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A Snowbird’s Guide to Winterizing the Home

Do you travel to warmer weather during the winter months but often worry about leaving for a long period of time? Read on for tips on protecting your main residence from potential problems so you can relax all season in that sunny vacation spot.

Exterior of home in snow iStock

Snowbirds looking forward to several months in a warm, laidback location should attend to home-based preparations before taking off. After all, if you’re lax about protecting your property for a winter vacancy, you’ll worry about it at best—and at worst, deal with messy, pricey repairs due to frozen pipes, downed tree limbs, or other unwelcome events associated with frigid and stormy weather.

As with any extended holiday, there will be security measures, such as programming lights and forwarding mail so would-be intruders won’t know that nobody’s home. But being away during the winter requires additional action to outsmart the onslaught of the elements.

Steps for Winterizing Your Home

Use this guide to understand the prep steps of winterization so you can truly chill out while enjoying a season in the sun.

Arrange for essential inspections

Having a professional sign-off on essential systems before cold weather hits is key to peace of mind. The list includes your furnace or boiler, chimney, insulation, and possibly your electrical panel, wiring, and outlets.

The exterior of the house, particularly the roof, warrants a thorough checkup to ensure against structural weakness that could be exacerbated by heavy storms. Repair any problems and arrange for someone to remove snow from your sidewalks and driveway to avoid liability issues and to signal to would-be intruders that the house is being carefully tended (and occupied).

Shut off the water—if you can

If a pipe freezes and bursts, or a sneaky leak worsens, serious water damage could occur. Turning off the water supply to the house is a smart preventive measure (though not every homeowner can do so—see below).

The main shutoff valve will likely be in the basement, towards the front of the house. A ball valve requires just a quarter turn to the right to close, while a gate valve may need several clockwise turns to stop the water supply. After shutting off the water flow, open faucets, and flush toilets to drain the pipes.

Shut off the water—where you can

Folks with older steam heat or an automated sprinkler system connected to the main water supply shouldn’t turn off the water to the whole house. However, shutting off the water supply to a washing machine and dishwasher may stave off damage should a hose break or loosen in your absence. To do so, locate a small knob near the appliance’s water supply line and turn it clockwise. While you’re are it, examine the supply lines for cracks, bulges, and leaks, replacing anything that looks iffy.

Adjust the thermostat

Man adjusting temperature on thermostat at home iStock

There’s no need to keep your home toasty if no one is there. But maintaining an interior temperature of at least 55°F is crucial, especially if you don’t drain the pipes, so that plumbing in walls and floors won’t freeze.

Now’s a good time to change the batteries in the thermostat or, if you’re on a smart home system, make any necessary app updates so you’ll be alerted to issues. Leave doors to rooms and cabinets open so warm air will circulate freely. And exposed pipes in unheated areas (attics, basements, crawl spaces, garages) should be shielded with foam or rubber insulation sleeves.

Deter ice dams

A dreaded ice dam can develop when melted snow pools and refreezes along the roofline. Ice dams prevent proper drainage off the roof and through the gutters, allowing moisture to seep under shingles and into the house.

One preventive measure is to add extra insulation to the attic. This helps maintain an even temperature at the top of the house, so snow will be less likely to melt and then refreeze on the roof.

Manage trees and their debris

Trim large branches that could be downed during a heavy snowfall, crashing onto the house. Due diligence is required regarding gutters and downspouts: Clean leaves, sticks, and other matter from gutters and ensure that downspouts face away from the house. This will allow water to flow freely, steer clear of the foundation, stay out of the basement, and be less likely to damage paint and siding.

Roof inspection on house iStock

Keep critters out

An empty house can be irresistible to animals and insects looking for a place to nest. Deterring wildlife is another reason to seal any gaps, cracks, or chinks in doors, windows, and the overall exterior. A chimney sweep will banish existing evidence of uninvited guests and may advise you to add a screen cap to discourage newcomers; then be sure to close the fireplace flue prior to your departure. Finally, give the place a thorough cleaning, including the oven, pantry, and cabinets, to get rid of any tempting crumbs.

Unplug electronics and appliances

Electronics and appliances draw power even when not in use, so go from room to room, disconnecting your router, modem, computer, and media equipment, as well as the washer/dryer and kitchen appliances, both large and small.

The refrigerator should be unplugged, cleared, and defrosted, with doors left open to discourage mold and mildew growth. If a storm causes a power outage, any food left in a running fridge would surely spoil—not the sort of unpleasantness you’ll want to come home to in the spring!