Siesta Key seeing an influx and need for a service that’s growing
By Hannah Wallace
What happens in your home when you’re not there?
That lone concern has spawned an entire industry in the last 40 years. While home invasion and squatters (intruders who live long-term in an unoccupied home) grab headlines and stoke fears in seasonal residents, everyday issues like leaks and mold remain among the greatest, most expensive risks for an unwatched property.
In addition to mitigating these risks, home watch companies offer homeowners, especially snowbirds, peace of mind in the form of regular assurance that their property is being maintained and protected in their absence.
And in today’s record-breaking real estate market, the home watch industry is booming further.
Southwest Florida has long been an established destination for part-time residents. Now there are more Sarasota-Manatee homeowners than ever before, and many of them are looking for that sense of out-of-town security in the off-season months.
The home watch industry is fueled, in part, by stories of costly home catastrophes. Homeowners who’ve already enjoyed long-term peace of mind — and avoided disasters because of early detection — sing the industry’s praises.
Mary Plote and her husband purchased their Beach Road condo in 2006. With four small kids and a family-run construction company at home in Illinois, they could only devote so much time and attention to their Siesta property.
“We would come down there for four days and have to rush back,” Plote said, remembering times when a leaky toilet or broken garage door was discovered, documented and fixed in their absence. “I would definitely recommend having someone check on your house often. It’s a really important service. I didn’t even know about it until we bought the condo.”
One part-time downtown Sarasota resident (who asked to have their name withheld because of security concerns) purchased a Golden Gate Point condo in 2020. Soon after, a clogged air conditioning condenser line started leaking onto their hardwood floors.
“[The clogged line] wasn’t even in my unit. It was between floors, but it backed up into my condo,” he said. “We hadn’t moved in yet, so there wasn’t anybody living there at the time. But because we had somebody looking after the property, it was discovered early — days instead of weeks — and the amount of damage was minimized. Had this leak persisted for a week or two before somebody downstairs noticed their ceiling dripping, the cost would have been thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Though it varies widely, at its essence a home watch service performs a visual inspection of the property on a regular, agreed-upon basis.
“We do it either weekly or biweekly, or twice a month,” said Jim Farley of Sarasota’s Citizen Jack Home Watch Services. “I wouldn’t do it monthly, too much can happen [between visits]. First thing I do is check the mail. Then I do a quick visual inspection, just looking for anything out of the ordinary. A lot of these people turn off the water, so we turn on the main water supply, run all the faucets, flush the toilets, run the showers, too. All those valves are rubber and plastic, so you want to keep them lubricated.”
Additional services depend on the company as well as the individual contract. Some home watch companies’ offerings, whether standard or add-on, may include starting and even driving vehicles, supervising vendors (pest control, lawn maintenance, etc.), coordinating repairs, and handling deliveries.
Beyond watching the home
In a competitive, high-end market, the possibilities are endless.
Abigail Covey, an eight-year Ritz-Carlton employee, founded the Win Win Services in the fall of 2021 with a partner with a medical industry background. Together, they offer not just home watch visits, but extensive concierge services, including recommending healthcare providers and booking appointments.
“I wanted to provide no limits to my clients,” Covey said. “People moving in from New York or California need services and don’t know who to contact. And when they leave their house, they want it to be care-free.”
But bells and whistles aside, in every price bracket, southwest Florida home watch concerns almost always come down to moisture. Doubly so for Siesta Key homes and their enviable Gulf breezes.
“Two things that can go wrong for a homeowner in the United States, especially Florida, are water and mold,” said Farley.
Leaks, of course, can be devastating, especially when undetected. But moisture in all its forms wreaks havoc, especially over our long Florida summers when seasonal homeowners are away.
While much of the home watch job starts with “common sense,” Farley added, his single most important tool is a hygrometer to measure temperature and humidity inside the home. Experienced home watch professionals know that mold grows when humidity climbs above 55 percent.
“The two things that will destroy a home is water damage and mold,” echoed Diane Pisani, who founded her Naples home watch company in 2006. “There is nothing more important than a home watch reporter who knows how to regulate and monitor the home’s humidity.”
Southwest Florida industry insiders sometimes call October “mold month,” as that’s when homeowners return to discover what’s been growing in their property all summer.
Pisani refers to colleagues in the industry as “reporters” to emphasize their responsibilities to record and communicate what they see. Homeowners nowadays employ home watch professionals not only to mitigate damages, but to document the circumstances to better support their insurance claims.
“Insurance companies are getting killed on water damage, including mold claims.” said Jack Luber, founder of the National Home Watch Association, a professional organization based in South Carolina. “By far water damage is the No. 1 claim in the state of Florida. For insurance it’s really important that people are able to document what happened there.”
Times have changed
Bruce Whittinghill has witnessed the southwest Florida home watch evolution firsthand.
“I started House Watch Sarasota in the early 1980s and had a listing in the Yellow Pages —remember them? I was one of five other listings serving the entire southwest Florida area,” said Whittinghill, who closed his business to retire in January of this year. “Now, flash forward to 2022 and an individual can Google pages of individuals and/or companies providing all types of home watch services.”
Home watch services grew out of friendly, informal housesitting agreements, what Pisani calls “neighbors doing favors” and “home watch hobbyists.” In southwest Florida, the combination of part-time residents and retirees in search of second careers created a cozy cottage industry — albeit centered on significant financial investments. Home watch here began as “baby boomers serving baby boomers.”
Steady demand and an easy, “anybody can do it” perception encouraged more people to turn pro, regardless of experience or qualifications.
“We have a problem in Florida: There are less-than-legitimate home watch companies doing business,” said the NHWA’s Luber. “People driving around with no insurance, no bonding, no training, no recourse for their clients, no security policies, no coding practices, no recording practices. These people have the keys to some beautiful homes on Siesta Key. They have access to personal information, artwork, possessions, and other personal things.”
Be careful out there
Even today the home watch industry remains unrecognized — and therefore unregulated — by state and federal governments. Anyone can call themselves a home watch professional. Homeowners now struggle to determine which ones can be counted on.
High risk is built into the transaction, and horror stories abound: shady home watch workers “borrowing” vehicles or even furniture, inviting friends to sleep on the premises, or just filling out their weekly reports months in advance. Leaving a house unattended is risky, but so, it seems, is giving the keys to a stranger from an unregulated industry.
“People will say, ‘I’m licensed and insured,’” warned Pisani. “They are not licensed. There is no license.”
In 2008, Pisani began teaching “Home Watch 101” to aspiring local home watch entrepreneurs as a way to “grow [her] own” reliable professionals to whom she could refer clients. She now runs Home Watch Academy, an extensive online training resource, and is a co-founder of the International Home Watch Alliance, a nonprofit 501(c)6 professional organization which vets, approves and certifies home watch reporters.
There is no longer a shortage of home watch options. But finding the right one among dozens for your budget and your circumstances remains a challenge.
The International Home Watch Alliance and Luber’s National Home Watch Association both serve to provide some level of accountability to their members, a level of reassurance to their members’ clients, and an overall sense of professional consistency to an otherwise unregulated industry.
“This is a profession that’s just becoming an industry,” said Pisani. “We’re at the forefront of the development of the industry, and that is exciting, and that is a huge responsibility.”