A Practical Guide To Home Security

by David Hollies

This guide will help you make a systematic analysis of your home and help you select the best home security courses of action for you and your family.

In evaluating your home's security, keep in mind that no house is completely burglar proof. If you are known to own the Hope Diamond or some other extremely valuable treasure, or if your job or family connections make you vulnerable to personal attacks, or if you live in a high crime area, you will want to set up a comprehensive multi-layered security system.

For most homeowners, a more reasonable and achievable goal is to make your home less inviting to burglars than the other homes in your neighborhood.

In this guide, we will review a wide range of options that are open to you, including several that are free or low cost. As you consider each issue, keep in mind that security systems are only as strong as their weakest link.

If you set up equipment that is too cumbersome or complicated for household members to use practically, they are likely to ignore the equipment or work around it. For example, alarm systems don't do any good if they aren't turned on. Fancy, bulletproof locks won't help if no one locks them. Security doors are useless if propped open. The point is to remember that the people in your home are part of any security arrangements you make, so you have to be realistic about how much hassle they are willing to accept in the name of security.

How Inviting Will Burglars Find Your Home?

Most thieves are opportunistic. They come into a neighborhood and look for houses that seem undefended and unoccupied. This means it is important to make your home always look occupied.

Never allow newspapers to accumulate in the front yard. Many people call the newspaper and stop delivery while they are away, but there have been occasional reports of this information being sold to thieves. Instead, many people make arrangements for a neighbor or relative to stop by daily to retrieve the paper and generally look after things.

Lights are also important in making a home look occupied. Not only should some lights be on, but the array of lights should change just as it would if the home were occupied. The easiest way to do this is with timers. These are simple devices that plug into a regular wall socket. Lamps then plug into the device. The timer turns the light on or off according to a schedule you log into the timer.

In new "smart home" systems, the house's wiring is linked into a small computer that allows you to program the activation of a variety of lights and appliances.

Another very simple way to make a house appear occupied is to leave on a TV or radio with the volume turned up enough to be heard by someone approaching the doors or windows. Leaving a TV turned on is particularly effective because it emits a distinctive flickering light at night that would lead most observers to believe the house is occupied.

Leaving a car in the garage or driveway can also be a deterrent. If you are going on a trip and not leaving a car at home, you might want to arrange with the next door neighbors to park one of their cars in your driveway while you are gone, with the understanding that you will do the same for them when they are gone.

Do Perimeter Defenses Make Sense For Your Home?

One way to protect a home is to make it difficult to get near the home. This is most commonly accomplished by a high wall or fence. In many parts of the world, this is the primary home security tactic, but it does suffer from some shortcomings. Generally, it is easier to sneak undetected over or under a wall or fence than it is to force entry into a home. Yet perimeter defenses often give occupants of the home a false sense of security that may lead them to get sloppy about locking doors and windows.

This combination may actually mean that the perimeter defense makes the home more vulnerable. The thief, having penetrated the perimeter defense undetected, often has relatively unrestricted access to everything within the compound. For this reason, perimeter defenses are most effective when they are either very difficult to penetrate or are augmented by cameras and/or motion detectors.

Razor wire, a lethally sharp-edged tangle of wire often used in prisons, is very effective at deterring climbers, but isn't practical for any but the toughest of neighborhoods. Barbed wire, while slightly more easy to penetrate, is equally unattractive. Some fences are electrified. While this may be practical for a fence atop a high wall and therefore out of the reach of casual passers by, it certainly wouldn't do to string an electrified fence around your front yard.

Electrical fences are also subject to being triggered by falling branches, small animals and even birds, so that they are best used in an environment where security personnel remain on the premises - something that few folks can afford!

As an alternative to making the perimeter defense insurmountable (and in many cases, ugly) cameras and motion detectors can be used. But like electric fences, both work best in a situation where you have security personnel on hand to monitor and respond to any detected problems.

Can Thieves Get Near Your Home Without Being Seen?

For most homes, perimeter defenses like walls and fences are of little use. Most people assume that the next line of defense is doors and windows, but there is something that comes first. It's based on the simple fact that thieves want to do their work where no one can see them. This means you want to make sure the outside of your home is well lit - especially at any potential points of entry.

Good lighting also showcases the home in a way that makes it more attractive. Of course, having a gazillion lights on all night can get expensive and may in some cases interfere with a good night's sleep, so many people hook up a number of outside lights to motion detectors. These inexpensive devices can be set up to turn on whenever something moves near it.

Most of these lights have light sensors, so that they don't turn on during daylight hours and waste energy. The motion detectors are adjustable so that something small like a squirrel or bird won't set them off. Most are also equipped with timers that turn the light off again after a few minutes.

Another factor in visibility is shrubs and, ironically, fences. Anything that allows a thief to work on penetrating a door or window while remaining hidden from neighbors is a problem. Putting yourself in the burglar's shoes, which house would you rob: the one with the hidden rear door or the one with the well-lit exposed rear door?

One often overlooked dimension to burglary detection and prevention is the role of neighbors. Programs like Neighborhood Watch and many less structured cooperative security arrangements have been effective.

