The flights have been booked, the suitcases retrieved from the attic and your vacation itinerary has been set. But while your mind may be ready to wander to a faraway land, don't forget about home sweet home just yet.
Securing your home and making it look occupied while you're away on a winter vacation will help deter thieves. And some simple preparations can save you the anguish and expense of returning home to find damage if something like a dishwasher hose decides to fail in your absence.
"If you look at how long it takes compared to repairing the potential damage, it seems much easier to take the precautions than it does to make the repairs," said Richard Stone, a University of Minnesota Extension educator in housing technology.
Here's a checklist for closing up the house properly before you go:
• Daily check: Arrange for a friend or neighbor to check on the house at least once a day (and feed the fish or water the plants). Give that person a copy of your itinerary and contact numbers. Ask that they call the police if they see or hear anything out of the ordinary.
• Mail/newspapers: Have the mail held, or ask a neighbor to take it in. The U.S. Postal Service will hold mail from three to 30 days. Sign up for this free service at usps.com, or pick up a form at the post office that can be given to your letter carrier, left in your mailbox or returned to your post office. Cancel newspaper deliveries, and ask your neighbor to take in any unexpected holiday packages, notices of delivery attempts that may be left on your door, or free publications tossed on the driveway. "That's a sure sign that you're not there, when all that stuff starts accumulating at your house," said Ernie Long, the crime prevention coordinator for the Aventura Police Department in Florida and an instructor for the National Crime Prevention Council.
• Snow removal: If you don't have a contract for regular snow removal, arrange for somebody to clear your driveway and sidewalk if there is a storm. The house will look occupied if the driveway is cleared, plus that allows any emergency crews closer access to your home. Students may want the job, but find out if they have their own equipment or need access to yours.
• Security: Lock all windows and doors and set your alarm if you have one. The police also might be able to check on your house daily. If your department has one, register with its "vacation watch" or "dark house" list. "We will periodically go by and check your house to make sure everything is on the up and up," Long said. "Just about every police department offers some kind of vacation watch."
• Lights: To make your house look lived in, put lights on timers to mimic your typical routine. Long said he'll set his living room timer to go on in the evening for a bit, and then he'll set a bedroom light to go on for an hour before his usual bedtime. Exterior motion lights are highly effective in deterring crime because, as Long said, "you can't sneak up on them."
• Noise: A radio can also be set on a timer to make it seem like you're there. Burglars, looking for an empty house, will first knock on a front door, and will flee if they hear a radio, thinking you just didn't hear the knock. If nobody answers, they typically go around to a back door, where they are less visible, Long said.
• Locks and Doors: The back door should have a high-security lock and a strong door frame. Long recommends replacing short screws with 3½-inch wood screws to reinforce the strike plate on the door, making it harder for a criminal to kick it in. "You need to have good-quality locks but the door frame is just as important, especially on the back door," he said. "Studies have shown that if you delay him two minutes, he'll go somewhere else."
• Valuables: The first place robbers go in a home is the master bedroom, Long said, where they are after money, jewelry and guns. If you have a big stash of cash or an expensive jewelry collection, he recommends storing it at a bank safety deposit box and storing any weapons in a gun safe. If you hide valuables in your home, be creative, Long said; place them in a coffee can, painted black and attached to the floor joists overhead in the basement, for instance. "If the guy is there for a while, he'll knock over everything in your house, empty every drawer, turn every mattress over and look everywhere in your house for good stuff," Long said. "They're not neat when they do it."
• Blinds: Leave the blinds as you normally do. If you raise and lower them daily, Long recommends keeping blinds closed in the rear of the house, in case a would-be robber is watching for movement, and keep them open in the front.
• Thermostat: If you're leaving a cold weather clime, you can turn the heat down in your home, but don't turn it off altogether since that could cause damage from frozen water pipes. Stone recommends going no lower than 60 degrees. Even at that temperature, the exterior walls, which may house pipes and plumbing fixtures, will be colder, especially in older homes that may have less, or no, insulation in those outer walls. "Turning that core temperature down is going to make a significant difference in the temperature around the perimeter," Stone said.
Another concern is mold if you have humidity sources like plants or fish tanks. Colder surfaces can condense moisture and lead to mold growth.
Set your thermostat fan from "auto" to "run" or "on" to keep the flow of warm air even and continuous.
"I would rather pay a little extra in electricity for that short number of days than to come home and find that some rooms are colder than others and there was damage," Stone says.
Another way to increase air flow is to open cabinets surrounding pipes, likely in the kitchen and bathroom, and keep interior doors open.
• Water: Turn off the main valve (usually located near the water meter) or, if you have well water, turn off the pump. Then, turn on an upstairs faucet for about 15 seconds to relieve any pressure that may have built up in the system and that could force water into the house if there were a leak. Unless you have frost-free spigots, make sure outside spigots have been turned off by shutting off the inside valve and draining them outside.
• Appliances/fixtures: If you leave the main water valve open, turn off nonessential, water-dependent fixtures like toilets, ice makers, washing machines and dishwashers to help prevent a leak if a hose or fitting fails. Leave the refrigerator on, freeze what you can, and throw out or give away perishable food that won't last.
A gas water heater can be turned to the "vacation" or "pilot" setting, usually located at the bottom of the unit, so you are not heating water you don't need. An electric water heater can be turned off at the main electrical panel. Because it can take a few hours to get the water warm after you turn the heater back on, consider asking your caretaker to do so on the day you are returning.
• Electronics: Unplug or power down nonessential electronics like televisions, gaming systems, computer monitors, coffee pots and toasters to save money on electricity. Make a list of what you have turned off so you can remember what needs turning on when you get home.
• Garbage: Take it out ahead of time, or arrange for your caretaker to take it out on the assigned day.
• Insurance: Make sure your homeowners insurance is up to date.
• Furnace: Schedule your regular cleaning and tuning appointment if you have not already done so.