Murphy's Law for travelers: If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong while you're on vacation -- which is arguably the worst time a household calamity can strike. Coming home from your honeymoon, African safari or Mediterranean cruise can be gloomy. But returning from a memorable journey and learning something has gone seriously wrong at home can be downright devastating.
To make matters worse, a house or apartment left empty while its owners are traveling is a tempting target for criminals. We don't want to scare you -- or leave you fearing for your treasured belongings while basking on a Caribbean beach. But it's imperative that every traveler take certain key steps to keep his or her home safe and sound while seeing the world. Basic preventative measures (which take only minutes to complete) can work wonders to help you avoid power surges, broken pipes, home invasions and more.
A simple, albeit crucial, way to gain peace of mind while traveling is to ask a friend or neighbor to keep an eye on your house while you're away. First, bribe your friend with some freshly baked cookies or cupcakes. Next, ask him or her to drive by your home once every day or so and check on the place. Give this person a key so that he or she can bring your mail in, feed your cat, water your plants, rake your leaves, etc. If you don't use a garage, you may also want to give this person a key to your car -- you never know when your vehicle may need to be moved. He or she should also have your contact information and a copy of your itinerary in case of emergencies.
Do you have more than one person visiting your house while you're away? If so, tell them about each other! If the neighbor you asked to keep an eye on your abode calls the police on your elderly cat sitter, don't say we didn't warn you.
You may want to consider using AWatchfulNeighbor.com, a subscription service that allows anyone who notices anything amiss about your home to notify you, even if you haven't asked them to keep an eye on things. The neighbor contacts the service, which then reaches out to you via phone, text or email. A subscription costs $50 a year.
In a world where it seems everyone is blabbing about their business on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, it's important to stop and think: Who exactly is reading this stuff? The anonymity of the Internet can encourage us to share personal information without fully realizing that there may be hundreds of complete strangers receiving our daily musings. Would you announce to a crowd that you will be leaving your house unattended for two weeks this December? If not, then you should think twice about posting your detailed vacation plans on Twitter or Facebook -- especially if that information is visible to Internet users other than your friends and family (and it probably is).
Be careful what you say on your answering machine or voice mail too. Callers don't need to know that you're not home -- they just need to know that you can't come to the phone right now.
Consider notifying the police if you're going on vacation. No need to let the cops know about a weekend getaway, but do call them if you're leaving town for longer than a week. It's possible the police may go out of their way to drive by your house while on patrol, especially if you live in a small town. If you have a security alarm, leave a house key and the code with someone you trust, and provide the police and alarm company with their name and phone number. You may also want to contact your local neighborhood watch program if there's one in your area.
Before you leave for vacation, you may decide to close your curtains to prevent people from peering inside your home to see whether you're there. However, closed curtains also stop those who aim to help -- the police, your neighbors or friends -- from seeing inside your house. So what's your best bet? Leave your curtains exactly as you usually keep them when you're home, since noticeable changes could hint that you're not around anymore -- especially if your curtains are uncharacteristically left closed for two weeks. Move expensive items, like jewelry or computers, out of plain sight if they're visible from the window.
Don't leave your lights on at home throughout your entire vacation in an effort to make it look like someone is in the house. Your electric bill will end up more costly than your mortgage, and, of course, leaving the lights on is not exactly "green" behavior. Plus, house lights blazing throughout the night might look a bit odd.
Instead, purchase a light switch timer that can turn your lights on and off automatically according to a programmed schedule. Criminals keeping an eye on your house will notice lights flipping on and off, and will probably assume someone is doing the flipping. Nextag.com offers a comprehensive list of light switch timers available online at a variety of price points.
Either place a "stop" order on mail and newspapers (we also recommend this in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel), or arrange to have a friend or neighbor pick up your mail while you're away. Otherwise, a week's worth of papers piled on your front step could signal to criminals that this particular homeowner is out of town. It's easy to put your mail on hold at USPS.com.
If you live in a cold region of the world and your pipes are in danger of freezing during winter, you have another compelling reason to leave a house key with a friend while you're traveling. Ask your friend to stop by and check your faucets. If he or she turns on a faucet and only a few drops of water come out, your pipes may be frozen.
Take other precautions like making sure your pipes are properly insulated or keeping your heat on while you're away. Show your key-bearing companion the location of the water main shut-off in case a pipe breaks.
Unplug your television, computer, toaster oven and other appliances to protect them from power surges. Do this to save power as well. According to the Consumer Energy Center, many appliances use power even when they're turned off.
That plastic rock isn't fooling anyone. If a criminal figures out you're away on vacation, it's likely that he or she will check your porch for a spare key. So reach under the mat, into the mailbox, above the door frame or into the flower pot and remove your spare key before you leave on your vacation.
--written by Caroline Costello