How to Safeguard Your House While Traveling

\"safeguard_your_house\"A lot of folks are heading out of town next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Unfortunately, many a bad thing can happen when you travel, and I’m not talking about the time you have to spend with your relatives. I’m focused on the house you leave behind.

I’ll consider various scenarios below, but heeding some outstanding advice, I think we should first ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” No longer having a house probably tops that list, and it certainly could happen from fire or Godzilla attack. Take a look at everything you have and imagine it’s GONE.

At a minimum, you should definitely:

  • Backup all of your pictures & videos.
    Preferably with multiple levels of redundancy and at least one offsite solution (onsite backups may be a misnomer in a disaster).
  • Take a full inventory of everything in your house.
    This could help with an insurance claim.

    If you’re really into lists, write down every single object in your house, plus its replacement cost, plus why it’s special to you, plus how you feel when you hold it. OR

    Just take a video of everything in your house and post it as “private” on youtube (or figure out another way to safely store it offsite). The focus should be on establishing value, not on creating art. Cover every room, open drawers and closets as needed, dictate what you’re seeing, and look for valuable references on items (e.g., brand names, models). Create a full video inventory that would help you establish the value of a claim.

There’s probably a lot more to consider for a total loss scenario, and much of it may be person-specific, but those two are a good start.

Everything’s Better with a Spreadsheet

Now that we’ve envisioned the worst-case scenario, let’s consider all of the different things that can go wrong.

You’ll see the checklists I use below, and my hearty recommendation is to create a google docs spreadsheet with all of the tasks you’ll do every time you travel. Remember that a spreadsheet has a far better memory than you do, and it really does reduce your travel stress if you don’t have to remember each one. Having a full list and just needing to type in “DONE” as you complete them is much simpler and more effective.

You’ll want to customize your spreadsheet, but a lot of the fields below will apply to everyone.

Prevent Burglary When You’re Traveling

Remember the joke where two guys are being chased by a bear, and one of them puts on his running shoes? His friend says, \”What are you doing? You can\’t outrun a bear!\” He replies, \”I don\’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you!\” Hahaha. Jokes about bears eating people are funny.

I take a similar approach on burglary. I don’t need to make my house completely burgle-proof, I just need to make it more burgle-proof than those of my traveling neighbors.

Hang on – going back to the bear, why didn’t the guy just trip his “friend”? Seems like that’d be a lot faster than putting on running shoes. It does sound kinda dark that way, though.

Anyway, burglary. Here is a list of things I might recommend to dissuade burglars from burgling you:

  • Stop your mail or have someone pick it up.
    I used to have a neighbor pick up our mail because I suspected that the U.S. Postal Service was in league with a global gang of criminals and would alert everyone that my house was fair game as soon as the request came in. My paranoia is now under better control, and I’ve used the incredibly handy USPS hold mail service several times now with no burglaries. However, if it were possible for a burglar to observe a mailman flying by your home without stopping for days, that would be bad.
  • Have a neighbor watch your house.
    Tell neighbor(s) you are heading out of town and to watch your house. Caveat: don’t do this if your neighbor is a burglar. Make sure they know how to get in touch with you and have a key to your house (or the contact information of someone who does).
  • Have someone remove flyers.
    Ask the neighbor (above) to watch your door for any flyers that get put on. Burglars will put a flyer on your door, and if it’s still there in a day or two, they know you’re not home. Clever burglars.
  • Set light timers.
    A totally dark house (esp. during early evening hours) is a dead giveaway. The only thing worse is one where lights are always on.
  • Set a radio timer.
    I’ve read interviews with ex-burglars who say this is a big turn-off for them. They’ll go to a quiet house instead. I’ve also read about a nifty product called FakeTV. I never plan on traveling again myself (burglars take note), so I may not need one, but it does look cool.
  • Have a security system sign.
    This should be visible to someone driving by. Optional: actually having a security system. I do think that my little sign is worth more than my entire system, because I have quite a few neighbors who don’t have a sign.
  • Locks gates and the like.
    If you have a fenced backyard, for instance, make sure the gate has a padlock on it. I know a number of neighbors who don’t lock the gate to their backyard – if I were a burglar I’d go to the backyard and work my way in with less prying eyes.
  • Lock doors and remove keys from double deadbolts.
    Double deadbolts aren’t really double deadbolts if you leave the key in the lock. A nearby window could be broken to turn the key.
  • Don’t post you’re traveling on social media.
    It’s super easy to find addresses nowadays, and all of the other tricks above won’t work if you’re announcing, “Just kidding! We’re really out of town” on Facebook. You should also consider quitting Facebook altogether.

