Snowbird’s Leaving for the Winter Checklist

Category: Home and Garden

Updated October 15, 2014 — (Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 2010, but has been updated many times. Don’t miss the Member comments at the end – they are really terrific!)
When falling leaves start to hit the ground in the Northeast and Midwest, snowbirds across those regions start to get itchy. Winter is coming, and their thoughts turn to winter homes. Harry, one of our members suggested that we prepare a “Leaving for the Winter Checklist” to help these lucky folks in their preparations. Here you go:

Mail. There are several ways to handle this important function, none of them perfect. The P.O. will hold your mail for a month. If you will be gone longer than that, you need to find a different solution. You can put in a forwarding address and your mail will be sent to your winter address (our experience has not always been perfect, with important mail being returned to sender, addressee unknown). USPS also has a premium forwarding service where they will forward your mail via Priority Mail at a reasonable cost. See USPS for your options. If you don’t trust the Post Office the most reliable solution is to pay someone to get your mail at your house or PO Box, stuff everything but the junk mail into a Priority Mail box, and mail it to you once a week or so. Changing to your new address or using eBills are good ideas.
Phone, cable, utilities. Turning off your utilities isn’t as easy as you think. If you have the “triple play” Comcast has a pretty good “seasonal” program that allows you to drop cable and internet but keep some basic phone service for a small monthly fee. If you do cancel your cable, it is best to drop off your converter at a cable location so you don’t get charged for not returning the unit. Change the setting on your phone to forward to your cell phone. Check carefully with your provider about reinstatement fees and cancellation policies. Consider downgrading or stopping your service if the re-install fees are not too high. Stop your garbage service.
Heat. Most people in cold climates turn down the thermostats to save fuel. The temperature you set needs to be chosen carefully. If you go too low you could risk frozen pipes and extensive damage to your home. As an example, let’s say you set your thermostat to 55 degrees, and then an ice storm creates a power outage. The starting temp is so low that you risk a flood with an outage of just a few hours (some experts recommend 58 degrees, but the best temperature for you might be different). Some people use a red light attached to a thermometer device, which can alert neighbors to cool inside temperatures (unless your watchers are also away). Home monitoring systems of all types can give you or a monitoring service alerts about conditions within your home (search online for monitoring systems).

Water. Turn off the water at the point at the main valve where it enters your home. Some folks drain their pipes to avoid worrying about it. But use a professional, because it is not as easy as it sounds. Turn off the water to your washing machine and any outside fixtures, including your irrigation system (which should be drained). A water leak inside your house is the most serious problem you face, after fire.
Chimney. Close the flue on your wood-burning or gas fireplace. If you don’t have a wire screen over the top of your chimney, get one. It is expensive and a hassle to get rid of the critters who think your unused chimney makes a great winter condo.
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Security. Most police departments have a policy and a form to use, letting them know how long you will be gone, how you can be contacted, and when you will return. A close neighbor or friend should have the same information. Buy a few timers and hook them up to some lamps (with efficient bulbs) to come on and off at different times. Have someone shovel your walk so it looks like you are home and to avoid fines or liabilities. Consider getting an alarm system. If you have an alarm system, let your provider know you will be away and how to contact you. Arrange to have a friend check on your home at least weekly, and give them a list of the repair people you’d like them to use if something goes awry. Put small valuables in a safe deposit box or safe.
Newspapers. Call at least a week in advance to suspend your paper and provide a re-start date, if you know it.
Insurance. This is a risk and an opportunity. Let your insurance company know you will be gone if your house will be vacant for more than 30 days. You might have to get a vacant home policy. The opportunity is that if you are gone for more than 30 days you can probably switch your auto insurance to storage on any car(s) you leave at home, and get a much better rate. (But be prepared for a dead battery upon your return unless you install a trickle charger of have someone start them once in a while.
Pets and plants. Obviously you should know if pets are welcomed and under what terms in your winter digs. If Tabby is staying up north for the winter, you will need to interview individuals or a service to look after her. Our preference is an individual who you know loves pets – your animal will get much better attention than in a kennel. Leave information about vets and medications. Remember, your vet might not let a 3rd party make decisions about your pet – so ask in advance about policies for emergency situations. Regarding plants – board them out, find a waterer, or prepare to begin anew when you return. Some house plants won’t like getting too cool. Put tender outside plants in the garage so the pots don’t freeze and burst.
Saving energy. Unplug every appliance you can think of, including spare refrigerators. Cleaning out your main fridge and freezer and unplugging it might be cheaper than keeping a quart of ice cream and your soy sauce cool all winter. A lot of electrical appliances like microwaves and electronic gear like TV’s use energy even when turned off. Unplug them and save, while also reducing fire risk. Switch off your water heater at the circuit breaker.
Medical information and prescriptions. Bring copies of medical
records with you in case you have to make an unscheduled visit to the
doctor or hospital. Check with your doctor and local drugstore to be
sure you won’t have trouble refilling necessary prescriptions.
Shipping. It’s silly and a hassle to bring everything you need with you. Consider using UPS or the like to ship some of your bulkier items, either to your winter address or a friend. If you won’t arrive before your stuff, ask or pay a friend to ship your pre-packed items on a specific date. Or buy duplicate items if you can store them there.
Bill paying. Pay bills before you leave. Set up auto payments or pay online so that you don’t miss any bills and incur penalties, it will also save you a lot of time.
Housekeeping. Wash sheets and towels before you leave. Take out the trash (Suspend pickups if you use a private service). Cover furniture to protect from light and dust. Clean out the refrigerator. Bring outside furniture and BBQ inside your garage or basement.
Everyday life. What papers do you need to bring with you? Particularly if you are going to file your taxes or take a trip abroad, you might need some documents like a passport while you are away. Don’t forget checkbooks, address books, stationary. Likewise if you plan on working in your winter digs, bring the essentials of your office –like scissors, stapler, computer, paper, printer. Or buy it down there.
Get started early. If you wait until the morning of departure you are bound to forget something. Go through your checklist at least 2 days before you leave, and then create a new – out the door checklist.

