Steven Merrill takes us step-by-step through the process of preparing a house to be unoccupied during extended or long-term trip. Step one, stop the green traitors.
Even the most experienced truck camper owners worry about their homes while they’re away. From the threat of burglary to a failed heating system causing the pipes to freeze, the range of things that can go wrong at home are enough to keep folks up at night. Did you remember to lock the sliding doors?
Never fear my fellow truck camping friends. With a little preparation, and a dose of prevention, none of these fears should keep you from embarking on the long-term trip of a lifetime. No worries about home burglaries while boondocking. No fretting about flooding fifty miles down forest service roads. Follow the instructions in this article and you’ll be truck camping cool as a cucumber.
Securing Your Home When You Are Away
If you’re planning to go on a long-term trip, you need to prepare your home to be unoccupied for weeks or even months at a time. Perhaps the most important aspect of this preparation is making sure your home appears occupied.
1. Lock All External Doors, Windows, and the Garage
Lock your front door. Lock your back door. Lock the door between your garage and your house. Lock all sliding doors with security locks. Lock pet doors and any other external entry ways into your house. Whenever possible, use deadbolt locks. And don’t forget to make sure that all of your windows are also locked.
Garage doors with electric garage door openers are vulnerable to thieves with garage door opener scanners. To defeat these scanners, disconnect the receiver and use a manual garage door lock. You can also unplug your garage door opener when you’re away. Additionally, remove garage door openers and valuables from cars stored in your garage. Just be sure to inform anyone with access to your home that you have disabled the garage door system and/or manually locked the garage.
2. Don’t Hide House Keys
Hiding a house key under the mat, in a fake rock, or inside a magnetic house key box stuck to the underside of an outdoor pipe is never a good idea. The thieves know about these products and tricks and look for these easy access vulnerabilities.
3. Ask Neighbors and the Police To Watch
Let your neighbors know how long you will be away and give them additional contacts should you travel beyond cell service. In addition, our neighbors have keys to our home and garage.
If your neighbor’s house is close enough, ask them to park in your driveway to greatly enhance the appearance of occupancy. It’s also a good idea to have them walk through your house now and then, especially after a bad storm or other extreme weather. While they are walking through, they can make sure no door hang tags, leaflets, or packages have been left at your door.
If the power went out, did your alarm turn back on? Is the furnace still up and running? A trusted neighbor can check and answer these questions instantly. Clearly, developing and maintaining good relationships with your neighbors is key to preparing for an extended trip.
As an additional layer of security, we informed the local police that we would be away and asked them to keep an eye on our house. We live in a small town where this service is possible and understand that not all police departments can do this. In a similar way, we told our local post office that we would be out of town for an extended period.
4. Set Programmable Light Timers
Light timers turn household lamps on and off every evening and go a long way to help give your home the appearance that you’re still there. There are many old-school analog and new digitally programmable light timers on the market. All of them do essentially the same thing, so purchase the light timers you feel most comfortable programming.
My advice is to purchase at least one for every floor of your home (preferably more) and test them prior to leaving on your trip. It’s no good to be programming your light timers for the first time moments before locking the door and then wonder during your trip if you programmed them correctly. Besides, having the light timers in place is a good idea even when you’re just going out to the dinner, or the movies.
Another use for light timers is to have a radio or television that turns on and off. In the 1990 classic Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin’s character famously used a movie to scare away ‘The Wet Bandits’. Well, hearing a radio on or hearing and seeing the light from a television is another way to signal that your home is occupied.
5. Activate Motion Activated Outdoor Floodlights
Having bright floodlights turn on is an excellent theft deterrent. Outdoor floodlights with built in motion sensors are available at Home Depot, Lowes, and Amazon (among others) and do an excellent job at detecting and deterring would-be thieves. They can also automatically light the way when you get home.
6. Window Blinds, Visible Valuables, and Safe Deposit Boxes
There are different opinions on the best practices with window blinds. In general, folks want to close their blinds to prevent the unsavory from peering in and seeing unprotected valuables. Unfortunately, leaving your blinds closed for weeks and months also says, “We’re not home” and protects the aforementioned unsavory individuals from being seen once they’re in your home.