At its most simple level, neighborhood security is just a matter of making it explicitly clear to your neighbors that you'd like them to report any suspicious activity to you or the police. There have been many instances where burglaries were witnessed but the observer wasn't certain a crime was in progress and didn't want to bother anyone with what might have been a wild goose chase.

If your neighbor shows initiative in checking out a suspicious situation, thank them. Even if the concern was unfounded, never kid them for being paranoid. Next time, their intervention may be well founded and save your property or your life.

How Accessible Are Your Doors and Windows?

External window and door defenses can include shutters and bars. Most modern wood or vinyl shutters aren't even closable and are useless for security purposes. Traditional, closable wooden shutters are only of use in protecting windows from storms and perhaps the widespread random violence typically associated with riots.

Roll-up metal shutters provide a highly protective barrier, but are rarely used on private homes. Alternatively, bars over doors and windows can be very effective at deterring intruders. The bars even come in decorative styles that can enhance, or at least not detract, from the appearance of the home.

Keep in mind that bars not only keep the bad guys out, they keep the good guys in. This can be lethal in cases of fire where bars might cut off the only avenue of escape. To get around this problem, many bars now come with release mechanisms that can only be accessed from the inside.

Before installing bars, check with your local housing code people or fire department about local regulations and guidelines.

How Easy is It to Open Your Doors?

Most home security measures are concentrated on doors. Here you have many options varying widely in cost. Keep in mind that your security isn't improved by spending money on devices that household members don't utilize or activate.

Doors are often the handiest access point for thieves.They'll typically look there first for easy access. It's quicker and easier to walk through a door than to climb through a window, especially if your arms are loaded with loot!

With doors, the two main issues are structural integrity and locks. Many standard residential doors can simply be opened with one sharp kick. You've seen it in a hundred TV dramas. While kicking in a door makes noise, the noise is brief and access is immediate. Neighbors are likely to ascribe the noise to something innocuous like an animal in a trash can. The sharp bang is much less alarming than the sound of breaking glass.

Many people are replacing their exterior doors with kick-proof security doors that are stronger are and set into sturdier frames. Security doors can be expensive, so some people elect to reinforce the existing door frame and use locks that penetrate further into the strengthened frame. However, many standard doors are not strong enough to withstand a well placed kick, even if the frame holds.

Recommended for exterior doors, deadbolt locks are substantial locks that lock the door into the frame in a way that is difficult to jimmy or tamper with. Locks with a bolt that penetrates the frame a full inch are best. Deadbolts come in keyed versions which always require a key and levered versions that only require a key to open from the outside.

If the door contains any breakable glass, the keyed version is necessary or the thief simply breaks the glass and reaches in and turns the lever. If you have a keyed version and you leave the key in the lock, you defeat its advantage as the thief can simply reach in, grab the key and use it to unlock the door from the inside or the outside.

If no glass is nearby, the lever version is best as it is more likely to get used. If possible, replace any regular door glass with reinforced glass that is very difficult to break. Some people substitute Plexiglas, a clear plastic. While difficult to break, Plexiglas scratches easily and can look rough and unclear after a relatively short period of use.

Sliding glass doors present a special challenge. Most are vulnerable to breakage. Security glass gets expensive and very heavy in sliding-glass-door sizes. Most people who replace the glass opt to replace the glass with Plexiglas, although it tends to get scratched over time.

The simplest security enhancement is to place a metal bar or broom handle in the inside floor track. This makes it impossible to open the door from the outside without breaking the glass.

Some sliding doors can simply be lifted out of their tracks. There are screws at the top and bottom of the inside of the door that control how it sits in the track. Adjust these so that the door cannot be lifted so high that the bottom comes free from the track.

How Easy is It to Break in Your Windows?

While your home may only have two or three doors, it may have a dozen or more windows. Burglars know that if you systematically check all the windows in a house, there is a good chance that at least one will remain unlocked.

Second story windows can be just as vulnerable because in many neighborhoods it is easy to find a ladder stored in someone's backyard or carport. Once again, a critical issue becomes whether you can count on the consistent cooperation of all members of your household. This is especially important during seasons when people are often opening and closing windows.

Most standard window locks are very simple to jimmy or force. Heavier locks will improve your odds quite a bit. Another simple, inexpensive tactic that is effective for double hung windows (those with two sliding panels that go up and down or side to side) is window pins. There are specially made pins, or you can just use large nails.

Installation is simple. Clean the window sill well. Close your window tightly. Then drill a hole from the inside of your window that goes through the nearer sash (one of the panels that slides) and into the outer sash. The hole should be slightly larger than the pin or nail you're going to use. Make sure the hole doesn't go all the way through the outer sash. Then insert the nail or pin into the hole.

The pin makes it very hard to open the window, even after breaking the glass. The burglar has to break more of the window out or spend time hunting for and fishing out the nail or pin. In many cases, the additional hassle will be enough to get the burglar to move on to easier pickings at other homes.

What About Other Points of Access?

Exterior doors and windows are not the only access points to most homes. Many thefts take place through garages. Someone forgets to lock the garage door or finds it to be too much trouble.

