Before You Go

Updated 1/3/2016 (fixed broken links and lots of added info)

We've been down the ICW six times now and have left the house vacant for 9 months at a time. There are some things you can do to make life easier while on your boat so I thought I would list what we've found helpful over the years.

1 - Automate your bills
We have our mail forwarded to my son who then will periodically send them along to one of our stops at a marina. I haven't found a marina yet that wouldn't accept mail for transients, however, it's easier to pay the bills automatically. You can arrange to have companies (electric, phone, internet, fuel oil, etc.) automatically deduct their payment from either your checking account or charge your credit card - all automatically with no further action required on your part. Furthermore, be sure to set up a bill pay account with your local bank where you can enter a bill and have a check sent for payment, no check writing required (and no 1st class stamp either) for those cases where automatic payment doesn't work.

2 - Use Quicken for financial records
Quicken will communicate with all your financial institutions (banks, brokerage, credit cards, etc.) and download the data to your laptop - all with one tap on the Update button. This greatly simplifies keeping track of your financial situation while cruising. They now have a app for the iPad that allows access to all the accounts you've set up on your laptop. It will automatically download to the iPad all the latest banking data so you'll know the current amounts in all your accounts.

3 - Enroll in TaxResources
So you're in a remote anchorage somewhere down the ICW and in the course of conversation with your son you hear that a letter from the IRS arrived a few days ago. From past experience I know that the reply is time limited so you arrange for a mail drop. Now, you need all your tax records (softcopies from tax software, TurboTax in my case) and have to decide how to respond, that's the easy part. If you want to dispute the audit you are now in a communication loop via mail - difficult while going down the ICW.

With a tax audit service such as Tax Resources, you never communicate directly with the IRS, the audit service handles all communications and will work with you via e-mail and phone and answers all the mail questions sent by the IRS. I've had two tax audits. In the first case I made a mistake which the IRS thought resulted in me owing them money. During the tax audit it came out that the error was in my favor and the IRS owed me money! It took two years (!!) for me to collect from the IRS. There were multiple court appearances and one court letter written to the IRS to complain about harassment and I even received a letter of apology from the IRS. Through all of this I was never involved directly with the IRS, the audit service did all the work. In the second case, the IRS claimed the deduction for interest on my boat loan was not valid as a second home. I just handed all documentation off to the audit service and they talked to the IRS and I won the case. The audit service coverage is the best money I've ever spent ($35 at the time)!

4 - Install Home Webcams
When away from home, I like to check in every once in awhile to see how things are at home (driveway plowed so the fuel truck can get in, any packages delivered in error to home address, any trees down, etc.) Nothing beats having a few webcams scattered around the house with views of the driveway, backyard, backporch and a few inside the house. The IP type of webcams are relatively inexpensive and only require a WiFi connection. They do not require a PC to be running.

The ones I use are from Trendnet which has several models. The basic one which is fine for home use is TV-IP551W, look for it on sale. They can also take a snapshot whenever motion is detected in their field of view and upload it to a website of your choosing. We used it when our kitchen was being remodeled while we were away and conferred with our contractor in real-time, he pointed the camera while we talked over the phone. Caution, these things are not simple to set up - doable but not simple. I published a guide which can be downloaded here. Most window OS's and some virus programs will give you a warning about the file. Rest assured it's safe, the warnings are just reacting to the many embedded links in the Words file so the reader can find the material needed to install the cameras without having to cut and paste URLs.

5 - Install an Home Security System
Even though I have installed webcams, I still like having a security system that's monitored 24/7 for intrusion. I've included a house temperature alarm so I will get a call if the temperature drops below 50 during the winter (furnace failed to start up, happened twice so far in five years).

6 - Antifreeze Your Furnace
I know of two instances where friends have come home to a flooded basement and water all over the house after a power outage in the winter. They had baseboard water heating and the pipes burst when the house temperature dropped below freezing during a power outage and then flooded the house when the power came back on and water pressure was restored.  What a mess! I had my system converted to antifreeze by my local oil dealer, no more worries about burst heating pipes!

7 - Turn Off Your Water
Having antifreeze in your water heating lines won't prevent burst pipes in your hot and cold water lines unless you turn off your water and drain the lines. So I had valves installed to turn off water and I also turn off the well pump when we leave so if that bursts the basement won't fill up with well water.

Also turn off the supply water separately to your dishwasher, washing machine and refrigerator. These three appliances usually have one way solenoid valves. That means they open via a solenoid but depend upon external water pressure to close. When the water pressure drops below a certain amount (e.g., 20 psi, it varies) the valve will open and allow any water in the pipes higher than the valves to flood into the appliance (e.g., from the 2nd floor, water all over the floor, etc.) This is a common insurance claim.

