When you leave home for an extended period of time, it is not a simple matter of plugging in light timers, moderating the temperature (lower in the winter and warmer in the summer) and locking the doors.
Experienced snowbirds who travel south for several months a year to avoid Chicago winters understand firsthand that there are lots of preparations and decisions to make when you adopt this lifestyle and if you neglect any of them, it will cost you in terms of hassles and outright problems.
Tom and Mary Porte of Elk Grove Village have been escaping to Florida each winter for varying amounts of time since 1997.
"At first, I was still working so we only went for a week or two," Tom recalled. "But as time has gone by, we have increased that."
"We keep growing into it," added Mary.
When they are gone, they have someone check on their home regularly -- at least once a week -- stop their newspapers, forward their mail to their temporary address and have their neighbors shovel snow, as necessary.
All of their banking is done electronically, so that is not an issue.
"We also keep our heat in the low 60s now because if you turn it down to the low 50s like we used to do, the humidity in your home gets too high and can ruin your furniture. We also turn our water off and we learned the hard way that you have to also turn off the ice maker in your refrigerator. We burned out an ice maker motor because it kept trying to make ice, even though there was no water supply," Mary recalled.
Problems like these come as no surprise to Jerry Clinnin, owner of Snowbird Peace of Mind in Elgin. A longtime Realtor, Clinnin decided a few years ago to offer a home caretaking service for people who leave home for extended periods of time.
"I figured that people trust me with the keys to their houses when I am listing them for sale, so why wouldn't they trust me with them when they are gone for the winter? And all of my clients have been very appreciative. They say that knowing that I am watching their home here allows them to relax and enjoy themselves," he said.
"I have a friend who does the same service, but on the other end. He takes care of snowbirds' Florida homes during the summer and other times when they come north," Clinnin explained. "But he has it much worse. He has to spray for bugs and prepare for hurricanes."
When a client first leaves town, Clinnin makes an initial visit to check the refrigerator for forgotten perishables and that is when he opens bathroom cabinets for better heat flow to the pipes and checks to make sure that all of the windows and doors are secured.
After that, Clinnin goes through all of the rooms in each of the houses he is watching once a week, including the basement, and he checks that the lights are working, furnace is running and that there are no gas or water leaks. When there is a snowstorm, he makes an extra visit to each house to make sure that the homes have not been damaged by the weather event and if there is just a light snow, he will shovel so that the home appears lived in. The base service costs $10 per week.
He sends each owner an email once a week to update them on the condition of their house and, if the homeowner so wishes, he collects their mail and sends it to the winter home once a week. He is also willing to water plants for those who wish the service and for those who wait until late spring to return, he will schedule their lawn sprinkler company to come out, flush the system and get it started so that their plants and grass are alive and well when they return.
"I went into a house one time and it was so cold you could hang meat in there," Clinnin recalled. "I checked and their thermostat was run by a small battery which had died, turning off the furnace. It was not a hard-wired thermostat. So I just replaced the battery and their furnace turned right back on."
He has also dealt with hot water heater leaks, electrical shorts and front doors left unlocked by owners in a hurry to get into that airport limousine. Clinnin even carries liability insurance for his company, so if something goes wrong while he is caring for a house, there is insurance coverage. Friends, neighbors and family members do not generally offer this added benefit when they watch your house.
"We have used Jerry to watch our house for about three seasons now and it is a great comfort to us to know that Jerry will be there to ward off any problems that could occur," explained Loren Roberts of Elgin, one of Clinnin's clients. "We have a security system, so we are not worried about that aspect. But there are other things that could happen to a house and he is there to safeguard against those."
"Jerry is very trustworthy so we feel comfortable letting him have complete access to our home when we are gone. When we lock and leave, Jerry makes it a very easy process because we know that he will be our advocate in our absence," he added.
Clinnin's "Snowbird Peace of Mind" service can be reached at (847) 975-5800.
Closing up your home tips from Snowbird Peace of Mind:
•Notify the local police department of your plans and give them information about who should be contacted in case of emergency.
•Shut off your water at the valve and then open all of your faucets to let the water drain out of the lines.
•Unplug your hot water heater and closet the gas valve leading to it.
•Set your thermostat to 65 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer.
•Close your toilet lids so the water does not evaporate.
•Close all drains to prevent sewer gases from coming back up into the home from lack of use.
•After the last water is run in your garbage disposal, pour about half a cup of salad oil down the disposal. This will keep the blades lubricated and prevent rust.
•Remove all hoses from exterior hose bibs.
Other tips for snowbirds:
•Have a security system installed and use it!
•Check with your insurance company to make sure you are still covered if the house is empty. The length of time you will be away could be a factor.
•Forward your home phone to your cellphone so that you can answer when someone calls your home.
•Put your lights on timers so that the home looks lived in.
•Suspend your cable or satellite service, as well as your home Internet, while you are gone. Why pay when no one is home?
•Unplug your electrical appliances.
•Remember to cancel any regular deliveries of dairy products or anything else.
•Leave a spare key with someone -- your house caretaker or at least a nearby neighbor.
•Store your valuables in places a burglar couldn't access like a safe-deposit box or at least hide them from view through the windows. And hide the extra keys to any extra cars left in the garage.
•Take photos of your valuables if you haven't already done so.
•Keep with you a list of emergency contacts including a family member at home, doctors, lawyers, financial planner, home caretaker, etc. And be sure that someone at home knows how to reach you and where you are traveling. You can never fully anticipate what could take place in the world or your life.