Having read many insurance company recommendations on this topic, the prevailing opinion is that it’s best to leave your blinds exactly as they are when you’re home. In concert with other home security recommendations (light timers, helpful neighbors, police notification, etc.) keeping your blinds as they are is the best balance.
Another point that’s made is the importance of not having visible valuables in plain sight from first floor windows. If possible, put anything that may tempt the contemptuous out of sight. Even better, put any jewelry, coin collections, and other highly valuable small items in a bank safe deposit box.
7. Stop the Mail and Newspaper Deliveries
The mail is often a never-ending cascade of advertising, magazines, and other solicitations – with a few important parcels in-between. Left unchecked, mail will likely accumulate beyond your mail box capacity and potentially announce your absence. Thank you, junk mail.
Thankfully, stopping the mail is as easy as going onto USPS.com and requesting your mail is forwarded or held. Mail can be held for up to 30 days, or less. While that may be the official limit, our small town post office has held our mail for three months at a time.
If you want your mail forwarded, you request a temporary mail forwarding for $1 USD. You can use this service for as short as fifteen days or as long as one year. After the first six months, you can extend for another six months. Even better, you can adjust the amount of time your mail is forwarded online. On many occasions we have shortened or extended mail forwarding based on changing road plans.
Canadians have a similar mail forwarding system but pay a minimum of $52.95 CAN for four months of mail forwarding within their province. For mail being forwarded further distances or for even more extended periods of time, the cost is higher. For more information about mail forwarding in Canada visit CanadaPost.ca.
If you need your mail sent to you when you’re on the road check out, “Sending and Receiving Mail on the Road“.
Another option is to have a family member or neighbor collect your mail and forward it to you. If you have friends and family who are willing to help you with this, you’re in luck. For the rest of us, it’s stop and hold.
For those who are still reading paper newspapers, have you heard of this thing called the internet? Just kidding! For many, there’s nothing better than reading a physical newspaper, magazine, or book. Just make sure to pause those newspaper drops while you’re away, or they may give your absence away.
Even if you have your newspapers stopped, newspapers, circulars, and phone books may be dropped at your house. Again, ask your neighbor to check for these and dispose of them. There is nothing that says, “no one at home” like an accumulation of newspapers at the end of your driveway. We pay a neighborhood kid to do this. She enjoys the money and we don’t look unoccupied.
8. Keep Green Traitors in Check
Most of us have a home surrounded by green traitors; grass, shrubs, and trees. If left unchecked, these green Benedict Arnolds will grow to reveal our absence, and invite the less scrupulous to have a look.
To keep these green back-stabbers in check this past summer, I hired a local college student to mow my lawn and maintain our gardens. This not only kept the turncoats cut, but it also brought a trusted person to my property on a regular basis. With his help, our property didn’t appear abandoned.
Depending on the season of your absence, and your home climate, it may also be necessary to have someone help with snow removal, leaf raking and removal, and lawn and shrub watering. Those with house plants should also make arrangements to have their plants watered and cared for.
9. Consider a Professional Security System
Some folks wouldn’t consider leaving their house to go grocery shopping without setting the alarm system, while others haven’t locked their front doors ever.
While I certainly don’t recommend leaving any doors or windows unlocked while you’re away, not everyone will feel it’s necessary to install and pay monthly fees for a security alarm system. If you’re interested in purchasing an alarm system and paying for a security service, I highly recommend reading articles devoted to that topic. Here’s a good article from the Chicago Tribune, “Alarms Should Sound On Deal”.
If you already have an alarm system installed, be sure to notify them of your long-term travel plans including a list of your most current contacts, the names and contact information of neighbors and house sitters who may be at the premises.
10. Consider a Web Camera System
With the invention of high-speed internet, the proliferation of high quality small cameras, and the ability to see live streaming video using the cellular connections on our smartphones, it’s now possible to see a live video feed of our house and property from almost anywhere in the world. That’s right, you can watch your house yourself when you’re away.
