Home security in a low-crime world, for security-minded people
June 30, 2014 10:50 AM   Subscribe

DH and I will be moving from an upper-floor apartment in a moderate-crime neighborhood of a big city to a single family house in a low-crime (and to be frank) affluent suburb. We're having a little trouble translating our expectations about home security. What is a reasonable level of home security to aim for when the burglary rate is 1/10th of where we're coming from? How safe can you get when you've got glass panes in your door, and windows everywhere? Can you help us sort this out?

Right now we rent on an upper floor in a small building. Our locks suck and there are signs of pry bars on our door frames (it's a metal door and frame, but I'm pretty sure even I could kick the deadbolts out of the frame). There are no alarms, and safety is pretty lax overall, and our neighbors are careless. All the same, the fact that we're 40 feet in the air and there are neighbors who share our hallways has made us feel more or less safe (knock on wood for continued good fortune!).

Very soon we're moving to our first home, and we feel very lucky--but it's a lot different living from what we're used to. DH has only ever lived in apartments in cities. I grew up in a house, but have spent the past few decades living in somewhat sketchy neighborhoods. It's what we're used to. Having a house will be a very new experience for us. Usually the story goes the other way: suburbanites move downtown and freak out in their new city neighborhood, even though it's pretty safe. We're moving from our mostly safe downtown digs to a really safe suburb, and kinda freaking because we have windows on the first floor for the first time.

Can you help us re-calibrate our sense of security? On the one hand, the rate of burglaries is literally 1/10 of where we are now. But we've never had living space on the first floor before. Our house is the smallest on the block (and it's a block where most of the houses are considerably over $1M), and it doesn't look like much in comparison, but there are sliding doors in the back and little basement windows, and regular windows you could climb through etc. I don't know the quality of the locks, but, on some level, what difference does it make whether you have a cheapo lock versus a Medeco (or better) if there are panes of glass in your door that someone could just break and unlock the deadbolts?

The house is wired for an alarm company, and DH will change the door locks (who knows who has a key?) and put in long screws for door hardware, we'll change the garage door code, and we'll make sure there are braces or something to try to stop someone opening the sliding doors. And we'll make friends with the neighbors! We're probably not getting a dog yet, but might in the future. DH would love security cameras.


1) if you moved away from the "known unknowns" of the city to the "unknown unknowns" of the burbs, how did you get comfortable with your new surroundings (first floor windows, woods nearby, car not in drive=not home, etc.).

2) We like nesting and will install some security upgrades to make our first home be as safe as we want it to be, and we will have an alarm and maybe a dog someday. But where is the point of diminishing returns? Why buy a bump-proof lock if someone can just break a window?

Thank you!
posted by 5845(f)(1)(D) to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You'll need a few months to adjust. The night sounds are different. I used to joke that I would need a recording of the CTA Red Line rumbling past my window every night just to get to sleep, but only half-seriously--every odd little creak and bump had me convinced there was an intruder downstairs and when my husband was traveling it was even worse. About a year later I never even gave it a second thought. I think all the security precautions you plan to take are pretty sensible--as far as first-floor window access is concerned, you could plant some shrubs under the windows to make it look less accessible to a potential burglar.

Get to know all your neighbors and become friendly with them. Ours will let us know if anything seems to be amiss or out of the ordinary, and we do the same for them. Sometimes someone will park their car in the driveway of a neighbor on vacation just to make the house looked lived-in, if asked.

I think your biggest worry in a low-crime community would be if you're planning to be away for an extended length of time. Get timers for some of your lights and program them to go on and off at different times. Get someone to mow the lawn regularly.
posted by tully_monster at 11:10 AM on June 30, 2014

Talk to your new neighbors about what they do and how they feel about security. You'll probably hit a range of responses, from people who have alarms and motion sensors to people who leave the back door open so the dog and go in and out. But that will give you an idea of what the range is. And also maybe call up the police department in your new town and talk to them. If it's truly a low-crime suburb they are likely pretty happy to talk to people about what is smart to do and what might be overkill. And they might also be able to further distill the crime stats- I live in a low-crime suburb, but parts of my town are lower crime than other parts, so it might be useful to get more detailed info.
posted by ambrosia at 11:19 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As in most places, break-ins are mostly crimes of opportunity. In quieter suburban neighborhoods, breaking glass is instantly recognizable as "out of the ordinary" and will draw lots of unwanted attention. Burglars stick to checking for unlocked doors and windows in a house that is very obviously unoccupied. Anything more would be asking for trouble.