For further reference:
How to Find a Great Snowbird Rental for the Winter
Our Ideal Snowbird Pairings (Summer and Winter)
Sandy’s Adventures Part ii: How to Find a Great Snowbird Location for the Winter
http://www.wikihow.com/Winterize-a-Home

What do you think?
Do you have some personal tips you would like to share. Go ahead and use the Comments section below.

Posted by John Brady on October 25th, 2010

19 Comments »

  1. I saw your list of things to do before leaving for the winter and it is very close to the list I have.

    A few additional things I might note as being useful:

    1. We forward our home phone to my wife’s cell phone. We have a package that gives us call forwarding, plus free nationwide calls on both our home and cell phones, so we incur no charges.
    2. Per our septic maintenance man’s advice, we run our washing machine on hot right before we leave to flush the solids out pipe leading into the tank.
    3. We empty out our ice maker before leaving. There is enough ice in the bucket that it would make a good mess if we lost our power. Needless to say, keep the refrig and freezer as empty as possible.
    Hope this helps!

    by Len — October 25, 2010

  2. Don’t forget to get perscriptions transfered of have enough of your meds with you for the entire stay

    by steve g — October 27, 2010

  3. Hi, we’ve been doing this since 1988 because we teach overseas and return to Wisconsin every summer. I would add the following:
    1) Put storm windows and doors back on and lock all windows
    2) If you have two mailboxes, one being the kind that is used for propaganda junkmail, remove it entirely; otherwise, your absence will be obvious
    3) If your winter home is a house, consider buying a 2nd floor condo instead–much safer and during the winter you benefit from the downstairs heat
    4) One more comment about mail–the US Postal Service will only forward mail for 6 months now (used to be 12)

    by Barbara — October 27, 2010

  4. We’ve been spending our winters at Lake Tahoe skiing and our home is a 4 hour drive. Our special problem has been free local newspapers and flyers that are left on the sidewalk and driveway on a weekly basis. We tried to have the free papers stopped, but didn’t even get a reply. This means you need someone to physically come by and throw this material away so they don’t accumulate, the first sign to the world that you aren’t home.

    by Rob — October 27, 2010

  5. Thanks for the great ideas. This will be our first winter away from our home.

    by Diantha — October 27, 2010

  6. Great stuff. My two cent….We have been heading to Florida for each of the past 3 years now and have put together a simple Excel spread sheet that has target dates next to each of the items that we need to attend to.
    We atart 3 weeks ahead of time and when each item is done, we cross it off. We have 55 items at this point. Just a few examples: empty and turn off ice maker, set termostadt for heat and cooling settings, set multiple light timers, unplug tvs & appliances, notify prescription services of new temporary address, pack tax return material, check out library books on cd (you can mail them back), etc. etc. One thing we have also done, is purchase a trickle charger for our car that is left north. But as an additional safety measure, it is plugged into a timer, set to go on for 3 hours, 2 days a week. (We also over inflate the tires and put fuel stabilizer in a full tank of gas) And of course, having a good neighbor or relative checking on things when you need them to is very critical. We do the same thing when we are ready to leave Florida and head north!!