Valuable items may be stolen from the garage, and the door that goes from the garage to the house is often unsecured or not substantial enough to stop a burglar.

For many people, the door from the garage to the house seems more like an interior door, and they are less diligent about installing and using good exterior door locks.

Check to see if openable skylights, crawl spaces, attic vents, and other openings may also provide burglars with unrestricted access to your home.

How Do You Deal With Visitors?

The best locks and alarms in the world won't do you any good if you open your door to the wrong person. Every front door should be equipped with a peep hole. This is a very inexpensive, easy-to-install device that allows you to check out a visitor before you open the door. It should contain a wide angle lens that allows you to see your entire front entrance area.

For the same reason, an intercom can allow you to speak with a caller before deciding whether to open the door or deactivate an alarm. A small electronic camera positioned to take in the front door area is another option that is getting increasingly affordable. Both cameras and intercoms offer people with limited mobility the opportunity to answer their door without physically walking to the door.

What Role Do Alarms Play?

Alarm systems offer little in the way of physical obstacles to thieves. Instead they offer an important psychological one. In fact, some people have installed fake security system signs in their yards. While not likely to deter a veteran thief, these signs may scare off kids and other unseasoned thieves.

In a neighborhood with an efficient police force, the alarm substantially increases the odds that the thief will get caught. Even in areas where police response times are slow, the noise and attention of an alarm may dissuade the burglar from finishing his mission.

As a homeowner in a house that is penetrated, it is important to be warned that someone is in the home. The more warning you have that there is an intruder in your home, the more options you have about the most appropriate response.

Many alarm systems directly call a monitoring station or the authorities, increasing the odds of a speedy response. Alarm systems come in many shapes and sizes. All are designed to detect an intruder, raise an alarm, and, often, to call for help.

To detect intruders, alarm systems rely on a variety of detection devices. The most common device opens or closes an electric circuit that activates an alarm whenever a door or window opens with the alarm system on. Other detectors are triggered by sound, by pressure, by motion, by breaking a light beam, or by heat. Nearly all systems can also be triggered by the homeowner pushing what is commonly called a panic button.

The costs of alarm systems vary with the number, variety, and technical sophistication of these devices. Some of the simpler, less expensive detection devices are easily disabled by a burglar. The more complex and unfamiliar the array of devices, the more likely the burglar is to trigger the alarm or give up trying to disable it. Some of the more expensive systems are very difficult to disable.

Another factor driving cost is what happens when an alarm is triggered. Typically, a call goes to a monitoring agency that then makes calls to you or neighbors. If the monitoring personnel fail to get some sort of "all clear" response, they call the police.

With many security systems, the cost of the hardware and installation is small compared to the long run cost of the monitoring service, which typically runs $25-$50 per month. If you have an alarm system installed, it's a good idea to have the system updated after several years. As technology changes and as the thieves figure out how to disable certain systems, it may become necessary to move up to the next new technology.

Another advantage of a home security system is that it can often be integrated with a fire alarm system as well. That way the monitoring service does double duty - bringing assistance quickly for both intruders and fires.

What is the Relationship Between Alarm Systems and "Smart Homes"?

The concept behind smart homes is to integrate a system of electrical controls with many or all of your home's electrical appliances, lights, and outlets. Everything from your toaster to your garage door opener to your furnace can be linked up to a central control panel and activated from a phone, or in accordance with a timed sequence, or in response to a change in the environment (noise, heat, etc.), or by direct manual control.

Born out of the merging technologies of timed lights, computerized thermostats, and alarm systems, smart home technologies are likely to become commonplace in the years to come.

What Can You Do to Improve Response Time to Alarms?

Response times to alarms is driven by several factors. First is the effectiveness of the monitoring service you're using. When considering a monitoring service, get the names of people who have had the opportunity to observe response times in the past.

The second factor is the protocol you request that the monitoring service use. Who do you have them call in what order? In some cases, you might do better to alert a helpful neighbor than to alert an unresponsive police force. Talk to your alarm company about the protocol that makes the most sense for your circumstances.

The third factor is the 911 service in your area: Most work well and a few don't. While you have no direct control over the 911 service, you may be able to draw attention to the problem and seek a solution through the political process.

While the same basic advice applies to the response time of emergency services in your area, there is one factor you do have direct control over and that is your house number sign. Your house number should be large and well lit so that it is easily read from the street at night. The police are no good to you wandering up and down the street peering at hard-to-find house numbers.

How Can You Facilitate the Return of Stolen Items?

Most area police departments encourage homeowners to etch their social security number on the metal surfaces of valuables that are prone to theft. In many jurisdictions, they'll even loan you the etcher free of charge. The etched numbers aren't erasable and can only be removed by leaving an easily detectable scar on the metal.

When police come across marked stolen merchandise, they can easily find the true owner and return it. The markings also tip off the police that the goods may be stolen.

Photographs of especially valuable items like art work and antiques can help police recover goods. Photos are also a helpful in documenting your claim to the insurance company.

Where Do You Go For Help?

Some area police departments conduct home security audits for area residents. Usually free, the audit involves a check of many of the issues outlined in this guide. When investigating options for alarm companies, make sure you work with reputable companies.