Leslie Young, owner of Hill Way Home Watch, checks a basement dehumidifier for any leaks as she demonstrates the steps she takes during an inspection of a client’s home in Cape Elizabeth. Several Maine entrepreneurs have home watch businesses, offering weekly or biweekly inspections of seasonal properties while people are away to confirm there are no plumbing issues or similar problems. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Leslie Young walks through the kitchen of a bright and airy Cape Elizabeth home. She turns on the faucet, letting the water run. She sticks her hand inside the refrigerator, checking that it’s still cold. She pauses in front of the gas stove and wafts a hand over the burners to make sure she can’t smell gas.

Young moves through the expansive house this way, room by room, stopping every few feet to shine her flashlight in any dark corners, check the thermostat and smoke detectors, run water through the pipes, and make sure there are no cracked windows, mouse droppings or signs of water in the basement or under appliances.

“Owning a house, every day it’s something,” she said.

Young is a home watcher – a job that is increasing in popularity in Maine as the luxury second-home real estate market has taken off and waterfront homeowners are growing concerned about the impacts of worsening storms.

“With all the damage and all the activity that happened over the winter, people are worried,” said Beth Doehner, co-owner of York Harbor Home Watch. “Some people say, ‘I’ll have a neighbor drive by,’ but it’s not the same amount of vigilance that you have with someone who is trained to take care of this.”

Home watchers say they can help protect against everything from mold to intruders. Sometimes they also bring in the mail, water plants, take out patio furniture, or, if they find a problem, coordinate and meet with contractors. They fall somewhere between caretakers, property managers, house sitters and home inspectors.

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Kimberly Veilleux of Mainely Home Watch likens it to a “personal assistant for a house.”

Those in the business see nearly limitless growth opportunities in Maine, which has the highest percentage of second homes in the country.

More than one-fifth of the state’s homes are unoccupied at a given time, according to federal data, and almost 75% of those are empty because of vacation or recreational use, rather than abandonment.

“Not a lot of people know the luxury coastal market,” said Veilleux, who started Mainely Home Watch with her fiancé, Anthony Verville, in 2023. “It’s definitely a crucial need because the value of these homes are high and people want to make sure they maintain their investment.”

LUXURY REAL ESTATE HOT IN MAINE

It’s difficult to know how many home watch businesses are in Maine or when they got started because the field is not regulated.

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The National Home Watch Association lists five accredited home watch businesses in the state, but an online search turns up at least 14. Many of them are in their first year. The association has over 600 members, more than half of which are in Florida.

When Young started Hill Way Home Watch and Property Management in Cape Elizabeth seven years ago, she had little competition. A retired police officer, she and her husband, a firefighter, had been checking on homes for friends and community members for years when she decided to make a go of it professionally. She now has between 50 and 70 clients.

In the intervening years, she’s seen home watching explode.

Leslie Young, owner of Hill Way Home Watch, checks a propane line as she demonstrates the steps she takes during an inspection of a client’s home in Cape Elizabeth. Home watching businesses are on the rise in Maine, where second homes are numerous and property values are increasing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I really think it was a quiet, hushed thing until COVID hit,” she said. “The real estate industry … was on fire. They couldn’t keep up with the demand.”

People flocked to Maine during the pandemic, leaving crowded cities in search of clean air and more space. The luxury real estate market took off as people snapped up second or even third waterfront homes, often shelling out millions of dollars.

Portland has been ranked as the top luxury real estate market in the country for most of the last year, with a median luxury-home sale price of about $1.7 million in April, according to a Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com housing market ranking. The ranking factors in sales figures as well as quality of life and economic vitality of the area.

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Pacaso, an online real estate marketplace for second homes, listed York and Cumberland counties third and fifth, respectively, in a roundup of the 10 U.S. markets that saw the biggest increases in second home transactions from 2022-23. York County saw a 16% increase, with an average sale price of $2 million, and Cumberland County was up 14% to $1.7 million.

As the transactions and dollar amounts grew, the home watch industry sprang up around them.

“Some of these people see Maine as beautiful for the 10 weeks that they’re here, and they don’t know what the winters are like,” Young said. “They needed someone to keep an eye on these million-dollar homes.”

Veilleux believes home watching can also improve safety. Verville, her fiancé and business partner, is a law enforcement officer. He would answer alarm calls only to find out the homeowner was down in Florida and there was no point of contact to take care of things.

Then she began to notice other safety concerns for seasonal homeowners.

“Nine times out of 10, you never see cars in the driveway, or there’s mail piled up. If that doesn’t welcome an intruder to break in, I don’t know what does,” she said. “Together we saw this niche market.”

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Many houses have all the bells and whistles – the doorbell camera, mobile security system, humidity sensor and smart thermostat.

“All that’s fine, but when those alarms go off, they need (a) body over there,” Young said.

CLOSE CALLS 

Young has run into plenty of problems over the years. Broken furnaces, power outages, generator issues and sump pump failures are among the most common. The basement, she said, is the most important room in the house.

Stacey, who asked that her last name not be published because she doesn’t want people to know her home is unoccupied for long stretches, said Young found a pinhole leak in their water main that could have escalated if not caught right away. She alerted them when their furnace went out and another time spotted an issue with their generator.

Leslie Young, owner of Hill Way Home Watch, checks a basement drain for any water. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Young visits weekly during the winter when Stacey and her husband are at their Florida home. The couple also has a home watcher in Florida while they’re back in Maine during the summer.

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Young, the only business owner who would share her prices, charges $45 per week for weekly visits and $51 for biweekly.

“It is absolutely worth the cost,” Stacey said. “It definitely has been a godsend here in Maine.”

Brandon Delano and Mike Michaud started Southern Maine Home Watch in January as a side gig to their full-time jobs as home inspectors. It’s a natural pairing, Delano said – the home watch checklist is, more or less, a mini inspection without the full written report.

Delano already had a few close calls: a house with missing shingles and another with two broken windows from harsh winter storms. There was a house with a leaky heating system. On one check, they found a large rodent in the house.

Delano said he’s watched homes informally for a few years, but the pandemic-driven uptick in second or third-home ownership has increased the need.

“We’re seeing more and more (interest),” he said. “Nobody wants to leave a house for six months without checking on it.”

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