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Get away from winter — but take steps to protect your home

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published November 19, 2018

METRO DETROIT — Whether traveling for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or getting away for the entire winter season, there is plenty that can be done to protect a home from intruders and Old Man Winter.

St. Clair Shores Community Resource Officer Chad Hammer recommends that residents ask a neighbor or friend to come and check on the home periodically while the residents are away. Making sure the mail is collected and snow is shoveled can go a long way to ensuring that a home looks occupied, he said.

In addition, putting lights inside and outside of the home on timers will make it look like someone is home as well.

State Farm insurance agent Cheryl Gunningham-Kowalczyk, of the Cheryl Kowalczyk Insurance Agency in Roseville, said that technology has improved to help with that. Now, she said, homeowners can turn on lights with the help of digital assistants through apps on their smartphone, even when they’re not at home.

“There’s a lot of new technology that really makes it better,” she said, explaining that apps can control a garage door, lights or even the thermostat while the homeowner is away.

Security cameras can also be accessed from smartphones to give homeowners peace of mind when they are not physically at home.

“This new technology ... anyone who’s going to be away from home for a period of time should invest in that,” she said. “I love that I can see so many things.”

Hammer agreed that having smart doorbells, security cameras or alarm systems is a good idea for those who will be gone for longer periods of time.

Heather Dandy, of InPro Insurance in Troy, said that homeowners can receive discounts on their homeowners insurance if they have a security system or a backup generator, both of which can protect a home. Water damage is the most common claim insurance agents see from homes while the resident is away, she said.

“The No. 1 most common claim I see is water damage from pipe bursts,” she said. “If you’re going to be out of town for an extended period of time ... turn your water off. If you have a faucet on a slow drip, that will help to keep the water” from freezing as well.

Gunningham-Kowalczyk agreed.

“Make sure everything is winterized. Blow out the pipes, make sure the water is out,” she said. “Uncontrolled water leakage will do major damage.”

A backup generator can also help protect a home with a sump pump from water damage that can occur if there is a power outage.

Setting the thermostat lower when the home is unoccupied can save money, but it should be kept at least around 55 degrees to prevent the house from becoming too cold and to prevent pipes from freezing, Dandy said.

In addition, residents in some communities, like St. Clair Shores, can let their local police department know if they are going to be away. Hammer said that his city’s vacation form tells police how long a resident will be away and how they can be contacted if any suspicious activity is reported in their area.

Gunningham-Kowalczyk said that stopping the mail and alerting neighbors to an absence is also a good policy. She said she knew of a homeowner who was away whose mail carrier spotted someone taking appliances out of the garage, and the carrier called police because they knew the residents were not at home.

But while alerting police and neighbors to an absence is a good thing, alerting the internet is not.

“Don’t post on Facebook that you’re gone, or if you do, make sure your privacy settings (are set) so not everyone knows you’re away for the winter,” Gunningham-Kowalczyk said.

Securing valuables and unplugging any appliance or electrical item that doesn’t need to run while the homeowner is away is a good idea. And even though it might seem as if smoke detectors won’t help if a resident can’t hear them, neighbors can still alert the fire department if they hear one sounding, so make sure they are functioning before leaving home.

Along with unplugging things that won’t be used, St. Clair Shores Fire Marshal M. Bodnar said that residents should double-check that there are at least 3 feet between their furnace or hot water heater and anything else that could spark a fire.

Bodnar also said that neighbors are a good resource to let firefighters know if the residents are away or if someone is in the home, or if there is a pet left in the home unattended.

“The one thing I’ve really encountered (to help is a) good neighborhood, good neighbors watching out for your house. If they hear something funny, don’t ignore it — go check it out,” she said.