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Do software updates or distro upgrades ever need to access /home? I know its best to umount /home when reinstalling, to protect all the user configs and data there, but I'm not sure if it would cause any problems to umount it whilst upgrading/updating.
"any files that would be updated" - if /home were mounted during and upgrade -
"e.g. ~/.bashrc would normally be copied from /etc/skel on user creation, and it'd be those files that would be updated."
Just to be clear, are you saying that an upgrade would only change the config for 'home' files in /etc/skel, and never change existing home files like ~/.bashrc? - so any changes made by the upgrade that affected a home file would only be effective for new users and not for existing users?
I make it a habit to put any config files I manually edit under source code control. Whether they're under /home or /etc. That way I can see what a config used to be (before an upgrade) or restore a previously-working config that I manually borked up myself.
Pretty simple, really. The first three steps below are only required once, then the last three are how I go about updating my "/etc/fstab" (in this example). Check it out with "co", edit it, then check it back in with "ci". You end up with a running audit of everything you've ever done to the file, and can restore any previous version as needed.
# cd /etc
# mkdir RCS
# ci -i -u fstab
# co -l fstab
# vi fstab ...
# ci -u fstab