Burglar-proofing your house before going away
July 25, 2013 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I need some advice about making sure my house is safe from burglars especially when I'm not at home - without going overboard or getting paranoid.

Like many people, I have been burgled, an experience I will never forget although it was a long time ago. As a result I am kind of paranoid about burglary. I am a woman who lives by herself.

I have recently moved to a ground-floor apartment with a medium-sized backyard that backs onto a little lane. The lighting around the back of the building is not that great. I live in a suburb of London which sees its share of burglary (but that doesn't make it any different from many other suburbs of London to be honest). Don't get me wrong, it's a great little place other than that, but having moved in here I'm not 100% convinced about the security aspect, especially since it's at the end of the road and there aren't buildings on both sides.

These are the measures I currently have in place to deter burglars, most of which were in place before I moved in:
- deadlock, Chubb lock and chain on front door
- locks and bolts on windows and patio doors
- security light on a sensor in the backyard. I can't figure out a way of getting it to stay on all the time. It only comes on when it senses motion and is quite sensitive, coming on and off numerous times during the night but whenever I go to check there's never anyone/thing there. The wind is enough to do it.

At night I also switch on a row of little ornamental lights in the garden (otherwise it's pitch dark if the sensor light isn't on).

For when I go away (I regularly go away for weeks at a time), I plan to leave the little ornamental lights off but the security light on. I also wanted to get a couple of timer switches and attach my floor lamp and my radio to them so that they come on for a few hours every evening.

I don't have an alarm system, because none of the other apartments in the complex do and I have read that it actually alerts prospective burglars that you've got valuables in the house.

My question: Is this overkill? I don't actually own anything that valuable, it's more to do with feeling safe and un-violated. Is there anything else I can do to make my house safe when I'm not there, without going overboard or spending too much money?

Alternately, do people have mental tips and tricks to help with the whole 'feeling safe' thing? (I wish I could get a dog (for other reasons than feeling safe), but particularly with travelling so much I don't think it would be fair to the dog.)
posted by Ziggy500 to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I forgot to mention that I have a prickly rose-bush growing in the garden against the wall that separates it from the lane.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:41 AM on July 25, 2013

I would say you are on the security conscious end of normal. I wouldn't call it overkill unless you actively have to spend time maintaining your security system against what sounds like a normal baseline level of burglary threat. Not trying to minimize your earlier experience, it's happened to people I know and I realise it can really shake you up.

If I were you I wouldn't get an alarm. The only other thing I can suggest is to get to know your neighbours more (yes, I know, apartment building in London - it may not be so easy). However if you feel that they are at least vaguely aware that you exist and are keeping an eye on things in your complex then that's probably as much as you can hope for. If you can find one or two people that you feel safe to tell when you're going to be away, that will probably give you a much better feeling of security.
posted by crocomancer at 4:53 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding being in touch with your neighbours, so they can do things like clear mail and notice strangers. I think having the radio come on mid-morning too might not hurt. Even though it's light, it's a time when a lot of people are out. I've also seen prickly plants like pyracantha highlighted by actual burglars as being a real deterrent.

In terms of mental tricks, it's a bit mean, but I remind myself of that old joke about running faster than a bear. As long as your security is better than other people's, they look more attractive to an opportunistic burglar at least.
posted by lucidium at 5:15 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

It would be best, if you can, to make sure your place generally looks the same when you're not in town as when you are. I would set your garden lights on a timer as well, and make sure to have any deliveries (mail, newspaper, etc.) picked up by a neighbor.
posted by Night_owl at 5:18 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

You seem to be in pretty good shape. There are a couple of small things I'd think about also. These are all pretty obvious so you may have thought about them already.

Don't leave tools or anything like that outside where they can be used to get into your house. So no leaving the garden spade by the door etc. If you have any outside space like a shed etc make sure it has a sturdy lock. This is both to stop anyone using the tools inside and just so it doesn't look like an easy target.

Don't leave valuables etc out where they can be easily seen though the window. Same goes for bank statements etc, anything which could be used for identity theft. Just generally don't make your place look tempting.

Regularly back up your computer and keep the backups in a different place than the computer. Worst comes to worst you don't want to lose your data as well as the machine. If you take a computer with you when you travel then this is also really important since it's just as vulnerable with you as left at home (possibly more depending on how you travel).

The prickly plant sounds awesome. Make sure your garden isn't too overgrown and stuff, you don't want big bushes and things giving a nice place to hide while breaking in and you do want the place to look cared for. If you have grass and you're gone long enough for it to get long consider having someone come mow it while you're away.

