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.”
My advisers said to look 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 they were missing on the other two doors.
That was mostly because the other two doors lacked deadbolts. Had I noticed? Absolutely not.
Having a deadbolt on a back door is especially important, Sczuroski said, given that most burglars try to enter more hidden areas of the home, and doorknob locks are easy to defeat. But he added that the door between our garage and our living room was vulnerable in the summer, when people sometimes fail to close their garages.
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 otherwise 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.
Burglars 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.”
Done. Times two.
Most homeowners understand the need to trim bushes from first-story windows, to reduce a burglar’s ability to operate secretly. 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 had mixed success in my tests. The SecurityMan didn’t work with my Macintosh computers and I had trouble focusing the SwannEye, but the camera could be pointed remotely. The D-Link lacked motion-sensor technology, and I spent more than an hour with customer service before getting the unit to work, but the resolution was great.
I liked that the Swann camera included security alert stickers, for windows or signs.
“If a burglar is looking at three houses — one with a beware-of-dog sign, another with a sign for an alarm system, and another with no sign, where do you think he’ll go?” Klein asked.
The Swann stickers suggest the house is under 24-hour surveillance, though, and since that will scare away as many friends as burglars, I bought a more generic security sign at a home improvement retailer.
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.”