Vacant beach houses can take a beating in the off-season, when salty winds, especially those from strong northeasters, hit hard and often.

How do you safely close your rental house for the winter so no harm comes to it? And how can you live in your faraway primary residence for the cold months without worrying about your beloved summer home?

Closing up a beach house for the summer can be a lot of work, particularly in northern states. Even as far south as Maryland or North Carolina, unattended houses require precautions. But taking the time in autumn for those tasks can prevent serious damage.

What concerns homeowners the most is the possibility of pipes that freeze and burst, which can cause ceilings to collapse and floors to buckle. When pipes thaw is when the worst trouble occurs. As water gushes, it runs out of the house, freezing into ice sculptures. Often, faraway homeowners only then learn of the destruction.

"It is estimated that a half-inch copper pipe with water pumping through it will discharge approximately 15 to 20 gallons per minute. In one hour, that's 1,200 gallons. In 24 hours, it's 28,800 gallons. So if someone left Nantucket on Friday for Boston and returned on Monday, he has almost 100,000 gallons," wrecking his house, said Normand Lague, a claims adjuster with Friedline & Carter Adjustment Inc. of Hyannis, Mass. Nantucket, a 50-square-mile spit of land with 9,000 homes south of Cape Cod, 30 miles off the Massachusetts mainland, has experienced some particularly nasty winters recently.

"If the piping goes through the walls in the house, discharged water will damage the walls, flooring, trims and furniture, also the lath and plaster," he said. "If the rupturing occurs on the second floor, the damage is to the ceiling, windows and door trims. Rupturing over the kitchen area will damage the kitchen cabinets. The magnitude of damage is even more severe if the rupturing is over the third floor. You could lose all the interior finishes."

Burst pipes require quick action. "What's important is to get standing waters removed quickly, the basement pumped and to remove anything wet, such as sheet rock and carpets, to prevent further damage, including mold," Lague said.

Finding a plumber at such a time can be difficult, however. Everyone else needs him, too. "Plumbers were at a premium on Nantucket last winter. Homeowners had to get them from off-island," Lague said.

Someone actually living in the home provides good protection. "It's best to get a responsible tenant to pay you money to maintain the property. Then the chance of an accidental leak running for a month [if the house were unattended] is impossible," said Seth Collette, the head of a two-person carpentry business on Nantucket. Without a tenant, though, "a choice is to keep the heat running at 55 or 60 degrees or at its lowest setting, which maintains the moisture content and the temperature to keep the woodwork and paint looking good."

The heat may also reduce the buildup of moisture and mildew, which could dampen pictures and personal belongings. Drier air helps keep the temperature and humidity constant so the wood won't swell or contract and crack the paint, Collette explained.

If the prospect of heating bills overwhelms you and you decide to close your house for months, you need a licensed plumber with work insurance. Or -- probably not wisely -- you can do all the plumbing work yourself.

Twice a year, in the fall and spring, the plumber will spend perhaps three to four hours shutting down your home, depending on its size, draining all the pipes, and then reattaching all the supply lines, for $300 to $500 each visit.

Owners of large houses often decide to keep their houses heated. "The heating bill and the draining bill are almost equivalent in price," Collette said. "Closing a house for the winter is expensive because there's a huge labor bill depending on the size of the house."

The plumber will turn off water from the main valve, then drain the plumbing system. If the house has hot-water heat, that system is drained, too. He will siphon water from toilets and pour in nontoxic antifreeze to fill the toilet trap to protect any water remaining there from freezing and cracking the porcelain. He opens outdoor hose bibs and drains them along with all other water lines. He removes the outdoor shower valve and drains all fittings in the valves.

The plumber may next drain and disconnect the refrigerator, stove, dishwasher and washing machine. "He must take particular care with the washing machine because some have rubber hoses that connect supply lines that can burst," Collette said. Or the plumber could leave everything on and shut off the main breaker on the electrical panel if the house is drained.

"Appliances can mar the floor as they're moved back and forth to unplug and re-plug them. If you do this year after year, you'll have more wear and tear on the appliances' connection points and therefore you face potential floods or leaks," Collette said.

Wood floors can buckle if you don't maintain the house's moisture content. Wood in older houses generally doesn't shrink or expand because it's already acclimated. In newly built homes, however, the frame may shrink due to moisture loss. That produces cracks in the plaster.

"Newer homes are more of a challenge. Because they are so airtight, the house can mildew since there is little ventilation. Therefore, the year-round temperature in those houses is more important than in an old house," said Butch Ramos, owner of Butch Ramos Plumbing and Heating, also on Nantucket. With two men, he shuts down 250 houses from September to January.

Remodeled houses present problems, too. "You must investigate them more [before beginning to close a house] because there could be changes in the pipe pitches or a low point because of sagging pipes," Ramos said.

