Whether a loved one has died or needs to transition to a different living space, deciding what to do with the newly vacant house often gets pushed to the back burner. That’s understandable. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of going through a parent’s possessions or by the complications of dividing up a family legacy. There could also be legal entanglements if siblings disagree on what to do with the property, or if the estate gets stuck in probate.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that with every day that the house is left unoccupied, the surface area of your potential risk grows, especially if you don't have vacant house insurance. This is one reason we advocate selling houses as quickly as possible. Unoccupied or vacant houses can create issues that need to be considered—and addressed—as quickly as possible.
Most burglaries happen during the daytime—between 10am and 3pm, to be exact. Why? Because burglars prefer to work when houses are empty, and that’s when most people are at work. So if the furnishings are still in place, an unoccupied home becomes a prime target for break-ins, leaving valuables and family heirlooms at risk.
Empty houses are notorious for attracting vandals, from teenagers looking for a place to hangout at night to taggers looking for a fresh canvas for their graffiti. The ensuing damage could easily cost thousands of dollars to repair. Vacant houses are also a popular choice for arsonists.
When no one is living in a house, a pinhole leak in the hot water tank can turn into a flood in just a few days, damaging floors, walls and even joists. Then there’s the $1,000 water bill you could be stuck with.Nuisance ordinancesAfter the housing crisis of 2007 left neighborhoods across the country pitted with empty houses, more towns and communities used nuisance ordinances to make absentee homeowners liable for the upkeep on their properties. Even if your town doesn’t have an ordinance, it’s still up to you to take care of the house and its surroundings to maintain property values.
This is the biggest risk of all, and one that we find many people don’t understand. Not every policy includes vacant house insurance. It is critical to consult with your insurance company to understand what coverage you do and don’t have.
With many homeowner policies, a vacancy of more than 60 days triggers a host of exclusions and restrictions. For example, any damage caused by broken windows and/or vandalism won’t be covered in many policies - in this case, if vandals end up burning the house down, you wouldn’t be covered. Similarly, if a property has been vacant for more than 60 days before an event, most insurance won’t cover water damage or theft.
And in many cases, after 60 days of vacancy the insurance coverage on the house can be canceled. Given that it can take up to 60 days for an estate to be even settled (clearing the way for a sale) keeping the vacant house any longer than necessary opens the executor and/or the estate up a whole host of liabilities.
Even if you have an umbrella policy to cover yourself, it may not cover an injury that occurred in a vacant home. Of course, you could challenge the insurance company in court, but chances are you’d rack up more in legal fees than you would ever recover. For professional contractors doing any type of work in the home, we strongly recommend having a contract in place that keeps liability on the books of the service provider and not on the estate.
Because of the vagaries of insurance coverage and the heightened risk created by an empty house, we always recommend that executors (or any family member who takes on the responsibility of an unoccupied house) ask their insurance company for complete details on existing coverage, and options that might be available to put coverage in place until a sale. Take the steps necessary to safeguard this valuable asset in order to protect your family’s legacy.