Heat, gas and the juice
To heat or not to heat.
Should you ever shut off the heat completely at your vacation home? Maybe — but only if it's a pretty rustic log cabin, the experts say. "I would advise to never shut off your heat source, even when you winterize your cabin," Booth says. "Always turn your heat to the lowest setting, but keep it going." Why? Two reasons. First, in winter, "What happens is that you get a lot of condensation, and that starts the dry-rot process, and mildew, and that's not a good thing." Second, freeze-thaw cycles can put stress on a home and its foundation, cracking the latter.

Instead, buy a thermostat that can be set to 40 degrees. Most homes' thermostats only go down to about 50 degrees, Booth says.

Turn down the gas. Unless natural gas or propane is your heating fuel, shut the gas off as well. "Usually right where the gas line comes into the house there's going to be a shut-off valve," Anderson says.

If you do have gas heat, you can still shut off the gas flow to appliances, such as a gas stove. "Usually, there's a valve right near the appliance that you can shut off," Vandervort says. As always when dealing with something as serious as gas, contact a professional or the gas company if you're at all unsure.

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Power down. If you need to leave some electricity on, throw the circuits breakers to "off" for what you don't need. Remember not to cut the power for your heat. Or, go around the house and unplug all the electrical items you can, including clocks, televisions and microwaves. "They use a small amount of power, but over the course of the winter, that costs a bit of money," Anderson says.

Other inside to-do's
Your work inside isn't quite done. The experts have a few more suggestions:

Keep interior doors open. This will help air circulate while all the exterior doors and windows are closed, Vandervort says.

Jumble the place. Tilt all cushions and mattresses, if possible. This, too, will allow some airflow.

Strip it down. Remove heavy bedding such as quilts from beds, Vandervort says. To keep mattresses from getting dusty, replace bedding with an old sheet.

Outside the house
Tend to your trees.
"Prune tree limbs away from the house if the potential for tree-limb damage is there," Vandervort says. "That also can minimize rodents" by giving them one less way to access the house.

Install a chimney cap. "Birds are known for nesting inside chimneys," Vandervort says. Install a cap to keep out unwanted visitors, and close the flue.

Block the critters. Rodents will seek a warmer place in autumn, Vandervort says. Stop them by sealing any possible entrances — even tiny ones you don't think a mouse could enter — with steel wool, metal sheeting, caulk and/or hardware cloth.

Survey the gutters. "I would recommend cleaning out all the gutters, and keeping the roof free of debris," Booth says. "When the gutters clog up, you can have ice dams that can cause havoc on the interior of the house  — roof leaks, things like that."

Care for the sprinklers. Have an in-ground irrigation system? "It will freeze," Anderson says. And when it does, it will crack those plastic pipes under your yard. What to do? Blow out the lines with an air compressor, or get a pro to do it for you.

Mind your dock. If you live on the water, secure your dock before winter, Booth says. "Just make sure all of your connections to your dock are secure," he says. Also, remove your landing, the ramp that goes from the shoreline to the dock. That way, waves during winter storms won't beat it up.

Security
With second homes, security is always an issue. You can do a few things to ease your mind, though:

Bolt it. "We have a lot of seasonal second-home owners," Anderson says. So in the winter, break-ins are a problem. The first line of defense: Install deadbolts on all entry doors. "If you don't have them, get them installed. They're not hard to install."

Light it up. Install motion-sensor lights at the front and rear of the house, Anderson says. Just make sure you leave on the power to those areas.

Tell the authorities. Notify local police and fire departments how long you'll be gone.

Hire a plow. If you live in a snowy area, arrange for snowplow service for your driveway. You want the fire department to be able to access your home in event of a fire.

Take it or hide it. As for valuables, take what you can — the smaller, valuable stuff, Anderson says. Put the rest, such as TVs and desktop computers, in a lockable closet, he says. Don't leave anything out that looks enticing. Finally — and there's some disagreement on this — leave the curtains open so anyone who is casing the joint can see that breaking in isn't worth their trouble, Anderson says.

Spend an hour or two checking off this to-do list, and you'll buy yourself some peace of mind all winter long, not to mention likely saving yourself the cost and hassle of an emergency.