Do a little role-playing, and consider what you’d do if you were a burglar and got access to the house

  • Hide car keys.
    They’ll take your car as a bonus if you offer it.
  • Hide checkbook and checks.
    Does anyone still use checks today? Still, if someone took this, it’d be a major pain.
  • Hide laptops / expensive electronics.
    Anything that is easy to take and/or expensive and/or would cause a real problem if you lost it should be hidden – put a separate line on your spreadsheet for each item. Most burglars will move fast and hit your bedroom hard. They’re probably far less likely to search places like little kids’ rooms, a box in the garage or attic (if temperatures allow that), or behind books in a bookshelf.
  • Think like a burglar about locked stuff.
    A locked file cabinet or fire safe implies that something valuable is in there, even if it’s not. If they can pick it up, they’ll just take the whole thing with them.

Save Your House

One of the best things you can do for your house is just to have the aforementioned neighbor keep an eye on it. If they see smoke, or water streaming out under your front door, hopefully they’ll be able to do something fast to help. You may want to make sure they know how to turn off the water main.

I don’t know that there’s a lot you can do to improve your odds for fire (except the obvious, like turn off stuff before you leave) while you’re gone, but there are things you can do for water.

  • Do something with your water.
    I have seriously considered turning off my water main while traveling, but I’ve decided against that for now (I’m still not 100% sure, and perhaps someday I’ll share my fascinating analysis with you).
    But I do try to address some common fail points:
    Turn off the water to every commode.
    I now know of two (2) $50K+ damage claims due to a mere leaking pipe from the toilet to the wall of someone\’s house. Yikes.
    Important: I leave a note saying “Water is off – talk to dad”.
    Turn off the water to the washing machine.
    Leave a note here too.
    Consider turning off the sprinkler system.
    I don’t have a freeze sensor, so I need to think about this, particularly as I…
  • Check the forecast.
    Make sure you know the pending weather for the full time you’ll be gone.
  • Open cabinet doors at sinks (if winter / cold)
    This is a good precaution to avoid pipes freezing, especially if you’re turning down the thermostat a bit in winter.
  • Do other cold weather preventative care that is warranted.
    Your own situation and climate will dictate.

In the event of an emergency, make sure you have people who can access the house, and make sure your neighbors (if they aren’t one and the same) have their contact information.

Save Some Money

These are smaller items, but the beauty of making a spreadsheet checklist is that you can easily add and execute them without too much effort.

  • Turn down the temperature at hot water heaters.
    Remember what it was set to before you turned it down (I have the permanent setting noted for each one on my google docs spreadsheet). I’m less focused on the savings than on just reducing the amount of combustion going on when I’m not around.
  • Adjust the thermostat.
    The real savings for this will come in the summer. If you turn down the heat in the winter, just keep in mind any freezing risk for your pipes.

Packing Stuff

If you have a house “travel prep” spreadsheet already, why not add to it all of the items to pack that are easy to forget?

Your list will differ from mine, but for an exhibit, mine includes: electronic devices (list each one out as a separate checklist item), chargers for electronic devices (ibid), passports, reading materials (including checking out and downloading e-books from library), medicines, snacks for kids, water bottles, swim suits (so many hotels have pools, and woe to the parent who forgets these), toiletries, diapers / pullups, car seat. Seeing a list of everything you need with “DONE” typed next to it is a good feeling, and if you ever discover you need something else, just add it for next time.

One tip from an ex-road warrior consultant: have a full kit of travel toiletries so you don’t have to pack your normal home toiletries. Throwing in a single bag / kit with everything you need is much easier than packing up your regular stuff after your last home use.

Every Journey Begins with a Single Spreadsheet

Making a spreadsheet to track and execute all of these activities as you prepare to head out of town sounds a little obsessive. Welcome to my world!

The whole idea, though, is to take your mind off of things that can stress you out. Have you ever had an argument after forgetting to pack something? Have you ever tortured yourself trying to remember if you did something before you left? Have you ever been burgled and want to avoid a repeat?

Being organized at the beginning of your trip not only safeguards your house, but it will give you much greater peace of mind during the trip.

Safe travels to everyone on the road next week. Happy Thanksgiving!


I imagine there is a lot of collective wisdom out there – please let me know if you have any travel house prep tips to share.

If you’re a burglar, we’d love your feedback and advice (and please note I plan to never leave my house again).

Picture courtesy of Kris

2 thoughts on “How to Safeguard Your House While Traveling”

  1. My local police department will monitor your home on routine patrols while you are away. I can go to their website to take advantage of this program.

    1. Yes, but that’s assuming that the police aren’t in league with a gang of criminals…

      I’ve slowly built up to trust the USPS, but I’m not sure I’m there yet with the police.

      It is a great point, though – trusting folks should look into their local police to see if there is a monitoring service.

      Thanks for the tip!

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