    by Ted — October 27, 2010

  7. Is it ok to leave water on rather than turn off to house, if neighbor comes over and runs it and flushes toilets once a week?

    by Barb — October 27, 2010

  8. […] further reference: Snowbird’s Leaving for the Winter Checklist How to Find an Affordable Retirement Budget Strapped Parks Trade Retirees Work for Rent How to […]

    by » Why Your Best Place to Retire Might be… 2 Places Topretirements — April 18, 2011

  9. I like these suggestions. Barb, there are 2 schools of thought about shutting water off. One, it is the safest policy, assuming you thoroughly drain everything that has water in it that could break or leak. Two, if you have to come home unexpectedly you will have to go through that again. And totally turning off the heat is usually a bad idea – paint and walls might crack.

    More thoughts: Keep the mice out with mothballs and dryer sheets. They can cause damage to stuff in your house and make nests in your car. The guy who repaired our refrigerator cautioned against unplugging it if it has an ice maker (which means a water connection). Instead, turn up the temperature in fridge and freezer compartments. Don’t forget to bring your tax records if you plan on filing before you get back!

    by John Brady — November 28, 2011

  10. Barb – I left for a month once and came home to a running toilet – thankfully the water was still being contained in the toilet system, but the amount of water I wasted (according to the water bill) was criminal! So, having a neighbor come over to flush toilets might be a good idea, but toilet flappers give up whenever they feel like it – and never at a good time!

    by Holly — November 29, 2011

  11. John – I read your comment about using mothballs to keep mice out. My understanding is that mothballs have been determined to be cancer causing for humans. They may keep mice out, but everyone please be careful about using them.

    by Holly — November 29, 2011

  12. […] Snowbird’s Leaving for the Winter Checklist TopretirementsOct 25, 2010 … further reference: Snowbird’s Leaving for the Winter Checklist How to Find an Affordable Retirement Budget Strapped Parks Trade Retirees … […]

    by Checklist snowbirds | Oniendus — December 9, 2011

  13. Does anyone have information on nice rentals in Palm Springs Calif in the 92262 zip code or close. Near shopping etc. one/two bedrooms. good area. Rents around $800.00 a month.We are retired.
    Thank you. Nuala

    by Nuala — October 10, 2012

  14. If you’re going to be gone longer than the requirements for USPS hold mail, you can always consider a service like Earth Class Mail, which will shred useless mail, scan useful mail, deposit checks (where needed), and forward on anything you need sent to you. A lot of expats use it as well.

    by Jason Hull — October 11, 2012

  15. All great suggestions. I’ll share them with our friends who leave Canada each December for 6 months in Florida.
    JASON HULL: There are those who hate Earth Mail – here’s one bad review
    http://blog.evanfell.com/2008/09/01/i-hate-earth-class-mail-my-review/

    by sheila — October 12, 2012

  16. I know of a handyman who provides a service to “snowbirds”. He checks on the house each week and even waters the plants. He is able to address any issue he finds and let the homeowners know that it is taken care of. Great peace of mind. Perhaps there are other handymen that you already have a relationship with that will provide the service for you.

    by Holly — October 13, 2012

  17. I’m traveling cross country NOW I post a daily log with pics on facebook anyone interested can find me as doug0613 there…mention topretirements if you comment

    by doug061363 — October 13, 2012

  18. “Needless to say, keep the refrig and freezer as empty as possible.”

    Len,
    Unfortunately this is not good advice from an energy cost standpoint. A refrigerator and freezer should always be as full as practical while still allowing for the interior fans to push cold air by the contents. This will reduce the amount of time the unit operates to maintain the setpoint. If you are concerned about food spoilage, fill plastic containers (gallon water jugs work well) about two inches from the top to allow room for the water to expand as it freezes, and fill your refrigerator and freezer with these. As a single person I use only about half of my freezer space for frozen food and the other half is filled with frozen plastic containers of ice. My power bill when I’m away is less than $10 a month.

    by Casey — October 13, 2012

  19. Here is an interesting article from WSJ MarketWatch that highlights some hidden costs of being a snowbird. Interesting things to think about beyond the subject of getting ready to leave for the season
    http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-hidden-costs-of-being-a-snowbird-2013-02-22

    by Admin — February 23, 2013

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