15 Things you Must-Know Before Leaving your Home Vacant

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Leaving a vacant home is sometimes a necessary life choice, and not one that homeowners ever feel completely comfortable with. Licensed since 2003, I’ve sold a lot of homes that the sellers chose to sell vacant. Sometimes the sellers were still nearby and could check on the home. Other times, the seller lived out of state or even out of country. In fact, our research shows that vacant homes sell better than occupied properties.

If your situation calls for a home to be vacant for few weeks or even months, there are steps you can take to make it a lot less risky. For the saavy Portland homeowner willing to prepare and potentially even spend some money to shore up a vacant house, the reward is peace of mind. 

Top Three Risks for Vacant Homes

Everyone has their own nightmare scenario for their vacant home, but the most common problems are these:

  1. Theft and vandalism. Homes that are left vacant are at a much higher risk of being burglarized or vandalized. It is devastating to have your home attacked by a criminal.
  2. Unexpected disasters. Things happen to homes, and when nobody’s there, problems that could easily be detected and taken care right away of develop into disasters costing thousands to repair. Fridges, dishwaters, and hot water heaters can suddenly spring a leak, windows might unexpectedly work their way open, pipes burst in cold weather, and rodents and pests can find a way in and get comfortable. 
  3. Deferred maintenance. Weeds crop up in the yard. Cobwebs collect in the eaves. Hinges and locks grow creaky from disuse, and the inside air grows stale and musty. Mold and mildew grow in unexpected places. Yes, it’s small stuff — but unpleasant to walk into and a signal to those who would take advantage of the fact that nobody’s home. Over long periods of time, small stuff like leaves collecting in gutters can lead to big stuff like a leaky basement.

DIY Steps Before Leaving Home Vacant

The following tips will take care of the most common vacant home problems. You still might want to recruit some outside help to check on your home while you’re gone; we’ll cover that in the next section. 

  1. Tell your insurance company. You may not realize it, but a lot of home insurance policies won’t cover the home if it is left vacant for a certain number of days. There are true horror stories out there of homeowners that left for a couple month long vacation and then came home to find out while they were gone the fridge or dishwasher leaked or a fire happened and the insurance company is refusing to pay for any of it!
  2. Use smart home devices. A smart lock will allow you to give your house-sitter or repair people temporary access to the home without having a spare key floating around. Smart lights and security systems can create the illusion that there’s someone home, and instant notification to your phone if there’s a breach. There are also smart moisture detection devices that can let you know if, say, water has intruded into your basement. And of course, there’s plenty of online wifi-based camera options to help keep an eye on things.
  3. Adjust your thermostat and hot water heater. It’s a drag to pay electric bills when you’re not living in the house, but keeping the HVAC on at about 55 degrees will regulate moisture in the home and prevent frozen pipes. (Speaking of frozen pipes, be sure to protect outdoor faucets with insulation if your home is going to be vacant during the winter months.) Many hot water heaters and thermostats have a “vacation” mode; if leaving for more than a few weeks, turning it off might be another option. Check the owners’ manual for instructions. 
  4. Consider shutting off water to the house. It’s the best way to prevent a catastrophic leak. If the water is staying on, be sure you have someone checking for leaks regularly. Turn off the valves to your washing machine to prevent flooding from burst hoses. If you choose to turn off all the water to the house, be sure to put a note on your toilets that they are not to be used while you’re away. Also, make sure when you turn the water back on you’re there to monitor any leaks.
  5. Check the sump pump. Many Portland basements have sump pumps to prevent rainwater buildup. Dump a bucket of water into the sump pit; if the pump doesn’t kick on, call a plumber.
  6. Install timed irrigation. It can be as simple as a drip hose on a timer that keeps your flowerbeds alive through the hot summer months. Many homeowners in Portland let their lawn go brown in the summer, so it’s not necessarily a sign that you’re not home — but dead plants can be.
  7. Install motion sensor lights and security signage. Even if you’re not paying for a security company to monitor your home, having the appearing of security will go a long way toward deterring thieves.
  8. Invest in good blinds. Keep them closed on the first floor while you’re gone to prevent peeking. In addition, window blinds prevent sun damage to carpets and furnishings. 

Three Ways to get Vacant Home Help

  1. Hire or find a volunteer house-sitter. This might be trusted neighbor or friend, or someone who does it professionally. The peace of mind will be worth shelling out a few dollars to have someone do a walk-through once a week (at minimum) and keep the place looking lived-in by sweeping the walk, turning off or on different lights, and bringing in the mail. Create a checklist so that they know what to do and what to take note of — leaks, odors, etc. Realtor.com has a good article on how to hire a house-sitter.
  2. Hire a vacant property preservation company. There are out there, but there are not a lot of them. Most of these companies work for banks (foreclosures), or large property managmeent companies. If you can find one, the fees aren’t bad and some of them include yard care in their packages.
  3. Pay for home/landscape maintenance if you can. Keep your home from looking vacant by having a crew come by regularly to leaf blow, mow the grass, trim shrubs, and take care of any branches that come down in winter storms (if there are large trees near the house, it’s not a bad idea to have an arborist evaluate them and remove hazard limbs before you leave for an extended period). 
  4. Ask your real estate agent. If you home is on the market, your real estate agent should be stopping in occasionally to make sure things are in good shape. Just keep in mind your Realtor won’t be there every day, nor will they be there in the middle of the night when break-ins usually happen. It is a good idea to ask around for additional help, friends, family, and neighbors.

Vacant, but listed?

Talk to your real estate agent about how to set up your home so that it is both friendly to potential buyers and safe in your absence. Here are some of the tips we usually give home sellers in this situation:

  • Invest in good entry mats, both inside and outside the front door. You won’t be there to vacuum after every home showing, so this is the best way to minimize tracked-in dirt. You can request that potential buyers and their agents remove their shoes when they come in, but instructions aren’t always followed. The real estate agent will typically leave shoe covers behind to help with this process.
  • Program your thermostat if you can. Setting the temperature a bit warmer or cooler during home-showing hours (which may start early in the morning and go into the late evening) is a nice gesture — and it will help buyers feel comfortable in your home. 
  • Consider staging homes that are empty. A few pieces of furniture go a long way toward defining spaces and making the home feel welcoming. If you don’t have extra furniture to spare, area rugs can be helpful. They dampen that “empty house” sound and show where furniture could potentially go. We have a whole category of staging tips for you here, plus our annual report on the average home staging costs.

Work with a Real Estate Professional

Want more vacant home tips? Call our top-rated Portland, Oregon seller’s agents. We charge less than average, but pay more to market our client’s homes so they sell faster and for more. We back it all up with our cancel anytime contracts for no charge. We are here to ease your home-transition process. Give us a call today at 503-714-1111 or chat with the bot on our site. We look forward to connecting!

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What My Clients Are Saying

Stephen was just simply a fantastic realtor to work with in selling our home. If we had another 50 properties to sell, Stephen would be in charge of all of them. He was so professional in handling every detail of our sale, and he was so responsive to every question that came up in the course of our transaction. My wife and I are very thankful that we found Stephen.

Alan