Going North? Summer-proof your Florida home to avoid worry, disaster

Editor’s note: Naples Daily News writer Judy Lawrence has prepared a story on what to do before leaving home for an extended period. It first appeared on the cover of Portfolio of Homes (March 30, 2000) and has been reprinted in the At Home section yearly since then. It is reprinted below for those who are getting ready to bid goodbye to their Florida homes.

When you return to your home or condominium after a summer away, you expect to find it as you left it. After all, you did everything humanly possible to secure it.

Or did you?

Local Realtors and service people relate horror stories about returning vacationers and snowbirds who have opened their doors to nightmare conditions that were the result of storm damage or improper preparation.

Storm damage can’t be predicted or controlled, but knowledgeable preparation will go a long way in saving the homeowner money, time and heartache.

According to Jack Dalton of Property Services International, hundreds of thousands of houses are left in an unoccupied state during the year in Southwest Florida alone.

“It’s the small things that you don’t think about that may cause the biggest problems,” said Julie Grubb, broker at Amerivest Realty Lucas & Associates, Bonita Springs.

Like cleaning out the refrigerator, turning it off and/or unplugging it — good idea, yes?

Not according to Maria Procacci, president of Vineyards Services, a home owner personal service.

“There is no reason to unplug the refrigerator. If the door shuts, it will be mold city when you return. And many people keep spices, candles, coffee and other things in the refrigerator so they maintain their freshness.”

Grubb advises that someone come in at least once a month and run the dishwasher to prevent the seals from drying out. “Catch problems before they cost a fortune,” she said. “It will save you money if you pay a little extra now and have things checked more often.”

Having things checked often is the top advice from the experts; weekly is best, but at least once a month.

Procacci tells of a resident who carefully prepared the home, but didn’t have anyone check it. The air conditioning unit failed and the homeowners returned to mold covering the walls, the furniture, everything, said Procacci.

If they had asked a friend or neighbor to check on it periodically, or contracted with a service to inspect it on a regular basis, a disgusting and expensive situation could have been avoided.

Air conditioner failure is one of the greatest concerns and can be the cause of expensive repairs.

“The air conditioner is the heart of the home,” said Jack Dalton of Property Services International, a home services agency that has been in business since 1990.

To more fully control conditions that encourage mold and mildew, he recommends that the humidistat be tied into the air conditioning thermostat and be able to override the thermostat if the need arises. If you don’t have a humidistat, have one installed. He also emphasized that the water be turned off outside at the emergency cut-off. If you don’t know where it is, be sure to find it before you leave.

But someone should still check everything periodically. If you elect not to have anyone come in and check your home, be sure someone locally has a key, advised June Mueller, of Keystone Custom Homes, an Arthur Rutenberg franchise.

“It is vital that someone have a key and a phone number where you can be reached in case anything does happen, like a leak or storm damage or a burglary. If you’re in Ohio and someone needs to get into your home to fix something, what then?”

If you’re worried about a burglary, and even if you’re not, you should alert the Sheriff’s substation nearest you when you leave, no matter how short or long the trip.

“Tell the substation when you are leaving, when you’re returning and supply an emergency number,” said Dennis Huff, Crime Prevention Practitioner for the Collier County Crime Prevention Bureau, “If someone will be checking on your house, tell the substation what kind of car they have, to prevent embarrassing questions if they see your friend or neighbor in the driveway. An officer will check the house several times a week. If it is easily viewed from the street, he may just drive by, but if it is not, or if something looks suspicious, he will check the doors and windows.”

Huff tells of repeatedly checking a house where the alarm kept going off several times in one day. The officers couldn’t find anything amiss, until someone noticed a parakeet fly across the room. The loose budgie was the culprit.

“Something as small as movement of the drapes caused by the air conditioning can activate a motion sensor and set off the alarm,” he said. “But more often than not, pets are the reason for the false alarms.”

Anything and everything can go wrong when you’re away, from an alarming parakeet to an electrical storm.

Gary Beaumont, president of Beaumont Electric Company Inc. advises surge protectors for all appliances.

“If a nearby transformer is struck by lightning, or a car hits a light pole, it sends a surge of electricity to all the homes on the street,” he said. “That rush of electricity can internally damage or destroy everything electronic in your home. And nowadays, that’s almost everything in your home that plugs in.”

To double protection against electrical surges, consider a whole-house surge protector that is installed in the main electrical panel, which will protect the air conditioning unit and appliances and help protect your computer from larger surges.

“High-rises and condominiums almost always have the whole-house surge protector, but it’s not usually included in new construction of homes. We highly recommend it,” Beaumont said.

If you’re overwhelmed by the minutia of it all, home inspection services will do it for you, from closing the home (turning off the water, unplugging the hot water heater/turning off the breaker, unplugging appliances, and bringing in the lanai furniture) to undoing all that and stocking the refrigerator before you return, according to Procacci.

You select how often they should inspect the residence.Weekly is best. You also supply them with necessary information — such as the location of the water shut-off valve, the name of the pool service company, the warranties and service agreement, security alarm information and more.

The agency will perform the obvious tasks such as running the dishwasher and garbage disposer, flushing the toilets, checking for insects, making sure the air conditioner works properly and a long checklist of other items. They turn the water on when they enter and turn it off again when they leave.

If anything needs maintenance, they will schedule it and send a monthly report.

Property Services International even posts a decal on the front and rear of the home, much like the security companies do, with its phone number in case of emergency.

Some condominiums and developments offer a concierge service to take care of every detail of closing and opening the home.

But the single most important thing to remember is to lock the door. According to Huff, “People actually forget to lock their doors when they leave.”

Things to do before you leave:

-- Turn the water off at the emergency cut-off valve outside the home.

-- Unplug the computer and remove the phone jack from the wall if you have a modem.

-- Leave the refrigerator on, but do not leave any food in it or in the freezer.

-- Prop open the dishwasher door to prevent mold growth from residual moisture.

-- Turn off the water to the washing machine and the hot water heater.

-- Unplug the hot water heater or flip the circuit-breaker.

-- Unplug lamps, televisions, stereos.

-- Close the fireplace flue.

-- Turn down the volume on the phone so it won’t ring endlessly for outsiders to hear and know you’re not home.

-- Don’t move plants to group them together for easy watering. Plants may not adjust to their new locations.

-- There is no need to unplug the stove.

-- Give a trusted friend or neighbor a key and any security alarm information and a number where you can be reached.

-- Don’t leave the house empty-looking. Have someone open or close the drapes occasionally.

-- Put a radio and lights on a timer to make it seem the home is still occupied.

-- If you contract with a service, make sure they are licensed, bonded and insured.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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