How to keep your home safe while you travel

Crime, News

Many homeowners are packing their bags for spring break, or planning summertime getaways as the end of the school year approaches. But while you’re trying to unwind, it can be hard to shake the nagging feeling that your home isn’t quite safe while you’re away.

One solution is to hire a house sitter to watch over your home, feed your pets and ensure nothing goes wrong while you’re out of touch. But does hiring a sitter to watch over your home while you’re on vacation involve any kind of liability?

House sitters and liability

One risk of owning a home is potential property damage, particularly damage caused by a house fire. Your cat might knock over a candle arrangement; your house sitter might leave something on the stove and fall asleep. If something like this happens and a fire gets out of control, damaging the property of your neighbors, could you be held liable? At least one attorney says yes.

Laurence Borten says the homeowner could be liable if the sitter starts a fire doing something in the course of his work.

Attorney Thomas Holman adds, “Since an employee is regarded as acting within the scope of his employment, the employer need not have foreseen the precise act or the exact manner of an injury as long as the general type of conduct may have been reasonably expected.” So, if the sitter was living in the house and had full use of everything the homeowner would have accessed while staying there, a chimney fire started during use of the fireplace or a grease fire started in the kitchen, for example, might very well create a liability for the homeowner even if the sitter did nothing wrong.

For this reason, if you are going on an extended vacation and hiring a sitter to watch your house, you might restrict the use of certain amenities or features, such as the fireplace, or take reasonable measures to ensure nothing can go wrong, such as clean the chimney before you depart. Still, no matter how prepared you are, there is always some risk involved.

Attorney Russell Dombrow has a different take. Dombrow says the homeowner can file an insurance claim, in which case the insurance company would likely go after the sitter for damages.

No matter the circumstances, if there is significant damage or personal injury, it is possible a neighbor could sue for compensation. Your best bet is to take some precautionary measures before leaving town.

Pre-vacation protective steps

Aside from understanding liability issues associated with a house sitter, you should take measures to protect your home from other threats, such as burglary and maintenance issues. Here are some things to think about before you leave:

  • Have the chimney cleaned.
  • Have the post office hold your mail so it doesn’t pile up, a sure sign that no one has been home for weeks.
  • If you are not hiring a sitter, give a key to a neighbor or family member and have them check on your home every couple days. Many insurance companies require this in their policies.
  • Take an inventory of your home and save the list in the cloud so you can access it in case of emergency while you’re away.
  • Install a home monitoring system that will notify the local authorities in the event of a break-in.
  • Smart technology allows homeowners to be notified when unexpected incidents, such as power outages, occur. Many smart home systems can text you to keep you informed. There are even mobile apps like Ring Video Doorbell that let you speak to people at your door while you are away.
  • Set lights and electronics, such as TVs and radios, on a timer so it appears that someone is home during prime-time hours. Unplug other appliances that will not be used while you’re away.
  • Clean out the tool shed before you leave and remove all combustibles. Use them or store them at someone else’s home while on vacation.
  • Finally, let your home security company or, depending on your town, the local police know you’ll be away and for how long.

What to do if your house is burglarized

If your home is broken into while you are away, call the police and file a report as soon as you know — even if you are still on vacation. Next, call your insurance company and file a claim.

Have a friend or relative go to the house and check your belongings against your home inventory list, but make sure they don’t clean up anything until the insurance adjuster has visited. If you have security cameras or other home monitoring devices installed, ensure the insurance company and police department can access them as they investigate.