Ways to make your home a little less inviting to burglars

New York TimesSeptember 13, 2013 

In my leafy suburban neighborhood, burglaries happen just rarely enough to give me a false sense of safety. I watch our home’s security with a fair amount of diligence, but I’m otherwise as complacent about this realm of home maintenance – as I am about everything else around the place.

As I prepared to leave the family behind during an early-August trip, though, such negligence was slightly more than I could bear, so I called on a trio of specialists to offer some low-cost, high-impact tips on home security. My panelists included Yost Zakhary, a vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; James Klein, who oversees the New York City Police Department’s crime prevention unit; and Charles Sczuroski, a master trainer with the National Crime Prevention Council.

I gave them my budget – a couple of hundred dollars, tops – and lowered my expectations accordingly. What I learned was both encouraging and, given my past complacency, slightly disturbing.

Zakhary put it best: “Lots of people can’t afford a high-end system. But if you can’t, let’s not make things more inviting.”

We looked first at doors and windows. Modern windows often include tabs or blocks that prevent anyone on the outside from opening the window more than a few inches. If you have double-hung windows that lack such a feature, you can improvise by drilling a hole through the upper sash or frame and placing a removable eye screw or dowel into the hole.

Meanwhile, even a solid door with a deadbolt can be pushed opened easily if the strike plate isn’t secured to the door frame with screws at least 2.5 inches long, said Zakhary, who is the chief of police in Woodway, Texas. The screws were fine on my front door, but the other two doors lacked deadbolts. Had I noticed? Absolutely not.

Installing a deadbolt is trickier than installing a doorknob because you must bore holes for the lock, but the task can be done in an hour if you have a drill and the proper hardware. Door lock installation kits can help, because they include specialty hardware like hole saws and bits, and a guide for placing the holes. (Check your doors carefully before shopping, as metal doors require different kits.)

While you’re checking locks, do yourself a favor and check the hinges on exterior doors. Inexperienced door installers will sometimes put hinges on the outside, where the hinge pins can be removed in seconds. I was horrified to discover that our back door suffered from this glitch; we installed hinges with nonremovable pins.

Klein strongly advised securing air-conditioning units and fans in windows, which burglars can simply push into the room. Most air conditioners and window fans come with holes for screws that secure the unit to the window sash. Drill pilot holes to ease the task.

City-dwellers, Klein said, should pay close attention to windows near fire escapes, as well as skylights and roof doors.

“Burglars love fire escapes because they’re a sight line into your apartment,” he said.

Burglars also love thoughtful homeowners who store ladders in the backyard for convenient upper-story entries. I actually have two ladders in my backyard, for added convenience.

“Get yourself a chain and a 50-pound weight,” Klein suggested. “Nobody’s going to be able to use that ladder.”

Motion-sensitive lights are another oft-repeated recommendation that I’d ignored, mostly because I’d rather be robbed than attempt electrical work.

Sczuroski suggested battery-powered or solar-powered versions instead, as they require nothing but a ladder and perhaps a screwdriver.

“A lot of folks say they just have regular lighting for the outside, but when motion-sensitive lighting flicks on, you'll turn around and look,” he said. “The key is that change.”

I installed a few in about an hour.

For times when the house is vacant, Sczuroski suggested installing timers for some interior lights, to give potential burglars the impression that someone is at home. I bought one for roughly $10 and set it up in around 30 seconds.

The most expensive suggestion offered by my panelists was a webcam – specifically, a motion-sensitive camera that can send photos or videos when triggered, and which can be remotely monitored on a smartphone or computer. I tried three: the SecurityMan IPcam-SD ($150), the SwannEye HD ($180) and the D-Link Cloud Camera 1150 ($100).

Many people find the idea of 24-hour video surveillance creepy, but these cameras can be stowed and set up easily for times when they’re needed. Hackers can also break into camera feeds remotely, so be sure your Wi-Fi is password protected.

I liked that the Swann camera included security alert stickers, for windows or signs.

Meanwhile, the lowest-cost tip offered by my advisers was the most old-school: Get to know your neighbors or your building’s maintenance staff.

“Have a conversation with them,” Klein said. “They'll know if someone on the fifth floor was burglarized and how it happened. Get involved and be aware.”

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