Home watch: Experts say research is key to picking provider
It's that time of year again: Winter residents are departing Southwest Florida for cooler climates, many leaving vacant homes behind.
Home watch services are a popular option for people who want to keep tabs on their properties from afar.
These companies visit their clients' empty homes regularly to check for signs of problems and to help residences look more lived in. Companies typically provide reports to customers about their visits.
Professional home watchers also notify homeowners of urgent issues, bring in vendors to fix problems, alert law enforcement if there are signs of a break-in or vandalism and respond when an alarm goes off on a client's property.
Because customers entrust so much to the home watch companies they hire, deciding which one to choose shouldn't be done lightly, said Lt. John Barkley, public information officer for the Naples Police Department.
Homeowners should "do as much research on the companies as possible," he said. "You just shouldn't invite anybody into your house."
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Collier County government and Lee County government don't require special licensing for home watch providers. That leaves room for anyone to start a home watch service, including people who don't run their operations as true businesses, said Jack Luber, executive director of the National Home Watch Association. The organization sets standards and provides accreditation for home watch services in the U.S. and Canada.
"There are guys that are doing it off the back of golf carts," he said. "There are people who are running it (a home watch service) off the back of a pickup truck, and they're not insured and they're not bonded You need to know who you're dealing with."
Professional organizations such as the National Home Watch Association strive to make up, in part, for the government's lack of regulation of the industry.
Based in South Carolina, the association grants accreditation to companies that meet criteria for insurance and bonding, are generally in good standing with customers and organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and agree to abide by the association's code of ethics and mission statement.
Nearly 90 companies are members of the group, said Luber, who called Southwest Florida "the center of the home watch universe." The association's website shows 24 Florida members, with 11 in Southwest Florida.
A Naples-based organization called Your Home Watch Professionals also evaluates home watch companies and grants "affiliate" status to those that meet its requirements.
Carl Lorenzini, a former property manager who now owns Home Watch Services Etc., based in Bonita Springs, recommends homeowners verify that a home watch service is a legitimate business by checking with the Florida Department of State, Division of Corporations website. To do this, go to sunbiz.org and search for the company's name to see whether it's registered with the state.
When considering a specific home watch company, Barkley also recommends homeowners look for information about it online, including whether it is licensed and bonded.
A home watch provider should carry at least $1 million in general liability insurance coverage and potential customers should ask for proof of insurance, National Home Watch's Luber said.
Requesting and contacting references is another important step.
"Check and see if people are happy with them. See if they actually provide the services and do exactly what you want them to do, so there's no unexpected surprises on either end," Barkley said.
Two Naples home watch professionals recommended prospective customers meet with someone from the business in person.
"You can pick up a lot by meeting someone in person," said Jeff Morrow, owner of Checkmate Home Watch and a former golf course property manager. "Trust your instincts. I would also ask who will be doing the visits. Will it be the company rep you're speaking with or another employee? That's fine, too, but ask about that employee. I would like to know who's coming into my home."
Diane Eager, who owns Cottage to Castle Home Watch with her husband, Jack Cox, said home watch professionals should confidently explain their services and respond to homeowners' specific requests for the care of their properties.
"They should be able to talk about what they do easily and explain any kind of question a client asks," she said. "If they hem and haw, if they stutter around and (say) ?Well, I haven't done that before. This will be the first time,' things like that, that would send up a red flag to me."
A background in construction or property management can help home watchers identify problems and find trustworthy vendors to fix problems, she said.
Eager previously worked in property management and she and her husband used to build homes in California.
Many home watch companies also offer additional services to customers, such as handyman work, preparing a home for the owner's return, stocking the refrigerator and pantry with groceries, putting up hurricane shutters, pet sitting or performing other tasks.
Homeowners should check to see if a home watch provider is licensed to do handyman jobs and other work that requires licensing.