20 Tips for Protecting Your Home While on Vacation

We’ve all heard at least one horror story about a family returning home from a long vacation only to find that their house has been broken into or a pipe has burst in their absence. Problems like these can cost hundreds of dollars to fix and are guaranteed to cause a lot of stress. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to help prevent security breaches while you’re off on a family adventure.

We’ve compiled the following tips to help you prep your house for safety before you go out of town and truly relax while you’re away. Some of them require a little investment and forethought, but taking these steps now will save you from major headaches down the road.

1. Get a professionally monitored home security system

Your first line of defense against burglary is a home security system that includes door and window sensors. Some systems allow you to self-monitor, but especially if you’re going out of the country or somewhere with unreliable data network coverage, alerts on your phone won’t do you much good. With a monitored home security system, the alarm company calls the authorities for you when there’s a breach.

Check out our top recommendations for security systems below.

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2. Make sure that system includes environmental sensors

Most modern home security systems have the option to monitor not only when someone enters your property but against damaging environmental factors as well. Flood sensors detect changes in moisture levels in the air, which can indicate broken pipes or appliances. Many security systems now also include or at least sync with smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors to raise the alarm when there’s a fire or noxious fumes.

3. Get a programmable or smart thermostat

When you’re gone, there’s no use heating or cooling an empty house to a comfortable temperature, but you don’t want to turn your system off entirely, either. A good rule of thumb is to set your thermostat to four degrees above or below your normal setting when you’re away. In the winter, this should never be below 50 °F so your pipes don’t freeze. With a programmable thermostat, you can set a schedule ahead of time so your house will be back to a comfortable temperature by the time you return home.

Even better, get a smart thermostat so you can check in on your home’s temperature from afar and make adjustments if needed. We recommend the Nest Learning Thermostat because it learns your temperature preferences, uses geofencing, and is compatible with Amazon Echo and Google Home. Check out the table below to see some of our favorite smart thermostats and which smart home brands you can pair them with.

4. Don’t indicate publicly that you’ll be away from home

Don’t put anything on your voicemail, answering, machine, email autoreply, or social media indicating you’ll be gone. It’s tempting to post your vacation photos in the moment, but your safest bet is to wait until after you return home. If you can’t resist, make sure your posts are viewable only to friends and don’t mention the exact dates you’ll be gone. Keep your usual voicemail or answering machine message, and make your personal or work email autoreply message vague.

5. Install outdoor security lights

When looking for a way inside, burglars are more likely to go for areas that are dark and hidden from the neighbors’ view. You can illuminate these hiding spots by installing outdoor security lights in burglary-prone areas such as the back door or sides of the house. Most models are either motion activated or will only come on at night, so you don’t have to worry about them wasting a lot of energy.

We’ve listed our favorite outdoor security lights in the table below and broken them out by type of light.

6. Add a smart lock to your door

A smart door lock lets you unlock your door remotely from your smartphone and grant temporary access with expiring codes. If you have a neighbor checking in on the house or a pet sitter coming to take care of the dogs, you can keep track of exactly who goes in and out of your house and terminate access once you’re home again. No more trying to keep track of who has your spare keys because you have full control over who does and doesn’t have access at any given time. We recommend the August Smart Lock because it requires zero physical keys and has the most smart features out of any of its competitors.

Take a look at the table below to learn more about our top picks for smart door locks.

7. Remove spare keys you may have stashed under the doormat

Keeping spare keys stashed outside your house is never a great idea anyway (get a smart door lock instead), but if you’re going out of town, now is the time to collect them all. Your hiding spots aren’t as clever as you think.

8. Lock everything

This is a step that’s easy to forget. Make sure all doors and windows are shut and locked. Close most blinds and curtains—if you’re putting timers on lights to simulate human presence, make sure that light can get through to the street.

9. Install a video doorbell

A video doorbell allows you to answer your front door from anywhere. Each time someone rings the doorbell, you’ll get an alert on your phone so you can see and speak to the visitor in real time. If you’re out of cell service on the beach or hacking through the jungle, you can still access a log of video clips later. Some models, like the Ring Pro and SkyBell, also have motion detection capabilities, so you’ll still get an alert even if the person doesn’t actually ring the bell. They’re also handy for catching package thieves and spreading the word around the neighborhood.

