Maintaining your loved one’s vacant house

7 min read

Tips for keeping the house secure and in good shape

  • Make sure any existing issues are addressed, and that the house is protected against damage from weather and cold.

  • Lock it up tight, maintain or install a security system, and take measures to make sure the house does not look vacant.

  • Some utilities can be canceled, but keep any needed to maintain the house current.

  • You may need to buy a special vacant-home insurance policy to keep the house insured.

When a loved one passes away, their house is often the most important and valuable thing they leave behind. When this happens, the question of whether to keep the house or sell it becomes very important to many families. This is often a source of tension for families, and it can take time to decide what is right for the estate and the wishes of everyone involved.

While you and your family deliberate about what to do—or if you have decided to sell the house but do not want to do it right away—the house typically sits empty and unoccupied. If your loved one’s home is an apartment in a building or complex, it may be relatively easy to let it remain empty without much upkeep. But leaving a whole house unoccupied for any significant period of time can lead to complications down the line, if you are not diligent about maintaining it. 

Plenty of things can go wrong in a vacant house, and the longer you leave it unoccupied, the higher your chances of having to deal with trouble.

Take stock 

As you clear your loved one’s things out of the house, it is a good idea to walk around the property with a notepad and make note of any issue that may pose a problem down the line. For instance, is there a crack in the wall that has gotten worse recently? Is a tree growing out of control? Did your loved one have problems with pests? Are there damaged pipes? 

Understanding potential issues will help you figure out which experts you need to consult (arborist, plumber, etc.) to address problems that may get worse as you wait for the property to sell. 

Even if you don't get around to doing this when you are clearing the house, you should definitely make sure to remove any food items and perishables to avoid attracting any rodents or pests. 

Think about the weather

If your loved one lived in an area with colder winter temperatures or a lot of rainfall, you will need to pay attention to the issues bad weather can bring. Cold months are when a house is the most susceptible to environmental damage, as it runs the risk of frozen pipes, heating systems breaking down, and potential water damage from rain or snow. 

If you know that your loved one’s house may fall prey to these fixable yet burdensome issues, particularly if the house will be sitting vacant through the winter, consider calling a plumber or electrician to preemptively address any problem. To avoid burst pipes, it is a good idea to shut off all the water in the house at the main stopcock, and/or make sure the heat in the house stays above 55 degrees, with all interior doors open and all windows and exterior doors sealed. If you can see any leaks or places where water may get in, make sure these are repaired quickly to prevent further damage.

On the other hand, warm months are when a house is the most likely to grow mold due to humidity. If you’ve noticed mold, you will want to stop its growth as quickly as possible; depending on the source of the issue, a plumber or mold remediation professional will be able to help you.

Consider safety

An unoccupied house is a prime target for trespassers and burglars. Even if the house sits empty, you want to make sure it looks occupied enough to dissuade individuals from breaking in. The security of the property is even more critical should you decide to let your loved one’s assets remain in the house before their redistribution to beneficiaries or in anticipation of a sale. 

First of all, lock all the doors and any accessible windows. This may seem like an obvious step, but it is easily forgettable if you have a lot on your mind. Also consider installing security cameras if your loved one didn’t have them, or make sure to gain access to their existing security system if they did, transferring the account into your name and keeping up with any fees.

The best things you can do to make a house look occupied are to leave a light or two on, to make sure no mail accumulates at the doorstep, and to maintain the garden and any landscaping. While not foolproof, these will make most potential thieves bypass the property.

Avoid mail accumulation by having your loved one’s mail forwarded to someone else’s address—preferably the executor or administrator of the estate, so that all estate-related correspondence and paperwork stays in their possession. 

If your loved one had a gardener or landscaper who came to the house regularly, make sure to maintain this service and transfer the account into your name. Otherwise, consider hiring such a service. Not only will this prevent the home from looking vacant, but it can go a long way toward maintaining the overall look and thus the resale value of the property.

Don’t forget the utilities

You might think about canceling all utilities since no one is in the house. However, heat and electricity will need to stay on to keep the pipes from freezing, the lights on, and the security system online. Many other utilities may be canceled, such as phone or wifi service, but consider carefully about others. For example, if there is no garbage being generated at the property you might be able to cancel pickup, but be careful that this does not mean landscaping or maintenance trash could pile up. 

It is also a good idea to inform the neighbors that the house is unoccupied and give them your number.

Plan check-ins

The most important way to make sure the property is well-maintained is to check on it regularly, though this may be difficult if you do not live in the same city. In this case, consider asking neighbors you knew your loved one trusted and was friendly with, relatives who live close by, or friends of yours who live in the area. 

It is also a good idea to inform the neighbors that the house is unoccupied and give them your number so that they know to call you should they witness any suspicious activity after you have left. 

If nobody is available to check in on the house, you may want to hire the services of a house sitter, or hire a cleaning service to both do regular house cleanings and alert you to any issues.

Make sure you’re insured

It is likely that your loved one had homeowners insurance. However, not all insurance policies apply to unoccupied homes. 

When you contact the insurance company your loved one had their policy with to inform them of their death, they will often leave the policy open for a certain period to allow you or the new homeowner to take out a new one in their own name.

However, this period may not extend as long as you need, and if the house sits empty for more than 30 days, your loved one’s home insurance will generally no longer apply. To find out what the policy stipulates, either look through the original contract or ask when you get in touch with the insurance company. 

If your loved one’s insurance company does not automatically cover the time you need, you can request coverage for the interim. They may allow the policy to be extended under the executor’s name as long as you stay current with the premiums. However, you may have to buy a new policy for the probate period—and if the house will be unoccupied, they will likely require you to buy a special vacant-home policy that will cover the property in the event of a fire, flood, storm, break-in, and more. 

Maintaining your loved one’s vacant home can seem like a big task and a lot of expense. Try to take it one step at a time, ask the family to pitch in, and remember that all the costs incurred will, in most cases, come out of the estate. Taking small steps to ensure the safety of your loved one’s property will help give you and your family the necessary peace of mind to make decisions about what will happen to the house next.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.