So make your house less attractive. Remember to keep the doors and windows locked (at least on the ground floor) when you leave the house or go to bed. Put a light or two on a timer, and possibly one of those blue lights that simulates the glow from a TV for when you go away. Keep the alarm company stickers on the windows (or get some to put up). Activate the alarm system if you want the extra security of a fast response time from the local PD - but the window stickers should be enough to deter anyway.

Of course you should change the locks too - you're right, who knows how many people have copies. If you're extra cautious, you can put in new deadbolts that need a key from both sides of the door so that someone can't elbow through the door panes to reach in and unlock.

In the suburbs, the goal isn't to create the safest house possible - it's really just to create a house that is harder to rob than another house down the block or in the next neighborhood. So do all the stuff mentioned above and you will be fine.
posted by trivia genius at 11:34 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Generally you accept that the odds of getting broken into are very very low. Next realize that while anyone who wanted to probably COULD break in pretty easily, they likely won't have any reason to choose your house rather than anyone else's (as trivia genius said, these are invariably crimes of opportunity) and that in the event of theft, homeowner's insurance will take care of everything quickly and easily.

Alarm systems always seemed like a big burden, especially the ground floor motion sensor alarms. Some people have them, though, presumably because they would never find themselves up and about in the middle of the night.
posted by deanc at 11:37 AM on June 30, 2014

I believe that suburban security relies on insurance: in other words, the expectation is that when you get robbed, you will be reimbursed for the things stolen.

As a person who has had their house(s) burgled four times despite living in very safe suburban neighborhoods, in houses with security systems and nosy neighbors, I would like to point out that you should take special care with things that are irreplaceable and likely to get stolen -- not just things that have value in an absolute sense. I also personally think that you'll have more peace of mind if you plan ahead and think of it as a "when," not an "if" -- because honestly none of the security strategies people have mentioned upthread are foolproof, as I can largely attest.

There are, in my post-theft, "when it happens" mindset, three categories of things:

1. Things that have value for me and the legal market, but not for petty criminals breaking into my house: for example, no one is going to steal my art, even though it is technically valuable, because it has no easy resale value. I just don't worry about the art, therefore.

2. Things that have value for me and are easy to sell, but also to replace with insurance. So someone might steal my microwave, but I can just buy a new one, thanks to my insurance. Annoying, but not a big deal as long as I do, in fact, have proper insurance.

3. Things that are irreplaceable and easy to sell. This is the important category, because it's the one where insurance does you no good. For me, some example things in this category are my computer (because of the data, not the computer itself) and my jewelry (because of the sentimental value; it's actually not worth any money but thieves don't know that and they take it because it's easy to carry).

So the trick to suburban security is to have A) good insurance, and B) a plan to protect category 3 objects. I back up my computer (a laptop) whenever I'm leaving it for any amount of time (in addition to regularly just because), and I don't store my jewelry in a visible place (because in my experience burglars don't explore, they grab the first sellable things they see and run. The people saying housebreaking is a crime of opportunity are right, and most people won't stop to check Facebook*).

Oh, and I try to make peace with the fact that crime is a fact of life, no matter where you live -- because after the first time our home was robbed, I was shaking with fear whenever I was home alone, and worried whenever I left the house empty -- and that's no way to be.

*That thief who did check Facebook was also, I note, apparently not hunting for valuables...
posted by obliquicity at 12:03 PM on June 30, 2014

I think anything beyond a good deadbolt and a reinforced door frame is overkill. That's all we have in our house as far as security, and even that much is only there because of an old phobia from childhood concerning our door getting kicked in.

