As Canadians anticipate spending the next few months knee-deep in snow and freezing temperatures, it’s likely that some residents in your condo community will be spending some of their winter in a warmer climate. Their departure might be difficult on friends and neighbours, but the impact on your condo corporation can be even more challenging if these “snowbirds” haven’t properly prepared their units for their time away.
The risks to your community are certainly greater in condominiums and townhomes where units share common walls. However, issues that occur because a single-family unit is vacant can also lead to problems in other parts of the community. And no matter what kind of unit is left vacant, damage that renders it unlivable is bad news for everyone’s property values.
Your board can help to prevent potential problems by providing a list of steps that snowbirds should follow before they leave. Since you may not be aware of all the residents who plan to be away for an extended period, it’s a good idea to send out this list to everyone in the community. A professional property management company can be a big help in getting the word out effectively.
Here are the 10 items you should include:
1. Take care of preventative maintenance before you leave.
The kind of units in your community will determine what kind of maintenance may be required. For example, unit owners may need to:
- Trim branches that could be hazardous or disruptive in a storm.
- Inspect the roof, and make any necessary repairs.
- Check heating systems.
- Clean out gutters.
- Install storm windows.
- Remove and/or cover outdoor furniture.
- Cover outdoor plants.
- Repair holes, weather stripping and windows.
- Close the windows and doors fully.
- Insulate exposed pipes.
- Turn off water supply to the unit.
2. Arrange to stop, change, continue or start services.
Residents should discontinue services such as newspaper delivery while they are gone and should have postal mail forwarded to their winter home. They should also verify that needed services, such as fuel delivery, will continue during their absence. If snow removal is the responsibility of individual homeowners, ensure that they make arrangements in advance to have someone plow or shovel after each snowfall.
3. Take measures to deter pests.
Rodents and insects are all too happy to make themselves at home during a resident’s long absence. These critters can quickly become a nuisance for other residents, too. Encourage departing homeowners to:
- Remove perishables and open containers of food.
- Discard trash and clean trash cans.
- Store dry goods in sealed containers.
- Vacuum floors and clean countertops to remove crumbs and other spilled food.
- Store linens in boxes and place cedar in closets and drawers.
- Close fireplace flues.
4. Set your thermostat to 18 degrees Celsius.
Brian Shedden, BSSO, principal at Entuitive, a multinational consulting engineering firm, says that one of the biggest issues his company sees with unit owners who go away is that they either turn off their heat entirely or they turn it down too low. “They might lower the thermostat to 10 degrees Celsius thinking that is well above freezing,” he says, “but that’s only at the point where the thermostat is measuring the temperature.”
He explains that the temperature in other areas of the unit – such as at the base of a wall, within a wall or in a basement – may actually dip below freezing, especially during a cold snap. This can lead to serious flooding problems if pipes freeze and burst. (Read more
about how to protect pipes.)
5. Unplug appliances – but leave your electricity turned on.
Items that can pose a fire hazard, such as toasters, computers, televisions and microwaves, should be unplugged during a long absence. However, it’s generally not a good idea to shut off the power entirely. Shedden warns that residents often don’t realize that their heating system has components that depend on electricity even if they don’t use electric heat. For example, in a home that has its own furnace, electricity is needed to keep the furnace fan functioning. “Without the furnace fan running, a unit can freeze,” he says.
6. Prevent intruders.
Timers that are set to turn on lights can help make a home appear occupied. In some cases, it may also make sense for homeowners to install motion detection lights, as well as an alarm system that enables home monitoring from a smart phone.
7. Verify insurance coverage.
For their own protection, as well as for the protection of other residents in the community, it’s important for residents who will be away to check that their unit owner’s insurance provides the right coverage and that their premiums are paid up. Insurance policies often contain a clause that may void or limit coverage should the unit be unoccupied for a period of time. The unit owner should review their policy and talk to their broker to ensure they comply with the coverage requirements.
8. Ask someone to keep an eye on your home.
The best way for absent residents to ensure that their homes remain safe and problem-free is to have a family member, friend or trusted neighbor check in periodically. Besides taking care of minor upkeep, like watering plants, a regular visitor will quickly notice any problems and be able to alert the homeowner.
9. Tell your board or community manager that you’ll be away.
Surprisingly, many people fail to inform their board or community manager when they plan to be gone for an extended period of time. It’s important for the board to be aware of absences and to have a forwarding address where a resident can receive important letters and notices.
10. Stay connected with your community.
It’s easy for community members who are away to feel left out of activities back home. A community website that is available anytime, from anywhere, can go a long way in helping them stay informed about community business, as well as social events. A good property management software program will also enable board members, residents and the community manager to reach out to each other directly – another way in which out-of-town homeowners can stay connected with the community.