Some winter preparations are within the realm of a do-it-yourselfer: Cover the furniture with sheets to prevent sun damage. Put eyelet hooks on storm doors as additional locks. Cover windows with plywood to protect against storms and to prevent birds from flying in through broken windows.

"It's Catch-22 if you try to secure a house by putting boards over the windows, because you make it look vacant and therefore you face a security risk," said real estate agent Ralph Chinn of Coldwell Banker in Berlin, Md., a historic town seven miles from Ocean City.

As an alternative to boarding up the windows, he suggested, "ask a neighbor to check the house after a bad storm if you trust him to give him a key, and use minimal light with a timer between dusk and midnight to give the appearance someone is at home."

While the homeowner is away, Chinn said, the security system company should monitor the house. "Also let the neighbors and the local police department know you're leaving and give them a reachable phone number in case of an emergency. Discontinue the mail, forward it to your winter home and stop newspaper deliveries."

Homeowners can buy and install heat tape around all pipes susceptible to cold weather, especially in the basement and crawl spaces. "It's cheap and easy to do," said Tim Collette, a builder and Seth's brother. Wrap pipe and heat tape in foam insulation. Plug it in and don't turn off the main power supply.

Many coastal houses have bathroom vents or dryer vents facing the most-weathered direction, usually northeast. Homeowners should make sure the bathroom vents/dry vents' one-way valves are working properly, Tim Collette stressed. In extreme weather locations, there should be an additional draft flapper in the duct work.

Other work to close the house includes lowering storm panels to protect interior window sashes and storing outside furniture, hoses and bicycles. Put them in the garage or basement. Remove screens from storm doors or panels and install glass. Disconnect the phone. Cancel the cable service.

Using a Caretaker

Caretakers can provide a valuable service when homeowners live hundreds of miles away. Some caretakers have a network of plumbers, carpenters and other subcontractors who work with them. If you're not in the caretaking business, though, it can be hard sometimes to get the plumber to show up. Caretakers can call one worker, then another, until they reach the appropriate person and plan an emergency visit.

Homeowners should provide caretakers with all contact information for all owners -- winter home addresses, e-mail, home and work telephone, fax and cell numbers. The caretaker should also have primary emergency contact numbers: the names of the alarm company, the fuel service provider, and the subcontractors such as plumbers, electricians, landscaper, trash pickup and cleaners.

"It's important to have someone at least on a weekly basis check the property inside and outside to make sure the boiler is on and the pipes are not exposed to freezing conditions and the heat is constant," said Kenneth L. Norton, owner of Kenneth L. Norton Builder on Nantucket, and a long-time winter caretaker. "Ninety-nine percent of damage tragedy is because the caretaker is only thinking of your house instead of checking it."

Norton charges $2,000 a year per house. His weekly visits to each house last one hour. Last winter, he said, "we caught three houses. Two had just run out of fuel to heat them. They were on automatic fuel delivery every two weeks, but because island homes were using more fuel due to the extreme winter conditions, their tanks had emptied."

Norton's third house almost met disaster. "Wind had penetrated through the north wall and frozen one section of the baseboard heat, which ultimately shut down the entire heating system. We used portable propane heaters to thaw the house. We brought the house back without any damage."

Along North Carolina's Outer Banks, snow is spotty, maybe one or two days a winter. Still, some of the same precautions must be taken, such as draining the water and unplugging appliances. Most homeowners put up storm windows, said Genelle Carter, sales associate with Sun Realty in Corolla.

Homes in that barrier island town are on stilts, so the wind and water move under the houses. Most roofs, Carter said, are made with hurricane straps "so we don't worry about roofs."

She said, "Most homes are safe and don't get damaged. We do get several storms every year, though. Then we go to Asheville, North Carolina, eight hours away in the mountains, to camp for a couple of days. There's nothing else to do but make it fun."

In nearby Kitty Hawk, "twice in eight years, it's been cold enough to freeze the pipes," said Erika Harmon, an agent with Sun Realty, which handles about 1,000 rental properties along the length of the Outer Banks.

Many Outer Banks homeowners rely on Sun Realty's winterization maintenance program. This service includes checking fire alarm batteries, draining the swimming pool lines and putting antifreeze into lines in the pump house.

Battening down for the season should include opening all cabinets and shower doors so warm air circulates to the inside of the house. Perishable food should be removed "because the house could lose power and you don't want to tempt furry varmints with crackers in the cabinets," said Marcia Y. Smith, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethany Beach/Fenwick Island, Delaware.

In Ocean City, where about 70 percent of residences are condominiums, many of them high-rises, winterizing routines are a bit different.

Condominium bylaws generally state that the owner is responsible for leaving the heat on at 50 degrees and cutting off the main water line to avoid frozen pipes and water damage to the units below, said Chris Sullins, a property manager with Sand Dollar Property Management Inc. in Ocean City.