I definitely agree that a timer for your outside light would be good. If they're normally on all night when you're home then try to do the same when you're gone. But if this would be expensive or too annoying to put in then the motion sensor light you already have sounds good.

Getting to know the neighbours a bit is always helpful. If you're gone long enough maybe getting a friend to pop by occasionally to check on the place would help with peace of mind, taking care of the garden, etc. For me one of the benefits of having someone come to feed my pets is knowing they are also checking on the house, and I'm sure it is possible to pay someone to just do that last part. But, in the end, they can only help so much so it probably is more for peace of mind than anything.

I don't think what you've done so far is overkill, just sensible. But I also don't think there's a lot more you can do. In the end if someone really wants to get into your house they will, even if you're right there. So I think you have to just kind of ... let it go. Realise you did all the responsible, reasonable things and the rest is what insurance is for.
posted by shelleycat at 5:36 AM on July 25, 2013

I'm not sure what word of windows you have, our open outwards and have wooden frames. I screw them and all doors closed with angle brackets. We try to leave a car in the driveway, we have a timer switch to turn on a radio and lights.
posted by mattoxic at 5:54 AM on July 25, 2013

As one hiker said to the other, "I don't have to be able to outrun a bear; I only have to be able to outrun you." You've done a great job of encouraging burglars to choose another easier target and there are excellent ideas above.

However, your motion detector light's sensitivity means no one will pay any attention to it and it will just be regarded as a neighborhood nuisance. As I've written elsewhere, leaving bright lights on all night does not translate to increased safety or reduced risk of burglary. The lights enable bad guys to see what they're doing--without need for a suspicious-looking flashlight-- and make it impossible for neighbors and passersby to tell whether something is out of the ordinary.

In any case, most property crimes are committed during the day when people are out and about.
posted by carmicha at 6:00 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you for correctly referring to what you're trying to prevent as burglary (rather than robbery, which is stealing with violence, at least where I'm from).

I think you're taking good, sensible precautions. I have been burgled, so I know how you feel about being violated. But at the end of the day, it's just stuff, you know? It's mostly replaceable, and burglars tend not to take the photo albums.
posted by pianissimo at 6:02 AM on July 25, 2013

I got my alarm system at the same time I got rid of my landline phone, so those two monthly fees cancelled each other out. This may vary depending on location (and I can't speak for London, of course), but for me it was not a financial burden. Also warns me of fire, smoke and cold (if there's danger of pipes freezing).

However, if a system needs any kind of physical work done to the house and you're renting, dealing with the landlord might add a level of complication, and that might be a decision point against getting a system.

it actually alerts prospective burglars that you've got valuables in the house

Also probably situational. If you're the only person on the block with one, yes, it makes you stand out, so you'd be reasonable to think this. In my neighborhood, maybe half the houses have one (with signage), so I don't stand out.

Overall, and as someone who's been in a similar situation, you're approaching this well.
posted by gimonca at 6:09 AM on July 25, 2013

I also have some of my most often used lamps on timers. they are set to turn on when I would normally be home and using them whether I am there or not. on the plus side, you can be lazy and leave the timer hooked up and not have to go turn on lamps anymore.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:19 AM on July 25, 2013

At night I also switch on a row of little ornamental lights in the garden (otherwise it's pitch dark if the sensor light isn't on)...For when I go away (I regularly go away for weeks at a time), I plan to leave the little ornamental lights off

The point of the timer that you have your interior lights on is making there appear to be no change in your habits when you leave. This is a big change when you leave. I'd suggest using timers and being consistent about your indoor/outdoor arrangements, particularly since you travel frequently.
posted by arnicae at 6:45 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Window and door locks are a compromise between security and convenience-- they need to resist a casual attempt at entry, but also be easy to unlock for the person inside, and the authorized person outside.

When you're away on vacation, the balance shifts-- more security you want, less convenience you don't need. Angle brackets (above) on the windows is good; you can wedge doors shut with shims or block them with furniture. Fixing holes in walls and floors is cheaper than replacing a computer or jewelry.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:32 AM on July 25, 2013

do people have mental tips and tricks to help with the whole 'feeling safe' thing?

Years ago we lived in a busy, non-sketchy neighborhood in Chicago, in a fortress-like ex-factory-building loft apartment which had no exterior doors, no windows within nine feet of the ground, a police department down the block, a 24/7 business next door, and an ex-cop landlord living downstairs. Of course we got burgled.

