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Secure the House: A Checklist

Here's how to keep you parents' home safe and prepare it for sale after they die.

After a parent dies, you may be faced with the task of divvying up and clearing out a lifetime's accumulation of stuff, preparing the house for sale and putting it on the market. But first be sure the property is safe and secure. A vacant home is vulnerable to theft, vandalism and accidental property damage. The farther away you live and the less frequently you visit, the more important these steps are:

Change the locks as soon as possible. You don't know who has a key. Estate squabbles sometimes lead disgruntled relatives who feel entitled to take what they like or even move in. If your parents never had deadbolts, now might be the time to install them. Also, if there's a publicly announced memorial service -- an invitation to thieves -- make sure somebody you trust stays in the home during the service.

Arrange for exterior maintenance, like lawn mowing, snow shoveling, gutter cleaning and so on. This will make the home look inhabited and will increase its curb appeal once it's listed for sale. In cold climates, turn off the outside water taps to prevent them from freezing and breaking, which could cause water damage.

Stop the newspapers and make arrangements for the mail. You can have the post office forward the mail to you by filing a change-of-address form (marked "deceased"). The postal service may ask for proof of your authority as executor.


Continue paying household bills, such as those for the mortgage, insurance and utilities. Keep heating and air-conditioning systems on to prevent damage from frozen pipes in cold climates and mold in hot, humid climates. And remove perishables from the refrigerator and freezer so that, in case there's a power outage, you don't end up with a mess or, worse, an appliance that needs to be replaced. Telephone, cable and Internet access may not seem essential, but they might be nice to have if you're staying in the house periodically.

You may have to pay household costs out of your own pocket if your parent's estate doesn't provide for a source of funds. Keep good records so that you can be reimbursed from the proceeds of the home's sale.

Ask a friend, neighbor or agent to check the house while you're away. Or put interior lights on a timer. If you're really concerned about break-ins, you may want to have a home-security system installed. You can spend from a couple of hundred dollars for a simple, do-it-yourself package to a couple of thousand or more for installation of a more complex system. Ask a real-estate agent whether you might recoup its cost with a slightly higher sale price.

Consider including water sensors placed anywhere that leaking water could cause damage (in the basement, the utility room or near appliances). You'll also have to pay a separate monthly fee, say $20 to $35, for a monitoring service. Make sure that you can get a month-to-month or other short-term contract, unless you want to commit to the usual year-long lease and have it convey when you sell the house.

For more information on what do do after a parent dies, see 7 Ways to Protect Your Parent's Good Name.