How to Sell a Vacant Home Safely.

how to sell vacant home safe

Going away for vacation is one thing; leaving a home empty for weeks or months on end is asking for trouble if you don’t take some preventative measures. A huge number of vacant homes are sold in the real estate market every year. These vacant homes are vulnerable to pests, floods, crime, and more.

Yes, homes are selling quickly on the greater Portland real estate market right now (in an average of 38 days according to the most recent RMLS report), but add in closing time and your home for sale is still going to be vacant for two to three months, minimum. Follow these real estate agent-approved tips to keeping your vacant home in good shape, for however long you need to keep it empty.

It Came From Inside: Preventing Leaks and Home Damage in 5 steps

  1. The most likely disaster to hit your empty home (in our experience) is a broken pipe leading to water damage. The easiest way to prevent this is to turn off the water to the house. The main shutoff valve is usually in the basement or on an outside wall of the house, near other utilities. 
  2. If you choose not to turn off the water main, turn off the valves to the washer and dryer. 
  3. Next, it’s good to check the sump pump in your basement if you have one. If water does flow into your home (maybe from a big rainstorm), the sump pump will prevent major damage. To check it, simply pour a bucket of water into the sump pit and see if the pump turns on.
  4. If your home already has a pest or rodent problem, be sure to take care of it before you leave. While you’re away, pests may take advantage of the extra space to run around, chewing holes and doing major damage. 
  5. Finally, don’t forget to adjust the thermostat to at least 55 degrees and turn off the hot water heater. If you’re having potential buyers tour the home while you’re away, it might be nice to program the thermostat to warm the house during the day and evening hours. 

Yes, the buyer will often want you to turn all the utilities back on before the home inspection and many real estate sales contracts require you to leave the utilities on from the time the home goes pending until close (check the contract) but pending to close is a relatively short time with visitors inside – inspector, appraiser, etc. The biggest risk happens when a home sits vacant for a long time prior to an offer and has big gaps in visitors. One suggestion is to wait and see if the home goes pending quickly, then if it doesn’t take extra precautions before the home sits vacant for too long.

Stopping Crime: To alarm or not to alarm?

Before purchasing an alarm, it makes sense to do a little low-cost crime prevention. 

  • Make sure that trees are shrubs are pruned back so that they can’t provide a hiding place for potential criminals. 
  • Put up curtains to prevent prying eyes from looking in first-floor windows. 
  • Install exterior motion lights. 
  • Fix doors and windows that don’t lock properly, or use another device to secure windows such as a dowel in the track. 
  • Try to arrange to have a car left in the driveway. 

For those considering more expensive security systems, first do a little research into the property crime history for your neighborhood, because there is wide variation in safety across the Portland metro area. A good place to go is the Portland Crime Map, or a site like Neighborhood Scout if your home is outside the City of Portland. This will give you an idea of what kind of crime to be prepared for. For example, if there are more vandalisms than actual break-ins, focus more on your outdoor lights, fencing, etc. 

Of course, some will consider a basic alarm system to be a small price to pay for peace of mind, especially if your neighbors are also frequently absent and nobody’s going to be checking in on the house. And there are smart security systems that can also do a little crime prevention for you. For example, smart bulbs can turn lights off and on during the evening to make it look like someone’s home, and smart camera systems can send you footage if exterior motion sensors are tripped, indicating that someone is casing the joint. 

Talk to your Neighbors and your Agent

Many home sellers think their real estate agent can protect their vacant house for them. Well, consider when most break-ins would occur – the middle of the night. No agents are out checking on their listings past midnight. However, your neighbors might be willing to help keep an extra eye on the place for you – and they are there all-night long.

Critical Note about Home Insurance

If you think your home is covered in case of fire, theft, leaks or floods during your absence, check the fine print of your homeowners’ insurance policy. Most don’t cover a vacant or unoccupied property for long (the distinction being that an “unoccupied” property is furnished and ready to live in, but nobody is home). Though terms vary, often after 30 – 60 days of the home being vacant or unoccupied, the policy no longer applies. This means your home isn’t covered in the event of a major catastrophe. So please, check with your insurance company before leaving your home for any significant length of time.  

Special insurance policies can be purchased instead of, or as an add-on to your existing homeowners insurance policy, that cover vacant homes, but they generally cost more. 

If your home is unoccupied, may be cost effective to hire a house sitter to fill the occupancy requirement of your homeowners’ insurance policy and give you peace of mind if something goes wrong. The perfect house sitter in a real estate agent’s mind, is one that only shows up late at night and leaves early in the morning – leaving the home easy to show to any potential home buyers during the day.

Selling a Vacant Home

Based on our research of the sales data for Portland, vacant homes are more likely to sell vacant. In fact, the success rate in 2019 was 8% higher for vacant homes than for owner-occupied homes, and 23% higher for vacant homes than for tenant-occupied homes. The reason for this boils down to convenience. Home buyers (and their agents) are busy; when they don’t have to schedule a home showing they are more likely to tour the home. 

Here are our tips for making your vacant home a successful sale: 

  • It’s extra important for vacant homes to be cleaned thoroughly, with minor repairs taken care of. With no furniture or art to distract from flaws, buyers will hone in on them.
  • Minimize tracked-in dirt. Provide a box of disposable booties at the door for visitors to easily slip over their shoes. Large entry mats are another option to catch dirt before it gets tracked into the house. Especially in rainy Portland winters, the floors of vacant homes get mucked up pretty quickly without some preventative measures.
  • As we mentioned before, program the thermostat to warm the house up during showing hours (morning until evening). A programmable thermostat can be purchased for as little as $30, and your buyers will feel much more comfortable hanging around to fall in love with your home if they’re not freezing.
  • Take some steps to define the space by staging. Though there’s an argument that buyers can more easily see themselves in the home without all your stuff in the way, they also need a little help understanding the function of each room, especially in open floor plan homes. Make suggestions with a few pieces of furniture centered around focal points. For more on home staging, read our full article.

Want more home selling tips? Our top 1% sellers agents are here to help. 

December 4, 2020

Stephen FitzMaurice

Stephen FitzMaurice, Realtor is a top 5% real estate agent in the U.S. A Principal Broker in Oregon, Managing Broker in Washington, he has been licensed since 2003 for residential real estate sales. Call his team in Oregon at 503-714-1111 or in Washington at 360-345-3833.

4% max to sell a home in Portland and SW Washington.
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