As former expats, we used to leave our home unoccupied for many months at a time, so I thought I’d share some tips for preparing your home before vacation. These tips are based on things we sometimes learned the hard way.

Whenever we leave for trips now, we have a checklist we run through. But we’ve also set up our house and everything inside to survive while we’re gone.

1. Alert The Alarm Company

Letting the alarm company know that no one is home prompts a quicker response, as they’ll usually dispatch police immediately instead of calling you at home first. Plus, if you’re traveling out of the country, you should leave them a local contact in case they need to get into the house or have trouble contacting you.

2. Consider Opening Closet Doors

This is especially important if you don’t have central heating and air to keep airflow moving while you’re gone. Closets that seal tightly may develop a musty smell.

3. Consider Shade Plants & General Watering

If you’re the type of person who closes the blinds when you leave on vacation for long periods of time, consider shade plants. Honestly, a lot of your house plants are probably shade plants anyway.

Here’s a good list (click to see):

Shade-loving house plants with flowers:

  • Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids)
  • Flame violet (episcia cupreata ‘silver skies’)
  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum)
  • Thanksgiving cactus (schlumbergera truncata)

Shade-loving indoor palm trees:

  • Sentry palm, Kentia palm, paradise palm (howea forsteriana)
  • Burmese fishtail palm (caryota mitis)
  • Parlor palm, dwarf mountain palm, good luck palm, Neanthebella palm, table palm (chamaedorea elegant)
  • Lady palm (rhapis excelsa)

Indoor plants for shade with gorgeous leaves:

  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema commutatum)
  • Coleus (solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Wizard Mix’)
  • Snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue (sansevieria trifasciata ‘golden hahnii’) — really any snake plant
  • Prayer plant (maranta leuconeura ‘erythroneura’)
  • Dumbcane, tuftroot (dieffenbachia amoena)
  • Fancy-leaved caladium (Caladium bicolor)
  • Wandering jew, silvery inch plant, zebra plant (tradescantia zebrina)
  • Peacock plant, cathedral window (calathea makoyana)
  • Philodendron (philodendron ‘xanadu’)

Shade-loving indoor ferns and ivy:

  • Asparagus fern, foxtail asparagus, emerald feather (asparagus densiflorus ‘myers’)
  • Common maidenhair fern, southern maidenhair fern, Venus maidenhair fern, Venus’ hair fern (adiantum capillus-veneris)
  • English ivy, Baltic ivy (hedera helix)
Shade Houseplants: Snake Plant
Snake plant: Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

4. Use Plants to Help Clean Stale Indoor Air

Did you know that NASA commissioned a two-year study on how to clean the air in space stations with house plants? I stumbled upon this information while researching how to maintain a healthy home. Plants in space—how cool is that?

NASA discovered that some houseplants clean air by absorbing carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen, and eliminating significant amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other chemicals. These are common houseplants that can help keep your house fresh while it’s closed up. You’ll see some crossover with the list above.

  • Snake plant
  • Peace lily
  • Boston fern
  • Gerbera daisy or Barberton daisy (yay, color!)
  • Red-edged dracaena
  • Pot mums (indoor Chrysanthemums)
  • Aloe (not on the NASA list but easy to grow and has some air filtering properties)
  • Lady palms
  • Golden pothos
  • Philodendrons

NASA recommends using 15-18 house plants (that live in 6-8-inch containers) in an 1800-square-foot home.

Find out which indoor plants clean air like pothos and snake plant pictured here.

5. Clean Your Garbage Disposal

While this is in line with keeping your kitchen clean, cleaning the garbage disposal is so important that it deserves its own mention. Sometimes, we forget about what we can’t see. There might be eggshells or orange peels that haven’t been flushed away. Do you know who will find them? Ants and flies.

If you’ve been gone for a while, you might come home to a foul odor. Before you head out the door, flush the garbage disposal with distilled white vinegar and water while letting it run for a minute or so.

6. Unplug Small Appliances

Why pay for electricity when you’re not using it? Even your coffee maker and phone suck up a little power when not in use. Plus, there’s something mentally freeing knowing that only necessary items are still plugged in.

7. Stop All Newspapers and Mail

Despite many things going digital, we live in a place where advertisements and local papers are occasionally tossed on the driveway. If you live in La Jolla, I’ve successfully stopped the La Jolla Light and the La Jolla Village News while gone. Stop your main newspaper subscription and these unless you have a dutiful neighbor to pick them up.

8. Adjust The Thermostat

Even in temperate Southern California, having a high and low range set on the thermostat is beneficial even when you leave. Certain woods can’t tolerate extreme heat and humidity, and you’d be doing them and who knows what else a disservice by making the home a sweatbox.

However, USA TODAY reports that every degree you can turn up the thermostat saves 2% on your bill.

9. Set Your Water Heater

Experts don’t recommend turning off your water heater. However, most new ones are equipped with vacation mode. Put the water heater in vacation mode, or if you don’t have that, dial the temperature down a few degrees to save energy. Your manual should have recommended settings.

10. Address Standing Toilet Water

I’ve never done this, but I have recently read that adding 1/2 cup of chlorine to the toilet bowl will prevent the ring that sometimes occurs from standing water. Maybe give this a go.

11. Leave Lights On?

I would say do what you feel comfortable with in this regard. Some experts say that leaving lights on a timer in the same place at the same time every night signals that you are not home. The best thing to do is have a neighbor switch on alternate lights for you.

Now, I’m not sure that’s realistic to ask someone to do. We leave lights on a timer and use our smart home app to control them.

12. Check The Irrigation

Our irrigation is timed to run before the sun rises, so we don’t always see obvious leaks. Run it before you leave in broad daylight and walk around the house to ensure no leaks. If you are gone for an extended period, have your gardener check whenever they come.

Trust me, trying to coordinate with a gardener from overseas to fix a sprinkler-turned-geyser is not easy.

13. Mute Your Phone’s Ringer

If you live in a condo complex or close quarters to other people, mute the ringer on your phone so that people can’t hear it ring multiple times, signaling that you aren’t home.

14. Do A Faucet Check

Before heading out the door, make sure that no faucet is dripping. Drips over the course of a few weeks are incredibly wasteful, especially in areas where water is scarce. Not to mention if could add a few unnecessary extra dollars to your water bill.

15. Use Apps

In the absence of more high-tech cameras with night vision that is accessible from your smartphone, there are a number of apps that can assist with monitoring your home while gone.

With the Presence app you can turn an old iPhone or iPad into a home security camera and monitor the live feed from your phone. If movement is detected, the app will ping you. The iCam app does pretty much the same thing but uses your computer’s webcam.

16. Leave The Kitchen Clean

We once came home to a bug problem after I hastily put away “clean” dishes from the dishwasher. Gunk had been left on a pan and a cutting board from eco-friendly detergent that wasn’t powerful enough for our needs and we paid the price. I went back to conventional detergent.

We also have a lot of displayed glassware that gets gunky after the house is closed. Several times a year, I run it all through the dishwasher. It’s a true story.

17. Check Your Cameras and Smart Home Apps

If you have battery-operated outdoor cameras, charge them. Update relevant apps for monitoring and ensure that your smart home is connected properly.

How else do you keep your home safe while traveling?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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