Thing is, those special locks and alarm systems aren't going to stop someone who wants to get in your house. If someone is dead set on robbing you, there's really not much you can do other than making your house look less appealing than the neighbors'. The police won't show up for ten minutes after the alarm goes off, and you can't lock your window against breaking. A person who wants to get in is going to get in. Not much you can do about that other than insure heavily.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things you can do. Just locking your doors and windows will stop the door-knocker burglars. Putting a security system sign up (just the sign, not the system) will probably make someone choose another house over yours. Having a medium-to-large dog who will bark when someone comes into the yard might scare someone away.
posted by Willie0248 at 12:22 PM on June 30, 2014

If you're extra cautious, you can put in new deadbolts that need a key from both sides of the door so that someone can't elbow through the door panes to reach in and unlock.

This is a good idea from a security standpoint but creates a safety hazard and is against code in a lot of places. If the house is on fire, it means that you need a key to get out.

Upgrade the strike plates on the door frames, make sure the deadbolts are high quality, keep the security system stickers in the windows and you should be fine.

Our house was broken into about a month ago. They tried to see if they could jimmy one of the windows open but they didn't touch the sliding glass door other than to make sure it was locked. They tried to bash their way into the garage via the door in the back but that was barred from inside. The police who took the report told us that they almost never break glass because the sound is so distinctive. They ultimately got in the way that 73% of burglars do, they kicked in our front door.

If your front door (or other non-sliding doors) have large panes of glass, it might be impact resistant or what the door salesperson at the hardware store half-jokingly called "DEA proof" glass. It should resist being kicked in (though it will crack). If not, you could replace them with doors that are more secure.

Oh, and try to keep anything of high value and high portability mostly out of sight (laptops, tablets, jewelry, firearms, and cash) since those are the main targets of thieves.
posted by VTX at 12:38 PM on June 30, 2014

For doors that require keys to unlock from the inside, the solution I've seen is putting the key on a long elastic cord and staying it somewhat nearby. Then the key is not in the lock, out of sight, but still accessible.
posted by carolr at 1:23 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, most often crime is due to opportunity. To wit, there are several anecdotes in this thread.

Due to a break-in a couple of years back, and more recently an attempted knock-knock robbery (but I was home and answered the knock, thwarting the 2nd half of the plan), we recently installed security cameras, and also signs on our property stating that the property is under surveillance.

In our quiet, suburban neighborhood where most of our neighbors work outside the house (we work from home) we get a lot of door-to-door solicitors. Since we installed the system we have noticed a significant reduction in knocks on our door. The cameras are completely not able to be seen from the street, but the signs are readily visible, so we attribute the change to the signs themselves. It was an unintended and unexpected but very happy benefit. The first step to keeping your property safe is keeping strangers off of it.

Another tip: when we have vendors over to give quotes, etc, we confine their access to the property to the area where they will be working. Gardner? "Go through the side gate there and I'll meet you in the back yard". He doesn't get escorted through the house to the yard. Plumber? I close every door to every room that he will not need to be working in. He can get the *general* layout of the interior of our home, but he doesn't get the exact layout, and so is less confident in knowing his way around if he is indeed not a nice guy (plus he doesn't see any of our possessions that he doesn't need to).

(Congratulations on the new place!)
posted by vignettist at 1:55 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

willie0248 makes a point:
Thing is, those special locks and alarm systems aren't going to stop someone who wants to get in your house. If someone is dead set on robbing you, there's really not much you can do ... The police won't show up for ten minutes after the alarm goes off, and you can't lock your window against breaking. A person who wants to get in is going to get in.

When I first started living alone, I was pretty obsessed with security. Until my dad made this point. Now I just lock my doors and close my windows if they're on street level, and accept that if someone really wants to burglarize me, there's not much I can do to stop it.

it's very zen, and I think has actually made me calmer with the whole thing. I used to lay in bed being like "is the deadbolt on? is the chain on? did I close that window?"

now I just.. eh. Our house has security stickers.
posted by euphoria066 at 3:27 PM on June 30, 2014

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