Many of the internet and security system companies now sell and install web camera systems; for a monthly fee. On the other hand, there are companies that sell do-it-yourself kits including the web cameras, digital hubs, and software that allows you to install, set-up, and use such a system.
Please be aware that these web camera kits are not for the technologically challenged, and likely require running wire and cables throughout your attic and crawl spaces. You also need to pay for a high-speed internet connection while you’re away, but you may be paying for that anyway. That said, you can buy and install a web camera system in your house and property that will let you see your den from Denmark and your lawn from Louisiana.
Be aware that there are concerns that web cameras of any kind could get hacked allowing not just you to see your house and home, but anyone on the planet. Why would someone want to watch your man cave from Mongolia? Who knows, but you may also be showing your empty house and all its valuables to the bad guys in the next town. It’s something to consider.
11. The Dog Bowl and Chain Trick
To create the illusion that you have a huge, hairy, and hungry guard hound inside your home, put a big dog bowl and chain (preferably beat up and warn) outside your home. You could even put a “Beware of Dog” sign or sticker on your door.
12. Faux Alarm Signs and Stickers
To supplement your fake Fido, you can install faux alarm signs and stickers. These are readily available on the internet and are designed to have the bad guys looking for easier targets.
13. Never Post Travel Plans or Events on Social Media
It’s common sense that you don’t run around telling everyone that you’ll be away and your house will be unoccupied, but that’s exactly what you do by posting your trip plans and adventure to social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. It’s also not a good idea to change your answering machine message to anything implying your absence.
How To Get Your House Set To Vacation Mode
14. Set Your Thermostat
When we leave our house in cold weather, we set the thermostat for 55 degrees. This keeps the house well above freezing and prevents the pipes from freezing and bursting. There are many stories of folks leaving a house and forgetting this critical step only to return to broken pipes inside their walls. This is one nightmare you can avoid.
If you live in a warmer climate, you may need to leave your air conditioner and humidistat on to prevent mold, mildew, and other heat and humidity related issues. Adjusting your thermostat to 85 degrees or less is recommended. If you have a humidistat, it should be set to 35 percent.
To ensure that your home stays at these temperatures, and runs at peak efficiency, it’s important to have your heating and/or air conditioning system recently inspected and serviced. If your home is on oil heat, have the tanks filled. If your system has a filter, change the filter.
15. Consider Call-In Temperature Monitors
If you will be away from your home during the winter, you may want to purchase and install temperature monitors that will tell you if your house approaches freezing. These temperature monitors can be accessed via cell phone while traveling. Some home security service providers include these sensors with their installations.
Should your temperature monitors register temperature approaching freezing, your neighbors – who have a key – can enter your home, verify the situation, and take corrective action before your pipes freeze and burst. Before you leave it’s important to verify that the phone numbers the temperature monitors you have programmed are accurate and working.
16. In Most Cases, Turn Your Water Off
We turn off the main water line into our house before we leave. Many home owners have experienced a plumbing leak at one time or another. These unfortunate events seem to happen without warning and can quickly become a destructive and expensive situation.
We experienced a plumbing leak when we were home and were able to correct the problem quickly. We were lucky. Water leaks while folks are away are one of the most common and costly damage claims for insurance companies. I can only imagine the damage that would have occurred had the water leak gone unabated for months. Make sure you find your main water shut-off valve, and that it works.
After turning off your water, turn on your kitchen and bathroom faucets until they run dry. Then flush your toilets and turn off the water to each toilet at the toilet base. This will prevent algae and mildew from building up in your toilet bowl and basin. It’s also a very good idea to shut off and drain dishwasher valves, washing machine valves, sink valves, and outdoor water faucets.
As a final measure against a water leak, you can install a water flow sensor on your main water supply pipe. Connected to a security system, a water flow sensor will alert you should the water begin to flow through the system. Sump pump alarms are also available in case of a flood.
One exception to the main water shut-off rule is if your heating system works off hot water or steam radiators, and you are leaving the heat on while you are away. Another exception is if your home has a sprinkler system or you want to have outside water available to water the garden or lawn. In either case, you will likely need to keep the main water line on.
