Winter can be very hard on an uninhabited house. Ice and snowstorms, freezing rain, falling trees and wires, and more can happen. If a pipe bursts in your house and the water is on, the water can run for weeks and months. That can cause a lot of damage. While it is not possible to prevent every possible thing from happening, we prefer not to spend the entire winter worrying about the house.
We’ve been closing homes and apartments in the winter for the past 8 years and have thought a lot about how to do it. We’ve consulted with plumbers, contractors, and neighbors. During these past 8 years, we’ve learned a lot in the process. Since we spend winters in a foreign country, we can’t easily come back to fix something or find something we forgot.
There are a lot of decisions to be made. Do we drain the pipes, turn off the electricity, and leave it completely empty? Should we leave the heat on? Do we let the mail pile up or forward it? What about food — should we leave anything? What clothes and personal items should we leave? Who will check on the house while we are gone?
Here are 10 mistakes we’ve made and learned from:
1. OMG, The Pipe Burst!
Our first weekend house had electric baseboard heating and we drained the pipes but left the heat on. It was a very expensive winter with a $500-per-month electricity bill. The next year, we decided to drain the pipes and turn off the heat. This can be hard on appliances. We ended up having to repair the waterline in the fridge and replace the touch faucet. One of the pipes also burst because some water had been left in it. If we hadn’t shut the water off, it would have run through the burst pipe for 3 months and damaged the property extensively. Since the water was shut off, this did not cause too much damage. In this instance, the repairs turned out to be less costly than keeping the heat on.
2. Last Minute Surprises
Our current house has oil heat. We planned on draining the pipes and turning off the water. At the last minute, the plumber told us that the oil heat system required the water to be on. We didn’t want to worry about burst pipes, so we decided to drain the pipes and turn off the heat. Then we discovered that the water purification system couldn’t be winterized and would possibly freeze while the heat was off. We will be working on a new solution for this issue next year.
We always use a plumber to drain the pipes. You can be tempted to do it yourself, but plumbers have the equipment to make sure that everything is drained properly. They also put antifreeze in the toilets, dishwasher, and elsewhere as needed.
3. This Won’t Take Too Long
The first time we closed our weekend home for the winter, we thought it wouldn’t take too long. Plus, we were only 90 minutes away and thought it would be easy to come back and do whatever we forgot. After the heat was off and the water drained, it took us hours to finish up in a cold house. We ended up having too much food to bring to our apartment.
4. What Is A Squirrel Doing In My Bed?
This happened to one of our neighbors when she closed her lake house for the winter. When she came back in the spring, she discovered that squirrels made a nest and had babies on her bed. It was quite the surprise. With help, she was able to get them out. And then, she made repairs and got a new bed. Doing an inspection of any entry points for animals is important before you close a house. We do this a month in advance, so we have time to make repairs if needed.
5. What Do I Do With All This Food?
The first time we closed our weekend home, we didn’t think about the food in the fridge. We kept buying and cooking right up to the day that we were shutting the house down. We thought we’d just bring whatever was left to our apartment in Manhattan only to discover that we could not fit everything in our smaller fridge in the city. We ended up giving some of it away. Now, we start cutting down on food shopping a month before we close so we have time to cook and eat everything in the freezer.
6. Where Did All This Mail Come From?
Not planning for your mail can be a costly mistake. An overflowing mailbox and newspapers on your doorstep tell others that the home is unoccupied which can lead to break ins. You also can miss important bills and other notifications.
You can stop newspaper deliveries and have your mail forwarded to your winter address. Since we spend the winter out of the country, we can’t have our mail forwarded. We have a trusted neighbor that checks our mail. We tell him which ones to open, and he scans the contents and emails us. There are also services that will do this for you. The downside is that these services destroy the originals. In addition, setting up electronic and autopay is very helpful.
7. I Didn’t Know My License Expired
Three years ago, we went to Singapore for the winter. When we returned, we took the car out for a drive. When we looked at our licenses, we were shocked. They expired while we were away and we had no idea. We had to go immediately to the Motor Vehicle Commission to renew them. The same goes for passports and other official documentation like car registrations. Make a habit of checking on these before you are in another state or country.
8. Snow And Ice — Do We Really Need To Plow All Winter?
The first winter that we had a weekend home, we stayed in Manhattan. We decided to take a drive to check on the house. There was no snow in New York City. When we arrived in the country, we saw the driveway had 6 inches of snow on it. We didn’t have snow shovels or salt. We saw a truck with a plow passing by and begged him to plow our driveway. Then we went into town to buy shovels and salt.
Another year, we thought we could visit the house at the end of winter in early March. Since it hadn’t been plowed all winter, there was a 6-inch layer of ice covered by snow. No one could plow it and we had to wait until the weather warmed up and it melted before we could get into the house.
9. Oh No, I Left It At The House
We are constantly looking for things and realizing that we left them at the house. If we are in Singapore, there’s nothing we can do. Our solution is to make a list of everything we need for the winter and slowly check them off during the month before we close the house and travel to our winter location. The list is kept electronically and is refined every year. We can’t completely avoid the “oh no, I left it at the house” moments but it has reduced the frequency.
10. Whatever Is Turned Off Must Be Turned On
Opening the house in the spring requires turning on whatever is turned off. This includes phone (if there is a landline), internet, cable service, and, of course, water and heat. The plumber must come back, restart the heating system, and turn on the water. There are a lot of snowbirds in our area, so we need to schedule the opening and closing dates far in advance to make sure we get the date that we need.
Lastly, we always have a caretaker or neighbor check on the house while we are gone. This alleviates some of our worries and allows us to make informed decisions if the electricity goes out, a tree falls, or something else needs immediate attention.
Opening and closing a house for the season seems daunting but can be broken down into tasks and steps. Take the time to think it through and you won’t make the same mistakes that we did.
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