Off-season is caretaker season on Martha’s Vineyard

— File photo by Drawing by CK Wolfson

Off-season caretaking of seasonal homes is a time-honored tradition on Martha’s Vineyard and a good way for year-round Island residents to generate income. About 44 percent of Vineyard homes, just over 7,000 residences, are unoccupied in winter, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

While many seasonal residents hire caretakers to keep an eye on their place during the off season, others depend on a variety of alarm systems to monitor heat levels and crime and to act as first responders. Given that the average price of an Island home is $700,000, hiring a caretaker seems a prudent investment to many.

The majority of Island caretakers have other careers but caretaking is a full time business for Michael Underwood, described as the “King of Caretakers” by colleague Don (Paco) Allyn of Oak Bluffs. “Michael is the guy you should talk to, he’s got more clients than anybody on the Island. He’s seen it all,” said Mr. Allyn, a carpenter who caretakers principally as a courtesy to friends and clients.

Mr. Underwood started his caretaking company, Intercessors Inc., 12 years ago after moving to the Island full time after 35 years at Xerox Corp., where he observed the importance of customer service.

“The [copier] playing field was level. Customer service was the real difference between Xerox and our competitors. I saw customer service move from the basement to the executive suite over the years. That’s how important it was,” he said.

Mr. Underwood was looking for a new career and a friend suggested that caretaking fit the template he had learned in his corporate career. He chose Intercessors as his company’s name, “Because the word ‘intercessor’ means someone who intercedes in favor of another,” he said. From there, it was a short step to the company slogan, “When you’re not here, we are,” that has produced a client base of 45 to 50 seasonal residents.

“What separates us from others is that this is all we do,” said Mr. Underwood, who has two employees who accompany him to climb and reach hard to get to spots on a property during weekly “walk-arounds” on all his client properties.

The work has become a passion. “We don’t gouge clients. In fact, even clients have told me to charge more,” he chuckled. “We do no advertising, it’s all word of mouth. I’m proud of that. I always ask clients ‘why did you pick me?’ and answer is ‘When we call, you answer the phone.’ I am not a carpenter or a tradesman with a 9 to 5 job,” he said.

“The key thing is to do what you say you’re going to do. It isn’t rocket science. You walk around and check things out thoroughly. Here’s an example. I have a client in West Tisbury whose house alarm goes off during strong winds. I’m the first call the alarm company makes. I know the cause – it’s a sliding door that shakes – but I go to the house even if it’s a 2 am call,” he continued.

“A house must be checked once a week. If there’s wind or a storm, check it immediately,” he said. An eye for details helps. “I had a client who had left the heat on but I saw a tiny icicle on a faucet. Shouldn’t be there. Turns out the house had run out of oil, so we fixed that,” he said. Mr. Underwood provides full-service caretaking. “FedEx deliveries, greeting renters, coordinating contractor work.

“There’s a benefit to that. Why call the owner in Chicago if you can’t find the circuit breakers? I got a call from a renter I had given the keys to. Their air-conditioning died on the first day of vacation and they were getting estimates of a week and a half before it could be serviced. They were only there for a week.

“We got it fixed the next day. I don’t do any work myself. I use licensed Island trades people. Two reasons. First, I have relationships with them. I refer them and I don’t take kickbacks. So they work with me. I have a network, including Crane Appliances, Vineyard Propane, and Packer.

“Also, if I touch it, I own it. So I don’t. I use contractors who stand behind their work and have insurance to cover their work and are expert, they know what they’re doing.”

Common sense suggestions permeate conversations with experienced caretakers. Here’s a list of the top tips from some of the Island’s best.

Walter Wlodyka works full time at skunk and rodent removal these days but has decades of caretaking experience:

Check for rodents if you are leaving heat on in winter, particularly in soffits, a squirrel favorite. A warm, empty house is a breeding ground. Have your caretaker be responsible for your Island car. That means starting it once a week and handling registration, inspection, and insurance status as well as checking for nesting mice.

Kevin Oliver, experienced up-Island caretaker who operates the Menemsha store in season:

–Be sure oil-fired furnaces are serviced every year and avoid problems in the long run.

–Change air filters in hot air systems annually.

–Turn water off at the pressure tank coming into the house as long as doesn’t affect the furnace. Purchase and install a freeze alarm, a monitoring system that makes a phone call if house temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Michael Nania, seasoned builder and remodeler who brings his construction experience in fixing empty house problems to occasional caretaking duties:

–There is no reason to have a home damage catastrophe. Walk your caretaker through your home and property and make the caretaker aware of past problems and potential trouble spots.

Don (Paco) Allyn of Oak Bluffs, carpenter and contractor who takes a limited number of caretaking assignments and sees easily overlooked but critical details, such as:

– Make sure the heating bill is paid, particularly if the house will get occasional off-season use and the water is left on.

Michael Underwood’s thoughts:

– Understand that insurance companies may deny liability on the basis of negligence by the insured for loss in an unattended house that is open year-round if homeowners do not have evidence of a caretaker in place.

Even if you are on automatic fill-up, check the fuel tank after a storm to make sure the fuel provider was able to deliver. Use licensed tradesmen who will stand behind their work. If alarms are in place, the caretaker should be the first responder to avoid charges for excessive police responses. Get advice on what could go wrong – particularly if you are a new homeowner. Ask the question: What could go wrong if you’re not there?