There is one possible solution if your water system happens to be laid out in a handy manner. We have an outside faucet that comes off our water line just after the main enters the house and before it goes on to the remainder of the building. Before our last trip, I installed a shut-off in the section between the line to the outside faucet and the continuing supply to the house.
In that way, water was available outside, but the house water was off. You may be able to do something similar with a hot-water heating system. However, always be sure to follow correct procedure and hire a professional plumber if you have any doubts.
If you’re on well water, turn off the pump when you leave for a long trip.
17. Wrap Your Toilet Bowls
To prevent sewer fumes from entering your home, you can wrap your toilet bowl in saran wrap. Just be sure to put a black X on the saran wrap to prevent an accident.
18. Properly Set Your Water Heater
I also turn off the water heater. There is no sense in maintaining a hot tank of water for months when you’re away.
If you don’t want to turn your hot water heater off, set it to the lowest possible heat level. This is often called “vacation mode” and can be set with a dial under a metal panel on the front of your hot water heater. If your hot water heater is like most, all you’ll need is a Philips screwdriver.
19. Empty Your Refrigerator
As the joke goes, everything in your refrigerator will turn into a science project if left for long enough. To prevent this from happening, empty your refrigerator of all perishables, clean the inside, and leave it unplugged and defrosted with the doors open.
If you can’t empty out your refrigerator and freezer, here are a couple of hints to help you avoid disaster. First, clear out all of the perishables. What won’t fit in your camper’s refrigerator can be offered to your friendly neighbor as part of maintaining the friendship. Also throw in a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine for good measure.
Second, clean the refrigerator. A clean refrigerator will be much nicer to come home to.
Third, fill some clean gallon jugs with water and put them in the refrigerator. Especially in the summer, a refrigerator works better with a cold mass inside to help maintain the temperature.
Here is the final hint to know if your stuff has stayed cold while you were gone, or if you have had a power-outage that let stuff thaw, and has now re-frozen. Put some ice cubes in a bowl in the freezer section of the refrigerator (and also in your chest/deep freezer if you have one). When you get home, check the ice cubes. If they are intact, stuff stayed frozen. If they are melted, stuff has thawed and must be thrown away.
20. Avoid Stinky Garbage Disposal Syndrome (SGDS)
Coming home to the rotten smell of a dirty garbage disposal that has sat for weeks or months on end is not exactly pleasant. To avoid this situation, run a half-cup of vinegar and water in your garbage disposal. Some folks also recommend putting a little baking soda in sink drains and toilets to further avoid the stagnant water stink.
It’s also critical to wash your dishes, empty your coffee pot, and take out the trash before you leave. Just imagine what your kitchen trash will smell like after a month or two of warm summer air. Whoo-wee!
On the topic of garbage, you may need to arrange to have your household garbage taken to the street, or have the cans pulled back to the house. Thank you helpful neighbors.
21. Unplug Almost Everything
A good electrical storm can knock out everything from computers to televisions to small appliances. Walk around your house and unplug everything that’s not a lamp on a timer or otherwise related to an alarm system. Even toasters and DVD/Blu-ray players can be damaged in a lighting storm.
That same lighting strike will also travel through coax cable, so anything – modems, computers, televisions, etc. – that’s connected to the internet via coax should also be disconnected.
If your electrical items are plugged into surge protectors, there’s no sense in leaving them plugged in and risking the damage. Surge protectors are not perfect. Besides, many appliances have an electrical draw when plugged-in and turned off. You’ll be paying for that hidden draw while you’re away. Just unplug it.
22. Storm Shutters
If you live in an area that’s prone to hurricanes and other tropical storms, it’s wise to put up storm shutters. Another option is to have a neighbor or another contact who can put the shutters up if a storm is approaching. It is preferable to not leave storm shutters on to help with the illusion of home occupancy. This is especially true if your storm shutters are metal or otherwise opaque.
23. Roof, Gutters, and Trees
All kinds of weather could happen in your absence. To prepare your home for the elements, it’s a good idea to have your roof inspected, gutters cleaned, and trees trimmed back prior to heading out. Any dead trees that could fall on your home or property should also be removed.
