Owning a vacation house sounds idyllic, but even living in paradise requires preventive maintenance and ongoing care. Help guide your clients on smart planning.
Inside a bright living room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lake

©Werner Straube

Photo courtesy of Morgante Wilson Architects

Three Key Takeaways:

  • Vacation homes are great, but they take work to keep up, and real estate professionals can help prepare their clients.
  • Smart technology makes is easier than ever to monitor important systems
  • Property managers and communities that include maintenance can remove some of the burden from the homeowner

Generally, vacation homes differ from primary residences in one major way: they usually stay vacant for long periods. Not being on the premises regularly can lead to serious problems if preventive measures aren’t in place. Even when homeowners prepare, things happen. Plumbing components go bad. A bad storm causes damage. The fridge dies. Crackers left in cabinets cause an infestation of pests.

With vacation living and renting out houses going into high gear, now's the time for homeowners to do a good check. This particularly applies to first-time investors not aware of all they need to do. “They may not understand the weather in their area, particularly if they haven’t spent time there,” says Diane Saatchi, associate broker at Saunders & Associates on Long Island, N.Y.’s Hamptons area, a popular second home destination.

Few vacation homeowners may think of all the problems that might develop when they don’t occupy their house full-time. Even fewer probably know what to look for and how serious a problem might be.

A key to vacation nirvana is to recommend that homeowners not get caught up in the fantasy of a second home, but consider the essential, non-sexy stuff that requires due diligence such as mechanical systems, roofing, pipes, trees and more, says Brittany Countryman, a broker with Baird & Warner.

Following are steps that help:

Work from a Checklist

These lists are no different than ones that homeowners may use to manage a primary residence. Vacation homeowners will want to pay heed to matters that might arise when they’re not around. Having service professionals in the area that can check on the home, especially during times of inclement weather, is useful. For example, if they own a ski house, and a big snowstorm is expected, a service that will check that no ice dams build up at the roofline or that their driveway is plowed can stave off damage. The same type of care should go into a house in a warm location, which might be prone to hurricane winds and rains. Here, too, they might have someone literally batten up hatches by closing shutters and bringing in outdoor furniture.

In any location there are universal steps to take, says architect John Potter, partner at Morgante Wilson Architects. “If homeowners have a screened porch, they are smart to have storm-sash windows and even shutters to close it off, so when they return it doesn’t need repair,” he says. Or if they want to pare maintenance for more leisure time, they might build or remodel with parts that require less painting and replacement such as composite decking, he says.

Certain systems like heat and water need to be turned off if the homeowner is leaving for an extended period. Timers, for other systems like lighting, make things a little easier, Potter says.

Checklists to keep track of what to do and when to do it are available in varying degrees of detail. A simple Google search with terms like “house maintenance checklists” will turn up many options. Examples can be found at The New York Times, American Family Insurance or Better Homes & Gardens.  

Make Use of Smart Home Tech

Besides heeding the contents of a checklist, homeowners might use smart technology to monitor systems. When connected to the right smart-home devices, apps like Nest and Arlo make it easy to check everything from room temperature to who’s left a package at the door. Tracking home product information and troubleshooting home maintenance are made simple through Househappy and MyCentriq. For systems that require routine maintenance, HomeRoutines comes in handy. Listing all apps in one place on their computer or in a folder on a smart home, plus keeping a list of contractors can save time and angst.

Hire a Property Manager

One solution to routine maintenance and more targeted checks, say, after a storm, is hiring a property manager or watch service, says Angela Graziano, broker at Baird & Warner. In her Florida market, storms may lead to power losses, wind and rain damage, then mold and mildew, she says. Most companies that offer such help provide different plans based on frequency of use, services rendered and square footage.

At Harbor Club South Haven, a resort-style community in South Haven, Mich., sister company Bluewater Vacation Rentals provides a routine/preventive maintenance package, starting from around $50 a month. For the charge, staff changes items like filters and batteries and provides a property security check by visiting homes monthly to be sure appliances and utilities are in working order, says Anthony Loffredo, director of operations for Harbor Club. Some managers perform concierge-type tasks such as stocking a refrigerator before a homeowner returns, Potter says.

Remember Insurance

Homeowner insurance is basically the same whether written on a vacation or primary home, says Diane Williams, an agent with State Farm Insurance, Kingston, N.Y. That said, insurance companies approach coverage on vacation homes differently, so it would be useful to let homeowners know what the process might look like.

Because vacation homes are often left vacant for long periods, there’s a greater risk of a claim. Physical damage may occur without anyone knowing for some time, which could worsen the issue. There’s also more chance of vandalism and break-ins and maybe not a fire or police department near enough to respond fast, Williams says. Because of these factors, most companies insist on a larger mandatory deductible for the home, asking the insured homeowner to carry a higher interest and self-insuring a portion of any claim, she says. On higher-valued homes, companies may require an automatic water alarm that cuts off the home’s water supply at the main source when water is detected, which is something Williams recommends on all second homes. 

In some areas that are prone to inclement weather, like California, Louisiana and Florida, coverage for a second home might be hard to come by or limited. “Be aware,” she says, “some carriers no longer write coverage on second homes due to the exposures.” 

Before They Buy

A vacation home is an investment that’s meant to be enjoyed, Loffredo says. Without the proper knowledge of an area and what’s needed for routine upkeep and maintenance though, a vacation home can become more of a burden than a reprieve.

Some experts recommend potential homeowners rent first to see if travel time appeals, if necessary, if work consumes too much leisure time and if they might prefer to invest in a community where staff handles maintenance when they’re gone. For those who hope to rent out their home, they should check that an HOA or municipality permits doing so and make sure they understand any restrictions.