Tips to keep your unoccupied home protected
By: Denise Koslowsky
Homes remain unoccupied for a variety of different reasons, notes Trusted Choice, part of Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, Inc.
Some of the reasons homes sit unoccupied include:
- You own more than one residence and divide your time between houses.
- You are doing extensive renovations on your primary residence.
- You are traveling for an extended period of time.
- You moved into a new home leaving a vacant house on the market.
Liability risks for vacant homes
No matter the reason, if you own an unoccupied home the coverage provided by your homeowner’s policy may be limited. There are several liability risks to consider when a home is left alone. You may need a special policy called vacant home insurance to cover risks such as:
- Theft and vandalism
- Insect infestation
- Frozen or broken pipes
Vacant home insurance isn’t all the same
A vacant home insurance policy is a specialty insurance policy that is not one-size-fits-all. Many different carriers have specific stipulations, so it’s important to do your research. Advocate Brokerage, a Trusted Choice agency, can help you find coverage that matches your needs. Examples of variables involved in vacant home insurance:
- Some companies offer coverage for vacant homes as an addendum to an existing homeowner’s policy.
- Limits on the length of time the home is left unoccupied (a minimum of 3 months and up to 36 months)
- Detached structures or other personal property may need additional coverage.
What types of damage are covered?
The amount of coverage you need depends on several factors. In general, the longer the house is vacant, the greater risk. With no one home to keep an eye on things, there is no one to notice when things go wrong. Vacant home insurance will typically cover physical damage to your home, including weather damage as well as vandalism and some liability.
How much does vacant home insurance cost?
Because certain risks increase with an unoccupied property, vacant house insurance is typically more expensive than a standard homeowner’s policy. If you’re only adding an addendum to your current policy, it may be more affordable, but just make sure it includes all the coverage you need. Fortunately, insurers will typically return any unused premiums if the house becomes occupied before the end of the policy’s time period.
Factors that affect your premium can include your geographic location, the home’s value, the amount of coverage you purchase, and the safety of the house. Since risk is the biggest concern for insurance companies, you may be able to reduce your rates if you have a home security system.
When do you need vacant home insurance?
If you know your home is going to be unoccupied for a lengthy period of time, check your current homeowner’s policy. Your insurance company may be willing to work with you to ensure your home’s coverage continues during that vacancy. For example, your insurance company may extend your current policy for a specific time period, after which you would need to purchase additional coverage.
When you’re actively trying to rent your home, you may not need vacant house insurance if you expect it to be occupied within a short span of time. If you’re currently renovating it to rent to someone next year, vacant home insurance will protect your investment.
Vacant property insurance may be a wise investment if your home is on the market, especially because it’s hard to predict when a house will sell. Just make sure you purchase a policy that will refund premiums if the house becomes occupied.
Travelers Insurance Co., an Advocate Brokerage partner, offers tips for unoccupied homes and properties to prevent or mitigate losses:
- The heating system should be cleaned and inspected by a contractor to help ensure it is working properly, especially through the winter months, to reduce potential damage from fire and freezing.
- If LP gas, propane gas or oil heat is used, ensure the fuel levels in the tank are checked periodically to prevent running out of fuel.
- If the home is not to be heated, have the fuel turned off at the main shut-off valve to reduce the malfunction/explosion potential. The valve should be checked to ensure it is working properly.
- The home should be checked regularly (at least once a week) to ensure the heating system is operating properly.
- Be sure the electric power is not shut off since this will shut down the heating system. If electrical service to the home is to remain on, inspect main electrical panel, wiring and outlets; and repair or replace any defective or deficient items.
- Chimneys should be inspected by a chimney service and, if necessary, cleaned to ensure that they are free from obstructions such as nesting birds. Install chimney guard screen-caps to help prevent any infestation.
- If the heating system is to be turned off completely, have the plumbing system drained (or properly winterized) to prevent freezing damage.
- If hot water heating system and/or water pipes will not be drained, have a water flow sensor and low temperature sensor installed and hooked into a centrally monitored alarm system; and keep the thermostat at a consistent temperature throughout the winter months.
- If water will not be turned off, shut off dishwasher and washing machine hoses to prevent serious water damage losses. Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls so the water supply will be less likely to freeze. Follow manufacturer’s instructions closely if heat tape is used on piping to prevent fires. Open cabinet doors to allow heat from the room to get into concealed spaces. Drain and shut off outdoor water faucets to prevent vandalism and freezing damage.
- If a separate hot water heater is present, inspect for leaks. If in an earthquake area, confirm it is retrofitted (e.g., strapped to the adjacent wall).
- Check weather-stripping, insulation, and exterior doors and windows to ensure no major deficiencies are present. Water and insects can enter through these openings.
- Inspect roof for any evidence of damage, leaks, missing or worn shingles/ridges; and replace or repair damaged, worn or missing shingles to help prevent wind, water damage or damage resulting from water backup of ice that forms around the edges.
- Inspect for ice dams on the roof that can prevent melting snow from draining off the roof, which in turn can back up and cause interior water damage.
- Inspect attic and basement for any evidence of water damage or mold. Fix all leaks, keep appliances clean, and increase ventilation to prevent the growth of molds and bacteria and reduce potential for invasion from unwanted insects or rodents.
- Gutters and downspouts should be checked and cleaned, if necessary. Clogged gutters can result in basement flooding when the snow melts in northern climates and/or water damage to interior walls in any climate as the water is no longer channeled properly. Check the downspouts and extensions to make sure water is diverted away from the house and does not pond next to the foundation.
- Notify the police department that the property will be vacant, and provide emergency notification phone numbers.
- Clear snow from driveways, sidewalks, hatch covers and dryer vent openings to reduce slip-and-fall liability losses, reduce the potential for the home becoming a target for vandals by appearing to be unoccupied or vacant, and prevent melting snow from leaking into the home and causing damage.
- In temperate climates, make sure lawn is mowed and maintained regularly (e.g., free of debris or garbage).
- Promptly repair any significant hazards (e.g., missing or broken railing or steps, broken windows, etc.) to increase the appearance the home is regularly occupied.
- Have mail and newspapers forwarded to appropriate address or picked up on a regular basis. Even if all mail is stopped, the home should be checked at least weekly to ensure unread mail, flyers, leaflets, etc., do not build up and add to the vacant/unoccupied appearance of the property.
- Secure external doors and windows with high-quality deadbolt locks, security-type hinges, and sturdy door frames that cannot be spread apart. Slide locks or other equivalent security locks should be installed on sliding glass doors or French doors.
- Install variable light timers to increase the appearance the home is regularly occupied, and ensure the lights do not turn on and off at the same time every day.
- Remove dead trees or overhanging large tree limbs from the property that could cause damage.
- In higher wind-exposed or coastal areas, install storm shutters (or other mitigation measures, such as 5/8” marine plywood) to secure windows ahead of a potentially damaging storm. Anchor fuel tanks and other storage tanks.
- Install smoke detectors on at least every floor (preferably tied into a centrally monitored fire alarm system so the fire department will automatically be notified in case of an alarm), and confirm that the sensors and system are tested regularly. Install carbon monoxide detectors and test them monthly, especially if the home will be shown to prospective buyers periodically.
- Have the home tested for radon and lead. If the level of either is unacceptable, take appropriate steps to correct the problem (e.g., install a radon reduction system, encapsulate lead paint, etc.).