How to button up your vacation home for winter (© VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images)

© VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Whether it's a simple log cabin in the Minnesota backwoods or a beach shanty on the rugged Maine coast, a vacation house can be the source of decades of good memories. If your getaway doesn't see much use come winter, now is the time to button it up snugly so it will continue to offer years of hassle-free good times.

What you need to do depends, of course, on where your home sits. The colder the climate, the more you have to do. But don't be daunted; you can do most of it yourself. With advice from the experts, here's what to do:

Water, water everywhere
Turn the big knob.
"If you do nothing else, turn the water off," says Bob Anderson, a handyman in Harwich, Mass., where he's worked with many vacation-home owners. Even if you decide to leave the heat on, turn off the water coming into the house, Anderson says. Otherwise, "If you lose power and it gets cold and the pipes freeze, when it gets warm you're going to have water everywhere — huge damage."

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How to do it? "Where the water comes into the house, there's going to be a shut-off." It's usually a larger pipe coming in from the concrete wall or the ground. "If you're on a well system, which many vacation homes are, it's in the pump room." Still can't find it? Look near the water meter.

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Many cabins and vacation cottages have unusual water supplies — wells, lakes, etc. — and an electric pump that brings the water into the house. Read the manufacturer's instructions for how to drain and winterize the pump. (Bing: Winterize water pipes)

Turn the little knobs, too. "Even if you don't turn off the main water valve, you want to turn off the supply hoses to washing machines and at the valves that serve toilets and faucets," says Don Vandervort, founder of the home-improvement website HomeTips.com. The valves are the obvious knobs under your sink or behind your toilet. Why turn them off? Those valves are under pressure and, while you are absent for an extended period, could burst -- and then water could pour in unnoticed for a long time, he says. 

Drain those pipes. After you've shut off the water, drain all of the pipes in the house so there's no water inside them that could freeze, Vandervort says.  Go to an exterior faucet at a low point of the house, such as a spigot outside, and open it. You may need to open a faucet higher in the house to allow the water to flow more freely.

Does the thought of monkeying with pipes and valves make you uncomfortable? You're not alone. "We highly recommend that a vacation property be winterized by a licensed plumber or licensed professional," says Ron Booth, maintenance and appliance manager for Resort Property Management Inc. in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which manages homes throughout northern Idaho.

"It's more cost-effective to have it winterized" for a few hundred dollars by a professional "than to have something go wrong and have freeze damage occur," he says. In northern Idaho, a winterization costs between $300 and $400, he says.

The water-heater dilemma. Here, have options, and both are easy for amateurs. If you're leaving the power or gas on, many water heaters have a "vacation setting," usually marked on the dial on the gas or propane water heater, that will conserve energy while keeping the pilot light going and thus keeping the water from freezing, Booth says.

If you're not going to use the home for a few months, drain the water heater. It's easy. First, shut off the power to the heater. If it's an electric heater, do it at the breaker box; if it's a gas-fueled heater, there should be a valve near the heater. Next, attach a hose to the spigot at the bottom of the tank. Run it outside, open the spigot, and the tank will drain.

Before you switch off your water system is a great time to run some water through the tank and out the spigot, to flush out sediment and sand that can accumulate there.

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Dealing with other appliances
Read the manufacturer's instructions on winterizing other appliances that have water in them — washing machines, refrigerators, ice makers. Here is where a pro may be the ticket. "A licensed plumber will disconnect the washing machine and blow out the line,"  Booth says. The pro will do the same with the dishwasher, which has water in the pump, and the fridge if it has an icemaker, he says. These jobs can be tricky for an average homeowner to tackle "because they require plumbing fittings to be taken apart."

You can, of course, empty and defrost the fridge yourself; leave it open with a big box of open baking soda in it.

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Advanced winterizing: Grab the antifreeze. Toilets and shower and sink drain traps are hard-to-reach places that deserve some extra attention. "Any place that there's water, it can freeze, and if it freezes it can expand and can break drains or break the toilet," Anderson says. After you've turned off the water and flushed the toilet to empty the holding tank, place some antifreeze formulated for RVs (yes, that's recreational vehicles) in the toilet bowl. Read the directions for the exact amount. "You don't want automobile antifreeze inside your home, because it's very poisonous and caustic," Vandervort says. Also put some into sink drain traps and shower drain traps.

Wrap that commode. But wait! You're not done with that toilet: Finally, cover the toilet openings with plastic wrap to prevent sewer gases from rising up into the house while no water is in the pipes. "They smell nasty and are toxic. Your whole house could smell like a sewer when you get back," Vandervort says.