A home inspector looks at how foreclosed homes are winterized, which may be useful for homeowners looking to winterize a vacation home.
If you are not going to be in a house for awhile, or if you are handling a foreclosure, you will want to winterize the home to protect it from damage. The term comes from the fact that vacation homes were prepared for winter when no one would be in them. One thing to note is that any home that goes unoccupied for a while will suffer some type of damage. Houses need to have fresh air coming into them; the mechanical equipment needs to be operated to keep it functioning well; and seals need to be kept wet so that they do not dry out. Here are the steps to consider when winterizing a home:
Make repairs before turning off the utilities. A leaky pipe may not be noticed right away when the water is turned back on. A loose wire causing an arc or short may not be noticed either. People looking at the home may turn these on and leave them on after they leave. You will come back to find the damage that this has caused.
Turning off the gas: the company which provides the natural gas has to be called to turn it off on the main. They will put a tag on it indicating that it has been shut down, and no one should turn it on. You will want to shut off the gas to the various appliances though. You never can tell what may happen, so it is safer to have the gas valves for each unit turned off to prevent leaks. Typical appliance in the home that use gas are: the clothes dryer; the heating system; the water heater; the fireplace; and the oven and cooktop. These are usually ball valves, so the lever has to be perpendicular to the body to shut them off.
Turning off the electricity: you could make arrangements to have the power shut off, or you could just shut the main breaker off. Some inspectors like taking the extra step of of turning off individual breakers on all of the panels, but you do not have to go so far. The main concern here is finding loose wires. In one home the range exhaust vent was pulled out with live loose wires hanging down. They should have a wire nut on them, and secured away from someone’s grasp.
Turning off the plumbing: I have found damage to the plumbing done to vacant homes, or just small leaks that were never repaired. Once the water is back on, a continuos little leak can do a good deal of damage when left unchecked. Before shutting off the water, check all of the fixtures by running them. Look at the pipes in the cabinets to see if any water leaks out. Run the dishwasher. A dry seal on a dishwasher can cause a bad leak. If there are no leaks, you can start draining the water from the system. Turn of the main water valve, which could be at the meter, but it could be by a hose bib or in the garage. Open
the faucets to let the water flow out. You will want to keep water in the toilet bowl, because this will prevent sewer gases from coming into the home. You will also want water in the P-traps under
the sinks, but this will happen when you open the faucets. Not everyone does this (although they should), but I would suggest draining the water heater if it is of the tank variety. The standing
water in it can become quite foul.
Signage: You will want people to know that the house has been winterized, so hopefully they will not do any damage. At each entrance, have a sign stating that the house has been winterized. You could place signs at various spots around the house, but there are a few places that really need it. Place tape across the toilet in an x-shape with a winterization note, so a person does not decide to use it (leave the over up to allow odors from the water not to sit there). A note by the electrical panel to indicate winterization is a good idea. You could lock the service panel with a small padlock, which would be a good idea if the panel is on the exterior of the home. I have seen notes placed by the air conditioning equipment, but if the electrical panel has the note, and the gas main has the tab, an inspector will know it has been winterized. The signs should explain that winterization means lights could not be turned on or that the plumbing cannot be used. It is also a good idea to date them, so an inspector will know how long it has been. A paper printed up from your computer is fine, but creating a sticker will make the sign last longer.
Secure the building: make sure all windows and doors are locked. I find that people forget the upstairs windows, and sometimes the garage. Close the blinds too.
- A possible extra step: this is something you could do to help out when the building is being opened up again. Change the filters for the air conditioning system. Clogged filters force the unit to work harder when started. A general cleaning is always a nice touch, but it can help the home stay unoccupied a little longer. I found remnants of food in one kitchen, which encouraged pest to come into the home. In fact if you notice points where squirrels or other rodent have chewed their way into the home in the past, board it up to help discourage them.
This is the basic outline. In some cases with foreclosures, winterization could mean repairing walls and such, while also doing some painting, but this is not necessary for winterization.
If you are buying a home that has been winterized, there are some steps that you should know about. It is best to have a professional turn everything back on in the home, since a problem can occur. Some firms winterizing homes leave all of the water spigots from the water heater to washer connections in the on position. This can allow water to flow everywhere. It is best to have the utilities working before you purchase the home, since you do not know if the problems have been corrected before the winterization. A home inspector would be your best option to discovering if there are problems, but if you take it slowly, and check everything out, you may be able to spot most issues.
When turning the utilities back on, go one step at a time, so you can check the home for problems without causing one. In the Categories section in the sidebar, you will find a series of posts written for Real estate Investors. These posts describe how you could perform a home inspection with a few basic tools. For example, after turning the water back on, go through the house to check you plumbing and the appliances that use water. Such an inspection will cause you to see a burst pipe or open faucet before it causes much damage. Then you can do your next inspection once the next utility has been turned on. This step is important. If you do not check, you may not know what is happening. I had inspected a house that was winterized. The property manager knew that I was coming, so the utilities had been turned on, but the water had been left off at the main, since there was supposed to be a plumbing leak in the house. I was requested to turn the water off when I completed my inspection. This was all done. I am not sure what happened in the month after my inspection, but I received a call asking if I had left the water on. As far as I can determine, a faucet in the tub was open (maybe another buyer looking at the home, who knows), and the property manager’s crew turned the water back on without checking the home. The water from the tub may have been running for days before the buyer went to check the home. Although that crew should have performed an inspection, the buyer should be aware that they may not be doing their job, so check the home as soon as you can once the utilities are working.