans I’ll keep them on low so the air continues to circulate regardless of temp, to keep the house from smelling stale. Herbal tea bags can help keep drawers and cabinets smelling nice.
I sincerely hope that this helps you as you care for a vacant home. If I've missed anything, please let me know. I'm always looking to improve this list.