Snowbird’s guide to winterizing your home

Updated March 23, 2023

Canada is a nation on the move. Once the snow starts to fly and the cold settles in across most of the country, thousands of Canadians pack their suitcases and head to the southern United States for an extended stay.

Snowbirds are generally retirees who want to escape the frigid temperatures and winter chores, such as regular snow shoveling. They seek climates more favorable to their health that help them avoid becoming shut-ins during the coldest, darkest time of the year.

A couple at the beach

Potential insurance issues for snowbirds

If you’re among the snowbird population or are planning to join it, you’ll soon be enjoying the opportunity to take part in outdoor recreational activities, such as swimming and golfing. When you walk outdoors in shorts and t-shirts, you’ll undoubtedly smile as you think of friends and family at home tugging on their overcoats, boots, and gloves.

Before you make your trek south it’s important to prepare properly, and that includes reviewing your home insurance requirements and ensuring that your property still has that lived-in look to dissuade burglars.

Large detached home after a snowfall

Once you’ve reviewed your homeowner’s policy, check with your agent if anything is unclear. Given that you’ll be gone for a long period of time, it’s important to proactively prepare for potential problems while you are away.

Most policies require you to have someone make daily visits to your home while you’re away, beginning the day after you leave unless you plan to drain your pipes. The major reason for regular visits is to prevent the damage that can result from the cold and snow.

Most common among these is the water damage from frozen or burst pipes, but roof leaks can also wreak havoc with your home’s interior. Whomever you designate to check your property should be prepared to act if they find a problem. They should also be aware that they could be held liable if they don’t address the problems that arise; the insurance company could sue them.

Given the potential for liability issues, it may be easier to drain your pipes and other water containers, such as hot water heaters and icemakers in the refrigerator. Once you’ve shut off your water, check the pipes to be sure they are drained. Check under the sinks, because the traps—bends in the pipes—are places where water can sit.

However, if there is no water in the traps, there’s a chance that sewer gas can enter your home. It’s best to flush toilets after you shut off the water, leaving a bit of water in the toilet bowls and traps, and then treating the water with marine anti-freeze.

Another concern snowbirds often have when embarking on their new lifestyle is the question of insurance and home vacancy. If you leave for a long period of time, your home is simply unoccupied and your insurance should continue without interruption.

Snowbird’s tips for preventing property damage

When you leave home for a period of time, it’s important to make sure your humble abode doesn’t suffer damage of any kind while you’re away. Take stock of these tips for winterizing your home and keep it safe while you’re soaking up the sunshine.

Off with the water

Burst pipes are the plague of absent homeowners, so take precautions by shutting off the water in your home at the main valve. Next, drain your pipes, sinks, and faucets. Turn on the faucets once the main line is shut off to ensure you have drained them well. You can blow air through the pipes with a compressor to be sure. If you get water from a well, drain the pressure tank too.

Off with the heater

With the water shut off and the supply lines drained, you can safely shut off your water heater and drain it, too. If you have a gas heater, turn it off and shut the gas valve. Electric heaters need to be shut down at the breaker. Once it’s off, you can drain it by opening a spigot or faucet.

Use anti-freeze

Pour anti-freeze into toilet bowls and tanks to keep any remaining water from freezing. Use a non-toxic version that is rated for plumbing systems.

Maintain heat in the home

If you don’t want to drain your pipes, keep your heat on to at least 13 degrees Celsius to keep them from freezing. Keeping interior doors open will help the air to circulate. In addition, shut off water to washing machines and dishwashers to keep the hoses from freezing.

Unplug everything

Don’t leave minor appliances such as radios or lamps plugged into the sockets, even though they are turned off. Even when unplugged, they use power—it’s called phantom power—and can cost you money unnecessarily. You’ll also be reducing fire risk. You may want to clean out your refrigerator and freezer, too, and unplug them.

Get the flue

Be sure to close the flue on your wood-burning fireplace to prevent small animals from sneaking into your home. Wire mesh atop your chimney will keep critters from wintering there. Make certain holes where pipes enter the home are properly sealed, along with the bottom edge of the garage door. There’s no reason to make it easy for animals to nest while you’re gone.

Lock it or lose it

Lock all of your windows and doors, ensuring that they are well secured to prevent break-ins. If a thief finds entry difficult, he or she will often move along to find an easier target.

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Burglary prevention while away

Monitoring a smart home from a tablet outside

An unoccupied home is a temptation to thieves, so it’s important to ensure that your house looks lived in during the months you are away:

Say no to snow

Arrange for a neighbour or local service to shovel your sidewalks and your driveway after any snowfall. Local by-laws generally require sidewalks to be passable and unshovelled driveways are signals to burglars that no one is home.

Lose the letters

Stop your mail for the duration of your trip. The post office will hold your mail for a fee. Ask a neighbour or friend to regularly collect flyers that are delivered. Stop your newspaper delivery during your vacation, too. You don’t want any visible signs that you aren’t home. Forward your mail, stop your newspaper delivery and ask someone to pick up circulars and flyers from your doorstep regularly.

Lock it or lose it

Store any valuable jewellery or papers in a safe or a safety deposit box.

Hide and seek

Move your electronics (computers, televisions, etc.) away from the windows and out of the sightlines of anyone who may be looking through a window. Why dangle temptation?

The answering machine

If you have a telephone land line with an answering machine, be sure that your message states that you are unable to come to the telephone at the moment, NOT that you are away. Pick up messages from your answering machine regularly so no one gets a “voice mailbox is full” message. It’s a clear indicator that no one has been home for a while.

Be alarmed

Consider investing in an alarm system. There are apps that will connect to cameras to allow you to monitor your home remotely. You can also use an app that connects to your home alarm system and alerts you of any changes to the property. If you do use an alarm company, be sure to let them know of your plans and provide contact information. If you will have anyone entering or checking your property regularly, be sure they know how to arm and disarm your alarm system.

Light up the night

Put your motion lights and some indoor lights on timers that are set to go on at different times during the night to give your home that lived-in look. Install automatic timers for a variety of lights and radios or televisions throughout the house to give the impression that people are moving through the building.

Call the police

Many local police forces have a form you can fill out with your departure and arrival dates, allowing them to keep an eye on your home while you’re away and look out for suspicious activity.

Don’t be social

Refrain from posting pictures or information about your vacation on social media. It can signal potential thieves that you are away from home. Save your photos for your return; you can post an album all at once, rather than single photos each day.

Final tips for snowbirds

Before you head out of town, add these other tasks to your list so that your mind is at ease:

Review your insurance.

Check with your insurance company to see if there are any conditions you need to meet under the terms of your policy. You may need to provide contact information and the name of someone local who has keys to your home for emergency purposes.

Be neighbourly

Let trusted neighbours know that you will be out of town and ask them to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Leave a contact number or email with them. Ask a neighbour to periodically leave one of their trash or recycling containers at your home on pickup days.

By taking all these precautions, you can ensure that you won’t spend your warm winter days worrying about your empty home. Enjoy!

Want to learn more? Visit our Homeowner resource centre for more articles created specifically to help you navigate homeownership. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.


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