(The guy must have had to climb onto the roof of an adjacent building, jump across a not all that narrow alley, break through our skylight and then jump down at least fifteen feet of clear space to break his fall on our coffee table. We're pretty sure he meant to break into a similar-looking building across the street which contained businesses with, like, cash registers in them, because the contents of our apartment sure weren't worth that amount of effort. )

This led to two realizations:

1) Security precautions are more about making you feel safe than about actual deterrence. If our brick fortress could get burgled, anyplace could. So long as you don't make yourself an obvious target -- open windows, valuables in plain sight, unlocked doors, etc -- you're probably just about as safe as the guy with quadruple locks, security lights and redundant alarm systems. Burglars aren't necessarily rational actors who'll spend time seeking out the perfect location -- if they were rational they'd probably be in another line of work. Many of the available precautions can do as much harm as good in practical terms (security lights making it easier for burglars to see what they're doing, alarm systems making you look like a tempting target, etc) or are simply not that relevant at the end of the day (it doesn't matter how fancy the lock on your door is if you have a window and the burglar has a rock.)

2) It's just stuff. Stuff can be replaced. This is why they invented insurance. Think of it the way you do natural disasters or fire: you take the basic precautions and don't do anything obviously dumb, you insure your possessions, and you hope for the best. Disasters can still happen, but life goes on.

My question: Is this overkill?

I'd say it's both normal and slightly overkill. Most of what you describe is just going to be an inconvenience to you and not much of a deterrent to thieves. I'd get rid of the overly-sensitive security light in back for certain, mostly because it's probably annoying as hell for anyone living near you, and is well into boy-who-cried-wolf territory as far as anyone paying attention when it goes off. Lock plus deadbolt on the door is plenty; chains are useless (anyone can kick through them or trivially snip them with bolt cutters.) Lamps on timers: eh, won't hurt anything, might help; I wouldn't bother with the radio though.

The single most important thing you can do is make friends with your neighbors and ask them to keep an eye out for anything strange going on at your place while you're away (and offer the same for them.)
posted by ook at 8:15 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly your precautions seem pretty standard to me and pretty much what I have (minus 2 barking dogs).

Some suggestions.
Set up your light timers so that one goes on in your bedroom about the same time you go to bed each night and so the ones in the body of the house follow your normal routine. So if you are normally in your office on the computer in the evening, having the lounge room lights suddenly going on and off on a timer will signal changes to anyone that might be looking for such signs. I keep certain lamps on timers all the time as I hate walking into dark rooms so you might like to set the timers up to go on and off while you are at home as well. When we go away we arrange mail collection, and as we are in a house in a snowy area, in winter we get someone to shovel the paths and drive in and out of the garage so there are tire tracks too, as that's how burglars knew a friend of ours had gone away, there was a big snow fall and his snow stayed pristine for long enough for them to check it out.

Get a sensor light on your front door light too if if opens to the outside. Being on the ground floor well lit up will make anyone that isn't supposed to be knocking on your door to see if you are home nervous. I also like to have a peephole for when I'm home to see who is knocking before I open the door.

I'd also find a way to make your backyard sensor a bit less sensitive, maybe point it down so the sensor is aimed at a particular door or window, otherwise neighbours are going to stop noticing it's on.
posted by wwax at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2013

When I was a kid and we used to go on holiday, my dad built a secret cupboard into our house, one which you'd have to know about to know it was there, and whenever we went away, in would go my mum's jewellery, any small but precious things, and each of us kids' favourite toy. I think he stashed some ID documents etc in there too.

It meant that not only would these things survive any ransacking were it to happen (though thankfully it never did), but also that we all had that extra little safe feeling while we were away that, whatever happened, our most precious things were hidden away, safe and snug.
posted by greenish at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Leave a tv or radio on, loud enough to be just heard outside the door. Put it on a timer if you want.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:01 PM on July 25, 2013

I remember a university lecture from a security expert (this guy was hired to break into high-security compounds in order to troubleshoot their security systems and improve them), and one thing he said people underestimate when planning security is humans' dislike of pain. Rose bushes can be a more effective deterrent than an electronic security system, for example. So if the only access intruders have to your yard is by climbing over rose bushes, they probably won't take that chance unless you've given them some indication of something really worth stealing in your apartment.

I agree that the on again/off again security light is not going to deter or alert anyone. There's one on our neighboring apartment and nobody pays any attention to it because the wind activates it. You might look to see if yours has a sensor that can be directed to a more useful spot (sometimes just cleaning helps as well).
posted by oneirodynia at 12:56 PM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a Q&A in today's Guardian Money section on this exact subject, though I can't find it online. See if you can borrow a copy off a friend.
posted by Hogshead at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks guys! For anyone else reading this thread, the (uncannily identical) Guardian Q&A mentioned by Hogshead can be found here.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:08 AM on August 1, 2013

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