By Mac McLean • The Bulletin
Scott Whiteside pulled his truck into the driveway of a Brasada Ranch home that looked like it hadn’t been occupied for weeks. Its snow-covered driveway didn’t have any tire tracks or footprints, its front lights were off and the blinds were pulled over all of its windows.
“Just seeing tire tracks in the driveway is enough (for a would-be robber) to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t a snowbird’s house, let’s not try anything,” said Whiteside, the owner of Central Oregon Snowbird Services.
For the past two years, Whiteside has made monthly visits — some of his clients want more, some want less — to the homes of about 30 part-time Central Oregon residents just to make sure everything is OK and their owners won’t find any costly surprises that could ruin their next vacation or summertime stay.
His trip to Brasada on Thursday morning was the first time he’d checked in on any of these properties since last week’s storm, which brought sub-zero temperatures and several inches of snow and freezing rain to the region.
“Sometimes this job is kind of boring,” Whiteside said as he stepped out of his truck and got ready to inspect his fourth house that morning. “But you never know, anything can happen.”
About nine years ago, Bob Andrews read a newspaper article about a group of part-time Central Oregon residents who came back to their homes after an extended period of time to find broken pipes, broken windows and other costly problems that did significant damage to their properties.
“That prompted me to think that someone should be watching their homes,” said Andrews, a former police officer and property manager who thought creating a business to fill this need would be the perfect opportunity for a post-retirement career.
Andrews started his service with a basic inspection that involved walking around a person’s house to make sure it didn’t have any large puddles that signaled a broken pipe, a broken window that could be caused by a break in, or any other exterior damage that could signal something terribly wrong had happened inside.
“The people who own these houses don’t have neighbors close to them,” Andrews said, explaining a person’s neighbors are usually the ones who notice this damage and report it. “And if they do have neighbors, their neighbors are probably snowbirds too.”
As Andrews built his client list over time, he said, they started asking him to go inside their homes so he could make sure their heating and cooling systems were set to the right temperature, run water down their pipes to keep them from freezing and, in some cases, dump out any food they left in their refrigerator that might spoil.
Andrews, who knew Whiteside from some work he had done at Brasada Ranch, built up a list of about 30 to 35 clients. He sold this list to Whiteside about two years ago when, like his clients, he finally got tired of Central Oregon’s weather and moved to Arizona where he could be warm.
“Let’s be honest,” said Kimo Dejon, who runs the Snowbird Concierge Service, a real estate practice that helps Central Oregon residents find winter homes in California and Hawaii. “The winters here can last from October to June.”
Based on the amount of traffic his business’ website gets, Dejon estimates there are probably 3,000 to 5,000 snowbirds in Central Oregon who, like himself, love being in the region during the summer but hate it during the winter.
Dejon, 61, said he moved to Central Oregon from Hawaii because he really enjoyed skiing and didn’t mind the cold weather as long as Mount Bachelor had snow. But as he got older and started to worry more about what would happen if he fell and sustained an injury, the initial attractiveness of being close to the mountain faded, and that only made the winters worse.
“When I go to the desert, I’ll start talking to people and tell them I’m from Bend,” said Dejon, who spends his winters in California and Hawaii. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s such a wonderful place, but I hear the winters are brutal,’ and then I’ll say, ‘Yeah, why do you think I’m here?’”
Lately though, Whiteside said his business has shifted away from the traditional snowbird population that lives in Central Oregon full-time during the summer and goes away when it’s cold. Now, he also serves a number of people who bought or built houses as vacation or investment properties during the housing crash when they were cheap, but who don’t plan on living there full-time until they retire.
“Central Oregon is one of those places that people find when they may not be ready to move here,” Whiteside said, explaining these clients often only visit their homes, or let their friends visit them, once or twice a month.
Whiteside walked to the front of the home in Brasada Ranch and keyed in a code that was supposed to open its garage door. It didn’t work.
“This isn’t good,” said Whiteside, who checked his records to make sure he had the right code and entered it in four more times before it finally slid open.
Faulty garage door codes can signal one of two things, Whiteside said. Either the home’s owners changed the code without telling him, or the power inside the house went out, which could in turn mean the heating system could be off, the pipes could be frozen and whatever food had been left in its refrigerator could have broken down into a rotten, smelly mess.
Luckily, everything was working when the door finally opened and Whiteside continued his inspection — a quick walk-around that consists of checking the thermostat, flushing the toilets to keep their seals moist, checking the rooms to make sure a light wasn’t left on and checking the windows to make sure they weren’t broken.
During his Thursday morning visit to a different home, Whiteside noticed an upstairs toilet was running and shut it off so it wouldn’t waste money. He then sent the owner an email letting him know what happened and asking if he should call a plumber or if the owner wanted to take care of it himself.
“You have to wonder how much water was going through that thing,” Whiteside said, explaining that if he didn’t catch the leak, no one else would have until the owner or one of his friends visited the property, which could be at least a month from now. “At least its pipes wouldn’t freeze (because the water was running through them.)”
Whiteside also checked on a piece of plastic one of his clients taped across a broken window that led into an upstairs bedroom. He was worried the plastic might have been blown off during last week’s storm — which could let animals, snow and rain inside the building — but was happy it survived the storm intact.
During his inspections, Whiteside makes a point to check a ranch owner’s garage freezer because any malfunction could ruin a few hundred dollars’ worth of beef. He also refills the water in a humidor belonging to another client so the collection of cigars that are kept there don’t dry out.
“These are people’s investments,” Whiteside said. “You’ve got to protect them.”
The Jensen house
Julie Jensen and her husband bought a three-bedroom house in Crooked River Ranch four years ago with the understanding they wouldn’t be able to move there full time until she’d be ready to retire from her job as a customer services manager with the California state government in June 2017.
Because of the distance between her home in Sacramento and Central Oregon, Jensen said she was only able to visit the house three times in the past year, and relies on Whiteside’s visits to make sure nothing goes wrong.
“Our first year with Scott was the year our thermostat broke,” Jensen said. “He has saved our bacon on more than one occasion. … He is worth more than his weight in gold.”
Two years ago, Whiteside discovered Jensen’s battery-powered thermostat didn’t have a back-up system when its battery died and it shut off her heat in the middle of the winter. Her pipes had frozen, but luckily Whiteside, who remembers “walking into her home and seeing his breath,” got them fixed before they burst and caused a huge amount of damage.
Things only got worse this past January when Whiteside discovered the keys Jensen gave him to the house no longer fit the locks. He called the sheriff’s office and found out that something had gone terribly wrong.
“The house next door to us was in foreclosure,” Jensen said, explaining a contractor hired by the bank to take possession of the house wrote down her address instead of her neighbor’s. “They changed the locks, they drained the water, and they did all of this other stuff that we would not have known about until spring.”
Jensen said Whiteside was able to find the contractor and get them to fix the damage — including replacing a coil in the home’s hot water heater that overheated when the water was drained — before she and her husband came back to their house this past April.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org