7 Tips for Snowbirds Before Flying the Coop

By Kimberly Lankford

Q. We're retired, and this is the first year that we plan to spend the winter in Florida, leaving our home in New Jersey unoccupied. Are there any special steps we should take before we leave?

Here are several special banking and insurance moves that can help snowbirds protect their finances and homes while they're away from home for several months.

1. Prepare your home for winter.

Everyone should take some key steps to prepare their home for cold weather and snowstorms, to help avoid expensive damage or homeowners insurance claims. But it's even more important to prepare your house if it will be vacant during the coldest months of the year and you won't be there to notice problems -- such as a small leak that can cause a lot of water damage by the time you return in the spring. Before you leave for Florida, inspect your roof for any damage or worn shingles that can lead to leaks, says Elaine Montgomery-Baisden, vice-president of Travelers Personal Insurance. She also recommends cleaning gutters and downspouts and checking for clogs that can cause water damage to interior walls. Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls and open cabinet doors to allow heat from the room to get into concealed spaces, which can make pipes less likely to freeze. Also drain and shut off outdoor water faucets. (For more seasonal home maintenance advice, see 15 Fall and Winter Maintenance Tips for Your Home.)

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2. Trim trees.

Winter's high winds and snowstorms can cause a lot of damage from fallen tree limbs -- which can be very expensive and may not be covered by your homeowners insurance policy. (See When Your Tree Falls in Your Neighbor's Yard for more information.) Remove dead trees or large overhanging tree limbs before you leave town.

3. Ask someone to shovel snow.

Arrange to have a neighbor clean snow from your driveway, sidewalk, hatch cover and dryer vent opening when you're gone, says Montgomery-Baisden. That can prevent melting snow from leaking into the home and causing damage. It can also reduce slip-and-fall liability losses, and prevent your home from looking vacant and becoming a target of thieves.

4. Secure your home.

Home security is a big issue if you're away from your house for months. Stop your newspaper delivery and forward your mail to your winter address or have it picked up on a regular basis. Also have someone check the house at least weekly to make sure any flyers or packages that are delivered while you're gone don't build up and make the house look unoccupied. Secure doors and windows with deadbolt locks, and install slide locks or other security locks on sliding glass doors or French doors. You can also install variable light timers, which turn lights on and off at different times to make it look like someone is home.

5. Monitor your house from a distance.

Install smoke detectors on at least every floor, preferably tied to a centrally monitored fire alarm system so the fire department will be notified automatically if the alarm goes off, recommends Montgomery-Baisden. Otherwise, nobody will be home to hear the alarm if it goes off only inside your house. You can get a discount on your homeowners insurance premiums if you have a centrally monitored home-security system. You may even be able to hook up a water-flow sensor or low-temperature sensor to that system, which can alert your security provider of problems that could lead to freezing pipes. But nothing replaces the human touch. Share your winter contact information with a neighbor who can be your eyes and ears while you're gone, forward important mail to you in Florida, check for any problems and take action in an emergency.

6. Notify your bank.

Give your bank your temporary address and contact information before you leave, which is important so you can continue to receive your statements and to alert bank representatives about out-of-state debit and credit card charges, says Joe Bednarik, PNC Bank's regional manager of retail banking for Southern New Jersey. Bank fraud departments have become proactive about preventing theft by spotting and denying unusual charges. It's better to let them know of your travels ahead of time rather than run the risk that your account could be frozen temporarily if your financial institution is unable to reach you with questions about charges from an unexpected location.

7. Sign up for online banking.

This can be a good time to sign up to receive your bills online, so you don't miss any payment deadlines while your mail catches up with you during your transition from north to south. Check your credit card due dates before you leave to avoid any missed payments, recommends Bednarik.

Kimberly Lankford is a contributing editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

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