I wrote this for Susan, a woman at church who told me that she was helping to "watch over a home" for her neighbor who had moved out of state. The neighbor's home has been on the market for several months. She seldom sees the listing agent (who lives and works out of an office that's over 45 minutes away) and the weather recently has gotten down to the single digits. Susan asked me if there was anything that she should be checking to help make sure that everything is OK with the house since she was concerned about freezing water pipes, etc due to the weather. She also asked me what types of things I check when I watch over an empty house. Susan said that she really wasn't responsible for the home, but she does have a key and has been changing the lightbulbs and picking up the newspapers in the yard, etc, but she has never met the Realtor and doesn't think the Realtor knows that she has a key and she didn't have his phone number, only the office number on the sign in the yard. After I talked to her, she agreed to go meet the Realtor the next time she saw him at the house and talk to him so that there would be an open line of communication between them in case there was a problem, but until then, here's what I sent her so she could go through the house and check it out.
So to all the Susan's out there, here is my very grateful list of what I check and what I love to have a responsible neighbor keep an eye on.
If you are watching over a vacant home, things to pay attention to include:
Run water down the sinks and tubs/showers periodically to prevent the pipes from getting dry enough that sewer gases come back up (I do it at least once a month)
Flush the toilets periodically- water will evaporate from the toilets leaving nasty rings- MAKE SURE when you flush that you stay around long enough to make sure that they stop flushing since the seals can dry up, chains can get hooked up, etc and the water can continue to run indefinitely with no one in the house to catch it (again at least once a month)
When the seasons change and it gets cold, make sure that hoses are disconnected and taken inside, that outside faucets are turned off from inside the home if at all possible. If there is a sprinkler system, disconnect it and take off the multi-hose connections at the faucets. Sometimes I invest a little bit of money (a couple of dollars) in putting the Styrofoam covers over outside faucets if I can't find the inside faucet shutoffs. Make sure that all water is allowed to run out of sprinkler hoses and the end caps are taken off as well
If a home is really vacant and no one is going to be there, then the utilities may be turned off and the water shut off and antifreeze put in the system (toilets and water heater will be drained then) but a sign goes up warning people or someone WILL use the toilet and then it is a mess (in which case someone has to carry bottles of water to the home and manually flush the toilet!)
Periodically check the thermostat- if it's newer and has a battery, make sure the battery doesn't go out, in which case the thermostat won't work
When the seasons change,someone has to reset from one season to the next- turn off the a/c and turn on the furnace, turn on and off humidifiers, etc
Water heaters can be turned to vacation settings
Any refrigerators left in the home can be turned to their lowest setting (freezer and refrig)
Lightbulbs and toilet paper and some handsoap (and if you're really nice some paper towels or a small handtowel) should be in the homes as people looking at the homes do need to use the facilities. (I have small garbage cans under the bathroom sinks and kitchen sink (or garbage sacks) that I periodically take home and empty (empty homes don't have trash pickup). Sometimes it's a matter of dusting as well, or cleaning the windows (inside may stay clean but outside won't).
Periodically the floors need to be swept if people have tracked in leaves, etc (you can ask the agent for shoe covers if the floors are carpeted to keep the carpets clean) as well as picking up the downed branches in the yard and the free newspapers and any trash in the yard.
When it snows, who shovels the snow from the drive to the front door in case someone wants to see the home? If an agent comes to show it can be a) a sign the home is really vacant and b) a slipping hazard and no one wants a potential buyer to slip and fall on their front walk. Plus from the street a sidewalk that isn't shoveled tells people that the home is vacant and easy to break into.
I also walk through the homes and check to make sure that bugs and mice, etc haven't taken hold- sometimes I go through a can+ of bug spray (spray window frames and doorways especially) or put out cockroach motels and flypaper in inconspicuous places (if you can ask the owners to call a pest control company if it's more than just a little problem)
Believe it or not, things that aren't being used break. I walk through a home and look for"odd" things- is there a leak that has developed somewhere, is there a doorknob that is loose, is there a window that isn't closed properly or that has cracked from a tree branch hitting it in a storm, a door that isn't locking easily- I look for security issues as well as preventative maintenance as well as things that make a home look nice. I also try to keep air fresheners in the home and if the home has ceiling fans I'll keep them on low so the air continues to circulate regardless of temp, to keep the house from smelling stale. Herbal tea bags can help keep drawers and cabinets smelling nice.
I try to get the home owners to have a friend or relative or neighbor to watch over the home since when I have a lot of homes I can't be in 20 places at once and if it's a quick freeze at the start of the winter or after a big storm,I may not be able to get to all of them at once, but some people have no one they can trust to watch over their home, so it's up to me. (My husband complains that I spend more time and energy taking care of my clients' homes then my own.) There are a few companies that will take care of vacant homes, but not many and it's expensive, so most people rely on their neighbors/friends/family and their realtor. The down side is that as good intentioned as they may be when they say yes, the neighbors/friends/family have other priorities and don't always remember to do your home as well as their own when the season changes or after that big storm. Plus if it drags on, they may get tired of taking care of your home as well. So it falls to the Realtors and some are better at doing it than others and we all pray for a wonderful neighbor who will at least call us if there is a problem even if they aren't handling it themselves! (I refuse to mow the grass though!)
Realtors also have to set up with the clients who pays for what- do you give me $100 bucks up front and I pay for things out of that (and keep a ledger and tell you when I need more money, or do I send you a bill periodically, or bill you at closing? (to pay the kid who mows the yard, light bulbs, etc). For big things, it's best to have the owner call the contractor and deal with them directly since the one who sets it up is responsible for the bill and too many realtors have been stuck paying everything from Laclede Gas bills on when the owner said "no, I didn't place the call and I didn't authorize it"- so now we make the owner call and set it up with their credit card or we make them give it to us in writing that they want us to set it up and how to arrange payment.
Hope that helps. If you have specific questions about how to care for something let me know. I handle a lot of territory, so I probably have an answer.
And again, thank you. Watching over someone else's home is a wonderful act of friendship that I'm sure that they greatly appreciate, even if they don't say Thank you often enough