February is a great month to watch the traditional “Snowbirds” take flight.

Thousands of boomers and seniors, not unlike real migrating birds, will head to warmer environs in recreational vehicles or setup shop in a second home. Retirees, and those quickly getting to the stage where they can work in any place they choose, will pack up their laptops and golf clubs with the hope that their part-time work will not interfere with strategic tee-times.

While that winter life may seem too good to be true, the lifestyle is not just popular among Midwest and East Coast Americans. For example, The Conference Board reported that Canadians, many of them full-time residents of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, spent $537 million in Florida alone during the first three months of last year – an increase of 21 percent from the first quarter of 2002.

Before you, or your parents, hit the road make sure that your family home is prepared for your exodus. For example, before you drive away, double-check to be sure all doors and windows are locked and light timers are set. Make sure you’ve provided relatives or friends with your contact information so you can be reached in an emergency.

Safety and money have become huge domestic issues, especially given the rising cost of insurance policies. Most of the time, claims can be avoided. Insurance companies report that most homeowner claims are not caused by fires or storms, but by neglected maintenance that grows into a larger problem.

Here are a few of the easiest things to help you get your home in shape – that do not take a lot of muscle and elbow grease or significantly delay your expected time of departure:

  • Inspect entry doors and doorframes. External doors should be hinged from the inside, not the outside where burglars can simply un-screw the hinge. Ideally, entry doors should have deadbolt locks. If you have sliding doors, place a bar or wooden dowel in the inside track to supplement the door lock.

  • Use indoor and outdoor lighting as a deterrent. Walk around the perimeter of your home and objectively evaluate its vulnerability. Try to look at it the way an intruder or thief would, and make changes well before you leave town. Replace burned out or dim light bulbs. Re-position security lights so they shine on key areas.

  • Check to make sure all window locks are operable and replace or install any that are lacking or in disrepair.

  • Purchase several interior light timers so you can set lights to come on in different rooms at different times during your absence.

  • The rubber hoses that come with most washing machines eventually leak, and since the laundry room is usually in a low-traffic area of the house, the water damage can go undetected and be extensive. Replace rubber hoses every three years or replace with metal mesh hoses from any hardware or home store.

  • Don’t forget the garage. Check garage doors and windows for security and replace worn or inoperable locks. If the window is bare, install a blind or curtain over the inside so the contents cannot be viewed from outside.

  • Do yard work before you leave. Trim limbs that could be used to access upper windows. Keep hedges neat and pruned. Clean up debris piles and put away ladders and any other equipment you may have left outside. If you have a gasoline container, keep it locked in a shed or garage.

    There’s plenty of free information available about taking care of your home before you take off. For example, the Home Safety Council, a North Wilkesboro, N.C.-based organization focusing on home safety and education, offers useful consumer and insurance tips.

    Remember, if you won’t be back for a while, try to guard against the possibility of returning to a preventable problem. The effort will put more energy into your golf swing.

    Tom Kelly, former real estate editor for The Seattle Times, is a syndicated columnist and talk show host. Send questions and comments to news@tomkelly.com.


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