Maintaining a loved one's unoccupied home

By Lisa M. Petsche

It may happen unexpectedly: your parent or other senior relative who lives alone must spend a considerable period of time in hospital or a rehabilitation center, or convalescing in a care facility. If he’s a house dweller, looking after his home and its contents can be a complex task. Read on for valuable tips on how to keep his property safe and sound, indoors and out, during his absence.

Indoor security measures

  • Remove any keys – to the house, car, gates and sheds – hanging by the door or stashed in a drawer.
  • Ensure all points of entry – windows, doors (including the one connecting the garage to the house), mail chutes and pet entrances – are secured. Place a snug-fitting piece of wood in the bottom of sliding window and glass door tracks to increase security. Disconnect the automatic garage door opener and manually lock garage doors.
  • Arrange for mail to be redirected and suspend or cancel newspaper delivery.
  • Notify a trusted neighbor that your relative is away and ask him or her to watch for suspicious activity and call police if necessary. Ensure this person knows how to reach you should any problems arise. Also ask him to do one or more of the following to make the house appear occupied: remove flyers from the mailbox and porch; park a vehicle in the driveway, or brush off your relative’s car and make footprints to the door after a snowfall; place a bag of garbage at the curb on waste pickup day.
  • Keep some blinds open, and put indoor lights on timers.
  • Disconnect the answering machine.
  • Unplug electrical items that are susceptible to power surges (televisions and computers, for example).
  • Catalog, photograph or videotape room contents. Record the serial numbers of valuable items such as televisions, stereos and VCRs. Remove smaller valuables – such as cash, jewelry, family heirlooms, identification, credit cards and important documents – and store them in a bank safety deposit box.
  • Read your relative’s homeowner’s insurance policy or check with his agent to determine whether his policy provides coverage while the home is unoccupied for an extended time, and if so, under what conditions. Ensure any conditions are met.
  • Perform regular checks for pests, ruptured pipes, water leakage and other problems. Checks are especially important after storms and during extreme weather. Consider a house sitting service if neither you nor anyone else your relative trusts is available to do this.

Outdoors

  • Remove spare keys hidden under mats or elsewhere outside.
  • Lock tools and ladders in the garage or a shed so they’re not accessible to thieves.
  • Install timers or put photosensitive bulbs in outdoor lights.
  • Perform regular perimeter checks for signs of forced entry. If you find any, remain outside and call the police from your cell phone or a neighbor’s home.
  • If neither you nor other relatives are able to perform outdoor maintenance tasks such as mowing and watering the lawn and tending the garden – or clearing snow, as the case may be – enlist the help of a reliable neighbor (consider hiring a teenager from the block) or contract with a reputable yard maintenance service. Another option is to hire a property manager to regularly inspect the place inside and out and arrange groundskeeping.

Vehicle security

  • Ensure windows are closed tight and doors are locked.
  • Remove registration and insurance information, as well as hidden keys. Also remove anything of value.
  • Record the license number as well as the color, year, make and model of the vehicle, and any visible damage.
  • Lock the vehicle in the garage. If that’s not an option and it must remain in the driveway or on the street, get a security device such as an electronic alarm, kill switch or steering wheel lock.

Further considerations

  • Remove refrigerator contents that can spoil, and any other perishable foods in the kitchen.
  • Store opened dry goods such as sugar and flour in sealed containers, or place them in the fridge. Ensure kitchen and dining areas are free of food residue.
  • If your relative has a pet and you’re unable to care for it, try to find a friend or neighbor who will take it in. If you’re unsuccessful, consider the following alternatives: ask the local humane society if there’s a volunteer pet fostering program in the area; arrange for a boarding facility; or hire a pet sitter to either make daily visits or stay in the house. (The latter option has the added benefit of increasing home security.)
  • Take home plants or distribute them among family and friends if your relative has a wealth of them.
  • Turn off the water supply to the house if regular lawn and garden watering is not part of the maintenance plan.
  • Close chimney flues, which can be a point of entry for birds and small animals.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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