Take a look at a few great video doorbell picks in the table below.

10. Check batteries in all home security devices

This one’s pretty simple, but it often goes overlooked. Regularly check all your security and safety devices—motion detectors, cameras, and smoke detectors—to make sure the batteries won’t fail while you’re gone. Even if something is hardwired, it may have a backup battery in case of power outages. Opt for high-quality batteries over budget batteries, as you’re likely to get more life out of them.

11. Unplug nonessential electronics

Unplugging nonessential electronics—TVs, computers, coffee makers, fans, lamps etc.—will both reduce the risk of fire and save you money. The power used by plugged-in electronics while they’re not in use, sometimes called phantom or standby power, accounts for 5–10% of residential energy use and costs each household around $100 each year.

Unplugging devices also protects them against electrical surges, which can short out expensive equipment or cause fires. Electrical fires account for 13% of total residential fires in the United States,1 and if you’re away from home, there’s nothing you can do to stop these fires when something malfunctions.

12. Invest in security cameras

A handful of well-placed security cameras both inside and outside can mean the difference between catching a perpetrator or not. Get something like the indoor/outdoor Arlo system, which is motion activated and will send alerts and video clips to your smartphone so you can take immediate action. This camera and others like it also allow you to remotely drop in on your cameras in real time and live stream whatever’s going on at your house.

We’ve included a snapshot of our favorite indoor IP cameras below.

13. Shut off water main

Several years ago, after vacationing for a couple of weeks, my grandparents returned to a flooded basement, which destroyed decades of memories and caused thousands of dollars in damage. Ever since then, everyone in my family has been vigilant about turning off the water main before long trips, and we’ve all avoided vacation floods.

If you still want your automated sprinkler system to work, consider shutting off the water supply to each toilet at the very least, and to the dishwasher, washing machine, and ice maker, if possible.

14. Switch water heater to vacation mode

Just like there’s no need to keep an empty house warm, there’s also no need to keep water piping hot when no one’s using it. Many newer water heaters have a preprogrammed vacation mode that will keep the water around 50°F so it won’t freeze and cause a big, expensive mess. If your water heater doesn’t have this setting, you can manually set the temperature.

15. Clear storm drains and gutters

In an intense rainstorm, if the water has nowhere to go, it could accumulate too close to the house, saturate the ground, and seep into your basement. Keeping your storm drains and gutters clear of debris is always important, but it’s especially critical if you’re going out of town and won’t be there to act if there’s a storm.

16. Get valuables out of sight

This is a good rule of thumb any time you leave the house, but it’s especially important when you’ll be gone for several days at a time. Close the blinds or curtains in rooms with large electronics, such as TVs. Put gaming consoles and DVD players in inconspicuous boxes in the closet and make sure all handheld devices, credit cards, cash, or jewelry aren’t easy to find—make use of a safe if you have one. Firearms should already be in a gun safe anyway.

We’ve listed our favorite gun safe by type in the table below.

17. Hire someone to cut grass or remove snow

An untended lawn or unshoveled snow screams “no one’s been home for days!” Before you leave, make arrangements to have these tasks taken care of so your home looks occupied and to avoid fines from your city.

18. Simulate a human presence

To make it look like someone’s home, create a smart lighting system that you can preprogram to turn on at varied times while you’re away. Turning on a radio is another classic technique, and if you want to get fancy, connect the radio to an appliance timer and coordinate it with the lights.

19. Ask a trusted friend or neighbor to check in periodically

Have someone stop by from time to time to check for signs of attempted entry, burst pipes, or any other potential problems. Ask them to park in the driveway, adjust some blinds, or maybe move some patio furniture so it’s clear from the outside that there’s someone around.

20. Suspend mail and newspaper delivery

An overflowing mailbox and a pile of newspapers are sure signs that no one’s home. You can sign up online to have the USPS hold your mail at your local post office for free for 30 days. For trips longer than 30 days, you should set up mail forwarding or arrange for someone else to pick it up for you.

Did we miss anything? What are some steps you take to keep your home safe while you’re away?

  1. National Fire Protection Association, “Electrical Fires