24. Close Your Flue
It’s a minor detail, but closing a fireplace flue will prevent bats, bird, squirrels, and other critters from entering your home.
Additional Long-Term Trip Tips
25. Put Cable Television and Internet On Hold
While the technology exists to watch television from home via the internet, most of us do not watch our home cable television or use our home cable internet while we’re traveling. The important exception to this would be if you’re using an internet web cam or other security system that requires an internet connection. If that’s your situation, you will need to leave your internet service running.
For those of us who travel a month or more at a time, it is sometimes possible to put your expensive cable television services on hold. Not all cable television and internet service providers in all areas will allow you to do this, but some will.
For example, in the state of Florida, Comcast will turn off their services for $5 a month. To be clear, Comcast charges $5 to put each service on hold; $5 for cable television, and $5 for internet service. Rather than paying about $150 for cable television and internet while you’re not home, you can pay $10 to put both services on hold. That’s a savings of $140 a month for something you’re not using.
26. Check All Smoke Detectors
Even though you will not be home, it’s still important to that your smoke detectors are functioning properly. If your smoke detector batteries are almost dead, they may begin beeping in your absence. If there’s a fire, your insurance company may challenge your claim because your fire detectors were not functioning. When in doubt, replace the batteries, and test the detectors.
27. Leave Your House Clean
It’s always better to come home to a clean and uncluttered house. Perhaps it’s the last thing you want to do in the midst of packing, but you’ll thank yourself when you arrive back home.
Another thing you don’t want to come home to is rotten clothing in the dryer. Never leave wet clothing in your dryer or they will likely mildew, mold, and ruin long before you get home. While you’re at it, make sure the dishwasher is empty.
28. Take Pictures
Naturally you might think taking pictures is what you do once you’re on the road and exploring new places. While this is certainly true, you also should take pictures of your home and possessions prior to leaving. In case of a fire, flood, or other disaster, these photographs will prove what you had, and in what overall condition it was in.
You may also consider photographing your passport, medication bottles, and other important documents. While you will hopefully not need these images, having evidence of this information can make or break travel plans.
29. How To Leave A Car
Most of us leave at least one car at home. The ideal way to do this is to leave your car parked in a garage, out of the elements, and have a neighbor start and drive the car every week or two. If that’s not possible, disconnect the battery to prevent drainage (or use a battery trickle charger), and put the automobile on jacks to avoid tire flat spots. I use a battery trickle charger from Battery Tender.
So much of this process is second nature to me as I have an antique pickup truck that gets put away every winter. For a more complete discussion, there are many additional tips to leaving a car behind which are covered in an excellent article by Edmunds titled, “How to Prep Your Car for Long-Term Storage”.
Whatever you do, it’s important to leave a set of car keys with your trusted neighbors or home watching friends in case there’s a need to move your car in your absence.
30. Be a good neighbor
As you can see, you are relying on your trusted neighbor(s) or home-watching friends quite a bit to help keep your home safe and intervening in any disasters.
When they area away, we perform the same type of duties for our neighbors making home watching feel like a mutual benefit rather than an imposed burden. Inviting them for a nice dinner before and after your trip will serve to reinforce the relationship and build your friendship.
Make a Leave Your House Check List
If the above list feels a bit overwhelming, it shouldn’t. Most of these items (like turning off your house water) take seconds and will become instinctual every time you leave for a long trip. Other items, like not hiding house keys, are just tips that you can immediately incorporate into your travel habits.
My strongest recommendation is to use this article to create a check list for your situation. Use that list every time you leave or return from a trip to remind you what needs to be done, and then undone. This is exactly what we do, and it works well.
The best part of the above recommendations is the peace of mind they’ll give you if you’re away from home. No more worrying about water in the basement. You’ll be free to enjoy the adventures of truck camping.
Editor’s Note: Thank you, Steve, for this very informative article. With this article we asked our readers for their ideas. Click here to read the suggestions from the readers about closing up your house for an extended trip.