Get smart. “First of all, use the door locks that you already have,” advises Sgt. Dan Ryan, of the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department. People in friendly communities that are generally safe may think they don’t need to lock their doors. That’s a big mistake, Ryan says. Here are more strategies:
• Make it a nightly routine to check the locks. Involve children, too, says Chris McGoey, a security expert and consultant.
• Don’t open the door — and don’t let kids open the door — to uninvited strangers.
• Use your automatic garage opener to close the garage door when you get home before exiting your car.
• Stick around when people are working in your home. Notice what they’re doing. Check after they’ve left to ensure that nothing’s missing and that no one has left a window or door unlocked as a way to break in later.
• Door mats, flowerpots and fake rocks are the first places burglars look for your spare key. Instead, give it to a trusted neighbor. Train children (especially teens) to keep key locations, alarm codes and other family security information private from their friends.
• Have a family discussion to plan what you’ll do in case of a break-in or home invasion. Whoever can escape should, McGoey says. Although the first instinct of many men may be to stay and defend their family, it’s better to get reinforcements than to get hurt.
Call the police. Many departments have a home-security inspection program. A designated officer walks through your home looking for weaknesses and advises you on alarm systems, locks and lighting within a modest budget.
Get a dog (or pretend to). A dog won’t make your home impregnable, but it can make it look less approachable. You don’t want a pooch? That’s OK. Post a “beware of dog” sign anyway. McGoey, who doesn’t have a dog, has a sign and makes a point of asking service people to wait before entering his property so he can “put the dog in the house.” “The sign is cheap,” he says. “It makes people think twice.”
Cultivate the lived-in look. When you’re gone, don’t let stuff like newspapers, real-estate cards and pizza fliers accumulate in front of your door. “Make it look lived-in, even if you’re just gone for the weekend,” McGoey says. Before you leave, consider how your home will appear on the outside and avoid these classic mistakes that are like waving a red flag to invite burglars:
• Leaving the porch light on 24 hours a day.
• Leaving the trash out on Friday for pickup on Monday.
Other ways to fake it while you’re gone:
• Hold the mail delivery. Do this by visiting the post office to fill out a form or visiting their website.
• Set a few lights and appliances to switch on and off. Digital timers (around $9 to $15) let you set a schedule. You plug the timer into a wall receptacle and plug the radio, TV or lamp into the timer.
• Leave a vehicle in your carport or in front of the house if possible. Ask a neighbor or friend to help you out by parking there.
• Get friends to pick up newspapers, cut the grass, water plants, feed pets and open and close curtains, varying their routine to add a note of unpredictability if possible.
Doors: Thieves prefer the easy route, which is usually a door. Creeping out a window is hard, and it’s far more difficult when carting out a load of loot. Thieves typically test a house by first ringing the bell to ensure no one’s home, then trying the door handle and perhaps putting a shoulder to the door to see how solid and how firmly attached it is. To enter, the usual tool is a pry bar or a strong kick of the boot. Sadly, many doors fly open easily.
• Upgrade the lock. For $25 to $150, you can buy a good Grade 1 (commercial grade) or Grade 2 deadbolt. No need for a locksmith; you can install it yourself;
• Reinforce the strike plate. The strike plate is the metal plate in the door jamb into which the bolt slides. Strike plates, typically held in place by two half-inch wood screws, pull easily from the jamb, especially in older homes. Replace yours with a heavy-duty brass strike plate ($3 and up) that accepts up to six screws. Use 3-inch screws that screw into the door frame. “Now you can kick on the door and your foot will fall off before it gives in,” McGoey says. Reinforce all doors leading outside, including the door between the garage and house.
Windows: Keep your windows from opening more than 6 inches. Install replacement windows that include this as a built-in feature or cut a wooden dowel 6 inches shorter than the height of each window and drop the dowel into the metal gutter of each window frame so the window can’t be opened fully.
• Burglars know that older sliding windows can be lifted right out of their frames. If yours is the type that pops out, install sheet-metal screws into the upper window track, screwing them in only halfway. The protruding screw fills the gap between window and frame, keeping the window in place.
• Window and glass laminate films (prices available through dealers) can toughen glass, making it more difficult to break. One advantage is that the product slows down intruders and forces them to create a racket trying to smash the glass.
Secure the perimeter:
• Outdoor lights. Replacing porch lights and other outdoor lights with motion-sensor lights is cheap ($50 and up) and easy. “They don’t know for sure if you’re home or (if it’s) a sensor light,” McGoey says. “Burglars are all about taking the easiest path of resistance,” so most will flee. Program it to turn off in 30 seconds. Put sensor-triggered lights all around the perimeter of your home.
• Erect a fence. Even a 3-foot fence helps create a psychological boundary that helps in deterring intruders, McGoey says. “It says, ‘This is my house, my property.’ People are going to be reluctant to step over that fence.”
• Alarms. If you have a security system, don’t put one of those “Protected by ADT” stickers on your door. Knowing which brand of security system can provide enough info on how to disable it. Get a generic sticker.
Eliminate hiding spots: Trim the trees and shrubs. A pruned and maintained landscape robs intruders of hiding places. It also signals to outsiders that your home is cared for and probably more secure. Consider planting thorny or prickly shrubbery near windows.
Upgrade your house number. You want your home’s street number easily seen in the dark from across the street so police and firefighters can find you pronto in an emergency. Many fire departments or city or county governments sell inexpensive (around $5) reflective street numbers. Whatever type you use, place it where it can be easily seen. Keep plants around the number well-trimmed.
Keep valuables outside the bedroom: A burglar on the hunt for valuables in a home will make the master bedroom his first stop, because that’s where the cash and jewelry are most commonly stored. So if you do keep such valuables on your property, find another room to store them in. Consider putting your valuable jewelry in an old shoe box and keep it in a guest bedroom or child’s room closet.
• Avoid having stuff in plain sight that says “We have lots of $$$.” If you have an expensive car, keep it in a garage. If you have nice stuff in your house, keep your blinds closed. If you just bought a flatscreen, trash and conceal the box.
Radio running: Noise helps prevent burglaries as well. Houseworth leaves his radio on all day so that would-be burglars think that someone is at home. “Your home is more likely to be burglarized during the day because they think that nobody is home,” he says.
Be a neighbor: Neighbors can play a key role in preventing home thefts. Homeowners on friendly terms with their neighbors are less likely to be victimized by other members of their community. At the same time, closely knit neighbors are more likely to call the police if they see someone suspicious poking around your property. “If they like you and they care about you and they are concerned about their community, then if they see something unusual going on, then they will check it out or call the police,” Houseworth says. So don’t be a hermit: Get out and interact with your neighbors.
• Burglars case a neighborhood before they rob it. They know when you leave for work. They know when your neighbors leave for work. If you have neighbors that are home during the day, it will make your house a riskier break-in.
Remember, the goal isn’t to make your house completely break-in proof. It is simply to make your house a less attractive target than the other houses in your neighborhood. Look at the surrounding houses and adjust accordingly. Don’t be the lowest-hanging fruit!