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Avoiding a House Disaster

There's a lot to think about when you go out of town: stopping the paper, finding a neighbor to pick up the mail, leaving just the right number of lights on in the house. But no matter how hard you plan, it seems that Murphy's Law likes to give us a nudge whenever we're too far away to do anything about it. The Savvy Traveler's Judie Fein learned this lesson the hard way.

Avoiding a House Disaster
by Judie Fein

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Dear Rudy,

Everyone says it's so cool. My husband and I are moving into a local hotel. They're thinking: romance, valets, porters, daily maid service. I'm thinking: this is a huge pain in my derriere. Why are we are moving into a hotel? Because while we were in New Zealand, having a wonderful and exotic time, we got an emergency phone call telling us that our house had flooded. It wasn't an act of God. It was a dumb, dried-out plastic washing machine hose. Actually, it turns out they need replacing every two to three years, and your machine doesn't even have to be on for the hose to explode.


It was sort of hard to enjoy climbing glaciers and paddling along private rivers in kayaks when we were wondering if our books were floating through the hallways and if our one decent rug looked like a bathmat.

At this moment, you are probably afraid to go on your dream trip to Bora Bora, but since we're Savvy Traveler buddies, I did some research for all of us on ways to avoid dreaded disasters in your home while you're on the road. So you already know about the washing machine hose. A plastic one will set you back $8 bucks and a braided steel one, which is the Ferrari of hoses, is about $l2 dollars. It will save you the aggravation of a lifetime. You can change the hose yourself, or get your husband or boyfriend to do it. You don't even need a plumber, although ours, whose name is Charley Druysdale, has this handy advice about another potential calamity: your water heater.

Druysdale: "Water heaters leak. What I recommend, if you leave for more than a week, is to turn it to pilot. Leakage will only be the amount stored."

Charlie has some more cold weather advice:


Druysdale: "You can turn your water off. You have to remember to disconnect your hose. Most frost-free hydrants are only frost-free if you disconnect the hose. Most wall hydrants have a little decal on them that says Remove hose or faucet may freeze and burst."

I ask Charlie what he would do if he wanted to protect his home and his peace of mind while he was surfing in Hawaii. He targets the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Druysdale: "If it was my home, these would be the places I'd turn off: the ice-maker supply line and close the washer supply line."

If you can bear the mundane task of checking your toilet before you board a jet, Charley recommends that you lift the lid and make sure the water isn't above the level of the overflow, which is the little tube. He suggests it should be at least half an inch under the little sucker.


Believe it or not, when it came to the dread task of of dealing with the insurance company, we got a friendly claims adjuster. Dan Daniel's seen a lot of this kind of thing, and he agreed to give some preventive maintenance advice. He says that you should put your photo albums on high ground, not an inch off the floor like ours were. Imagine what your cherished travel photos would look like if they were blotched and waterlogged.

Speaking of photos, it's a good idea to take pictures of your artwork and valuables when you buy them. You can also photograph your furniture and the walls of each room. Dan tells us about a woman whose home was destroyed by fire when she was on a trip. She had no record of her belongings.

Daniel: "I had a woman yesterday who said she walked into her bedroom, closed her eyes, went to one corner and visualized what had been there before to begin to make a list. That's all you can do."


Dan echoes Charlie's advice by reminding travelers to turn off the water if they're going to be away for more than two weeks. And leave the heat on to 50 degrees so the pipes won't freeze. Notify the security company that you're going away, and turn off the pilot light on your gas stove. And of course, the most important thing of all:

Daniel: "Let a neighbor know -- someone you trust. Leave a phone number and how to reach you. Things are going to happen when you're away from home. If you hadn't had someone watching your house, the water would have ran (sic) for two weeks and no one would have seen it."

Now he tells me.

Well, Rudy, better to learn later than never to learn at all. Now excuse me while I schlep my belongings to a hotel room.


Savvy Resources for Avoiding a House Disaster:

Consumer Insurance Guide
Basic guidelines for home insurance

Consumer Information Center
Federal consumer publications on housing including home maintenance, insurance and keeping your home safe

Federal Emergency Management Agency

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