8 - Set Up Automatic Forwarding
You can have all your first class mail forwarded automatically to another address (e.g., your son) for six months, renewable for another 6 months if needed. There is no charge for this service from the USPS other than a one time $1 credit card fee which they use for identification purposes when requesting the service. You should then buy a supply of prepaid Forever Priority Mailers so your son can send your mail to a marina in advance of your arrival. One year I bought the standard prepaid mailers and found that my son still had to make a trip to the post  office when postage was increased by a few cents. Priority Mail will accept any weight package that fits in the box as along as it weighs less than 70 lbs. However, there's one caveat, if it weighs more than 13 oz you will have to take the box to the nearest post office, you can't just leave it in your mailbox, the carrier will not pick it up due to concerns from 911.

A tip about forwarding. I've found out the hard way that letters marked, "Return Service Requested" will not be forwarded by the post office. Instead they are returned to the sender. In my case, my dental bills had the phrase pre-printed on the envelope used by billing resulting in all bills being returned to them instead of being forwarded to me. I just told them to put a piece of white tape over the phrase and it worked.

9  - Set up Google Drive on your home computer to keep a copy of all your records 
I return home multiple times while cruising and when home I use my desktop computer. I scan all documents of interest, essentially all personal items and store them on the desktop or in some cases on the laptop. The challenge is how to keep all the records in sync? I could use USB drives and I've done that in the past but it's a pain and I forget sometimes. Now I just use Google Drive which is free for 15Gb and everything in the folder "Files" is sync'ed across all three computers and iPads automatically. The Files folder contains all my personal data without much editing, everything is dumped in except photos and still it only consumes 7 Gb of the 15Gb free limit. Past tax submissions, no problem, I have soft copies, likewise for past repair records, copy of insurance, etc. Be sure to do this before you leave and make good use of a scanner for those records not already in pdf format.

10 - Odds and Ends to Remember to do: (most of which I didn't)
The list mostly reflects things we did not do and suffered the consequences. I never thought of them before I left the first year. The list gradually accumulated over the next five years. The current list is given below:
- Stop the paper, trash collection and set up mail forwarding (I did remember the paper but gave the trash collector a free ride for six months!)
- Notify the Sheriff you'll be away, they will check the house every now and then.
- Turn down the house temperature, I use 55F, it saves a lot of green.
- Turn down the internal boiler temperature in the furnace. I keep mine at 185F for good hot water while I'm at home but it's a waste of fuel oil to keep it that hot when away. 160F is fine, perhaps less.
- Turn off house water and well pump. You don't want a flooded basement if/when something gives way.
- Unplug the water softener.I didn't one year and the water softener drained the furnace boiler when it "automatically" started a charging sequence.
- Unplug all appliances except refrigerator if you want to keep it running. We discovered the wisdom of this by not doing it one year - our food processer decided to start running and killed itself.
- Put cable/internet/phone on "vacation", it usually costs a lot less. Most providers have this feature which I only discovered this year.
- Put your home phone on automatic forward to your cellphone. Most companies allow this even with the phone on "vacation" at a reduced rate. They also allow the phone to continue to be used for home security systems during vacation rates.
- Put RV type antifreeze in toilets and drains, just in case.
- Set the house alarm.
- Lock all windows and lower all storm windows.
- Turn off the separate water valves leading to the dishwasher (one valve), refrigerator (one valve for the ice maker) and washing machine lines (two valves; one hot and one cold). Yet another lesson learned the hard way. Also remember to turn off the ice maker, it's a separate switch inside the freezer. Also empty the internal ice container. If you lose power, the ice will melt and when the power comes back on, you have a nice ice sculpture inside the freezer, I can show you pictures!
- Unplug the desktop computer, power surges anyone?
- If you have a car with a blinking light on the dash (security?), then you must physically remove the negative cable from the battery post. I've not done this twice and came home to a completely dead car battery on my 2004 Buick LeSabre. I can leave my 1997 Plymouth minivan for six month and it will start right up without doing this procedure, not so the Buick.
- Consider deer netting at $20 for 100 ft to cover shrubs if you have a deer problem, we do. Yet another lesson we learned the hard way.
- Throw away all perishable food. No comment needed, we've been there.
- Store all non perishable food in tight storage containers or in the refrigerator. The dishwasher can be used in a pinch but a separate storage bin is best.
- Don't forget to empty the vegetable bins of potatoes and onions. They look rather disgusting and smell badly after six months! I tell you this from personal experience.
- Leave no meat in the freezer even though it's plugged in. Vegetables are okay but not meat. All you need is one session with a power outage to realize the wisdom of this advice. Unfortunately, this is yet another lesson learned the hard way. I now know how to deodorize a freezer after meat spoilage complete with maggots all over the inside, ugh! Using the best methods, it took several weeks of repeated treatments to get the odor out.
- In case all else fails, leave a key with a neighbor for the occasional emergency repair that may be needed. So far we've used this three times: once when the furnace decided not to start and I received a call from the home security system that the house temperature was below 55 and twice when the house alarm system malfunctioned and bad sensors had to be replaced.