For holiday homeowners, travel restrictions have meant many haven’t visited their property in months. With the usual Halloween, Christmas, mid-term or Easter trips all scuppered, how were homes being maintained, and what can owners expect when they can start revisiting from next week?
There are over 62,000 holiday homes in Ireland, according to the last census. With 11,288 dwellings, Donegal occupied first place in homes used for recreation or leisure, according to the figures, followed by Kerry (8,056), Cork county (7,202), Wexford (6,629) and Mayo (4,855).
For owners living within 5km of a holiday let, keeping an eye on their property during pandemic restrictions hasn’t been an issue. But for those with a bolthole further afield, however, things have been a bit more problematic. Aiden, Bella and Christoph have all visited Ireland this winter – storms that brought coastal flooding, wind damage and power outages. So for holiday homeowners revisiting their properties after lockdown, some surprises may await.
"A couple of weeks ago there was a big storm from the south, and one property had a big tree down and branches all over the lawn, one house had five slates missing and another had an infestation of rats and mice," says Jim Griffiths of Beacon Properties, a property management and lettings company based in Baltimore.
'Even in a modern property if it isn't being used the house does get damp'
“That’s just the stuff I’m seeing. If you don’t have someone looking after your house there will be a few surprises I’m sure.”
Springtime brings its own challenges.
“The garden is going to be a jungle if they don’t have someone looking after it and if it’s an older property the chances are some furry friends are going to have found their way into the house,’ says Griffiths. “It’s going to happen. Nature has its way of coming back to the house.”
He says the biggest problem with coastal properties is damp. In fact he has a standing order with a local marine supply company for dehumidifiers.
“Even in a modern property if it isn’t being used the house does get damp. They [dehumidifiers] keep the dampness out of the air and a small bit of heat in, and they keep the mould away,” says Griffiths.
While dehumidifiers can be set to run on their own, be careful.
“There was a situation in Baltimore recently where the dehumidifier had been recalled [by the manufacturer] and it actually caught fire. The house was full of smoke-damage, it had to be gutted. If you don’t have someone checking, things like that can happen.”
However, he says the right dehumidifier can be a good investment.
“If you’ve had one running you feel like someone has been living in the house. It’s not nice to come down if you have been away so long to get into bed and it’s damp and cold. It’s not very pleasant.”
Griffiths’ company offers a charge-per-visit service, though he knows plenty of homeowners who have arrangements with neighbours.
“It’s really important that somebody looks at it because it’s a long time for your asset to be alone and fending for itself.”
A big issue for those houses unattended for months is the heating may not work. That’s why it’s best to arrive in daylight hours and have the number of a plumber to hand.
“Have a look at the water tank too because unless it’s completely closed off in the attic you wouldn’t know what’s got in,” says Griffiths.
He also advises running the cold tap to clear the pipes so you’ve got fresh water coming in.
A house inherited from Auntie Bridie whose scuffs and idiosyncrasies are part of the charm may not have caused too much worry during lockdown. The owners of more modern properties using smart tech to monitor and heat their homes remotely have had more peace of mind too.
Such is the case for David Cotter, an Irishman living in the southeast of England who built a holiday home in north Kerry in proximity to family, beaches and golf. Restrictions have prevented him from visiting as usual.
“I guess the fact that I built it as an airtight home and put in a lot of insulation, but also I’ve automated a lot of the features. That’s made it a lot easier to manage during the restrictions,” says Cotter.
“I can control the heating from an app here in the UK. If you have an airtight house but nobody is going in and opening windows and doors, the house becomes very stale.
Adding to peace of mind is an informal arrangement with a person who, in return for being able to use the empty house to work whilst his children were being home-schooled, has kept an eye on things
“The house has a fresh air venting system which I have on a low setting at the moment. It will pump fresh air in and suck stale air out. If it didn’t have that I would have had a problem.”
Water pipes are laid 18 inches below ground, six inches more than standard.
“I buried them deep enough and insulated them so I’ve never had any trouble with pipes freezing.”
The house has a monitored security system too. “If the alarm goes off I get a phone call immediately.”
He praises good advice from his architect and builder, and good internet coverage locally on which some of the features rely.
Adding to peace of mind is an informal arrangement with a person who, in return for being able to use the empty house to work whilst his children were being home-schooled, has kept an eye on things.
“I’ve been lucky with a local man who runs the taps and flushes the toilets, or he’ll use the dishwasher or the washing machine to keep them ticking over,” says Cotter.
If a sewage system isn’t being used the pump in the septic tank can seize. The informal handyman mows the grass too.
“He’s very trustworthy. and he has even gone so far as to plant shrubs,” says Cotter.
For Dubliner Elaine Sterio, the key to successfully maintaining an overseas property is to know your neighbours. Her parents bought a much-loved two-bed holiday home in Alicante, Spain, in 1999. The houses are owned by “mostly Irish and English, a lot of them would be retired”, says Sterio.
Due to restrictions and other factors it’s been almost two years since her mother has been able to visit, the longest it has ever been vacant.
“Mam would usually go for a six-week stint in the summer and would probably go in October and March for a number of weeks at a time,” says Sterio. Tied to school holidays, Sterio herself would use the property once a year.
Having firm friends in the development, forged over 20 years of visits, has brought peace of mind.
'Once we hadn't turned off the water when we left, the pipes froze and burst and the ceiling collapsed'
“Mam has friends over there, an English couple, who live there permanently. They have keys and they would check it inside and out. There’s nothing like somebody walking into the house to say, ‘yes, it’s still standing’. No monies are exchanged; it’s all about neighbourliness.
“Mam would bring them out to dinner when she’s there, or if they needed extra beds if their grandchildren were visiting, they would ask Mam.”
While some owning a holiday home overseas want to get away from the Irish and English set, having someone looking out for your interests pays dividends. “Once the alarm was going off, and one of her friend’s sons was there on holidays. He was an alarm technician, and he came down and sorted it out for nothing.”
Another retired English couple, living a few doors down, offers a paid cleaning service.
“They will air the house and wash the bed clothes so when she comes over she just walks in. She’s not spending her first day there cleaning it,” says Sterio.
“It’s so important to know who is living around you, someone will throw their eye on the place and text you if they spot a problem.”
Sterio and her husband own a second property in rural Brittany. It was once a holiday home, but is now rented out full-time.
“Once we hadn’t turned off the water when we left, the pipes froze and burst and the ceiling collapsed. One of the neighbours walking by spotted it, but they had no contact information for us. We learned a valuable lesson – make sure you know your neighbours, and leave your contact information with somebody.”