Listing a home that is vacant over the winter months can bring some additional challenges to sellers and listing agents. One of the most important things is to not turn off the heat and also don’t turn it down too low. Water freezes at 32° F (0° C) so it’s best to not turn the heat down below, say, 60° F.
Over the years, I’ve walked into many vacant homes in the winter to inspect them only to find the heat turned off or set to 50° F. Night time temperatures reaching into the 20s can sometimes result in plumbing issues since the low heat setting and closed bathroom and kitchen cabinet doors prevent the little heat that remains in the home from reaching the exposed plumbing below the sinks. The basement will most often colder than the rest of the home and this is where most of the home’s plumbing is exposed. This can lead to partially or totally frozen plumbing. This, of course, can require parts of the home’s plumbing to be replaced. When temperatures warm up slightly again, this can lead to the previously frozen and damaged pipe to now leak. Sometimes unknown for a week or so, this can lead to extensive damage over a period of time in a vacant home.
Also, disconnecting hoses from exterior hose bibs (faucets, spigots, hydrants, etc.. whatever you want to call them) is also wise. A hose connected to even a frost-free hose bib in freezing temperatures can still potentially cause damage to the hose or the hose bib if there is water in the hose. If you don’t have frost-free hose bibs, most homes have shutoff valves for these exterior faucets inside the basement. Winterizing the home’s plumbing is also an option. This entails draining all water from the supply plumbing (including draining and turning off the water heater, too) and using compressed air to get rid of any remaining water in the lines. Anti-freeze is added to drains. This, of course, presents an issue when showings or inspections occur as most prospective home buyers will want to check out the water flow or pressure. Also, the home’s plumbing system need to be fully operable before the home inspection occurs. As listed on the PA sales agreement, the seller is responsible for having all of the home's systems/appliances operational prior to the inspection.
Besides the obvious potential damage to the home, a vacant home with no heat running or at a low setting isn’t pleasing to potential home buyers coming through for an open house or showing. The first impression may be that the home isn’t comfortable and we all know that first impressions of a potential home buyer are lasting ones. Do you want to potentially lose a potential buyer simply because their first impression of the home was an unwelcoming one since it’s so cold inside?
Keeping the heat running at a reasonable temperature will help save some money on heating costs yet help minimize damage to the home. Since the heat will be running a lot more in the winter, having the heating system professionally serviced beforehand is also wise. All manufacturers of furnaces, boilers, and heat pumps recommend annual professional clean/service. This helps ensure the unit is running at its peak efficiency and is doing so safely. As part of a home inspection, the inspector will also report on the presence of recent service records for the central heating and cooling systems anyways. Having service records available to show that the heating/cooling system has been professionally serviced annually helps put the buyer’s mind at ease that the seller took care of the home. So, having the HVAC system serviced before winter has multiple benefits.
In homes that have window A/C units installed, removing and storing these units before cold weather hits is also a good idea. Most window A/C units don’t properly seal the window opening so cold air can easily enter the home around the window unit’s perimeter.
Since winter also means shorter days, having lamps on timers operating at various times through the evening may help deter burglars. We often hear of vacant homes being broken into so copper pipes can be stolen. Also, picking up newspapers or other materials left in the driveway is also wise. If it snowed recently and the snow remains in the driveway or there are no tire-tracks in the driveway, each are a sure-sign to a crook that the home is vacant possibly presenting an invitation. It’s a good idea to periodically (such as weekly, if possible) stop by the home just to make sure nothing is awry.
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© 2020 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), and an electrical engineer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.