How to Protect Your Home While You're Away

You can save yourself thousands of dollars by taking these steps to keep your house safe during your winter travels.

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Have you ever left for a winter vacation and come home to discover that the power had gone out, the pipes had frozen and burst, and you now have a swimming pool in your basement? It sounds like a nightmare, but it happens to thousands of people every year. Although people go on vacation in droves during the winter months, many of them don't do anything to prepare their home for their absence.

Here are nine tips for getting your home ready for your vacation.

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1. Turn Off the Water: There's a valve that will shut off all the water in your house. So if the power goes out for whatever reason, your pipes won't freeze and burst. This is a very easy way to prevent a hugely damaging (and costly) incident.

2. Turn Down the Hot Water Heater: It's not dangerous to leave your hot water temperature at its regular level, but turning it down to the lowest setting will save energy, and money, while you're gone.

3. Turn Down the Heat: Your house doesn't need to be at 68 degrees when no one is there. Turning down the heat to 55 degrees, or even a bit lower, will help reduce your utility bills.

4. Clean Out the Fridge: Do you want to come home to drawers of soggy lettuce and stinky, moldy cheese? Definitely not. Clean out your fridge the night before you leave so perishables don't decompose in there while you're gone.

5. Ask a Neighbor to Shovel: Imagine you leave for two weeks. While you're gone your town gets hit with a winter storm, which begins to melt the next day and then quickly refreezes. Now you have a solid sheet of ice on your sidewalk and driveway. This is not fun to shovel when you get back and could increase the risk of liability and damage—which is especially important depending on your homeowners insurance coverage. Ask neighbors to shovel (or pay a neighborhood kid to do it) and keep an eye on your house while you're gone. And offer to do the same for them when they go away.

6. Put the Lights on Timers: Every year, there are more than 2 million burglaries in the U.S. Putting a few lamps on timers for the evenings (from 5:30 to 9:00 or so) is a smart idea because it makes it look like you're home. This may help prevent home burglary and break ins while you're away.

7. Clean Out the Sink: Many people don't think to clean out their sink before they leave. I learned this lesson the hard way, however. I had food in my sink trap that I'd forgotten about and left for a two week vacation. When I came back, my house reeked. Clean out the sink trap, and run your garbage disposal, before you leave. You can deodorize it by throwing in some baking soda, vinegar and lemon rinds while it runs.

8. Clean the House: Coming home to a clean house after a vacation is sheer bliss. It's definitely worth the extra time and energy to dust, sweep, vacuum and wash sheets before you leave—especially if you're not on a regular weekly house cleaning schedule. You'll be thankful you did!

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9. Unplug Electronics: Your computer, printer, TV and DVD player will continue to suck power even when they're not on. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that this "vampire load" makes up 10 percent to 20 percent of our electric bill. Make sure you're not paying for energy you're not using and unplug all electronics before you go out of town (it will also help with home fire safety and protection).

Coming home to a dirty, stinky house, or one with a basement full of water, is a really dispiriting way to wrap up a vacation. Taking a few simple steps before you leave will help ensure that your integration back into the real world is as painless as possible!

Heather Levin writes about personal finance topics on Money Crashers, and is the founder of the green living blog, The Greenest Dollar.