Help with home security
January 26, 2021 12:56 PM   Subscribe

After an attempted break-in at my home earlier this winter + crime rates of all kinds skyrocketing + reduced police force in my area (Minneapolis) this past year, I'm feeling like I should maybe finally look into getting some kind of augmented home security. But I have all kind of Big Feelings about this, plus there are so many options that I am having an incredibly difficult time deciding what I actually need and why it matters. Can you help me sort through my options?

Last November I returned home after spending the night at my boyfriend's house and found my back gate standing open, footprints all around the house, and three different types of windows damaged (garage, basement, bathroom), but no access gained to the house. It had happened in the early hours of the morning. The garage and basement windows were pushed partway out of their frames but didn't give enough for someone to get in, and the screen was sliced on the bathroom one but didn't appear to have been attempted further. All three have been repaired/reinforced since then.

I'm keenly aware, through a combo of the news / word-of-mouth / NextDoor and Ring / etc. that increased numbers of crimes against property as well as car jackings have been happening on the surrounding streets and neighborhoods basically constantly. I have been lucky thus far but am stuck on the feeling that I should consider finally getting some kind of increased security or monitoring. But I am having an impossible time sorting out A) what I actually need vs. B) what I can actually live with, mainly because far from delivering "peace of mind," trying to assess my needs for a security system seems to only foster increased anxiety.

Here are my logistical factors:
- I am home alone half the time, and have my young children at home with me the other half of the time. I am out of the house for at least one night every other weekend.
- I don't own a dog, very much don't want one, and can't have one anyway due to my son's considerable allergies.
- I do have good deadbolt locks on all doors and good locks on all windows. The front door is very visible to the entire street, with a bright light that stays on all night. The backyard is equipped with a motion sensor that lights up the entire damn neighborhood at the slightest twitch of a bunny's tail or leaf blowing across the driveway.
- I have a strong neighborhood network who are very good about looking out for one another.
- My neighbors directly across the street from me have a Ring doorbell which I assume captures at least some activity happening at my house.
- The only items of value in the home are a TV from 2013, a shitty old iPad with a cracked screen, and a cheap Acer laptop. No cash, no jewelry, no DVDs, no gaming systems, nothing like that.
- I have a iPhone and an older Alexa which is mainly used as a speaker for music but am generally otherwise very low-tech and have no desire for a "smart home."

And the emotional ones:
- I reallllllllllllllllly don't want the kind of notifications I see my friends getting with their cameras. I spend huge chunks of time with my phone on silent or do not disturb, and when I do look at it, I have less than zero wish to know about people coming onto my property, which happens all the time for reasons that are completely safe and legit. I do not want my phone to ping me every time someone comes up my front sidewalk. I absolutely do not want something like Ring Neighbors emailing me every time yet another package is stolen, yet another car is jacked, yet another person walked through our alley during the night testing everyone's doors, yet another neighborhood business was violently robbed. My mental health suffers terribly for several days every time I am exposed to these alerts. I already know these things are happening, I hear about it just by virtue of being out in the world and the community, and I cannot grok a dedicated news feed about it.

- If I've stringently ruled out the DIY monitoring route above, then I guess I am looking at a monitoring service but I am having trouble seeing the value in having this because police response times in my area are down very significantly. By the time they get to my house, any intruders will be long gone. This seems pointless. Is it?

- I am also having a lot of difficulty seeing the point (for me) of having doorbell or backyard cameras running at all times (I understand this might be useful to police investigations). I adamantly do not want to sit there and watch as my packages are stolen or my doors and windows are tested. I feel incredibly creeped out and upset whenever I've encountered footage of this happening previously (usually my neighbors emailing it through our neighborhood listserv as a heads-up) and end up ruminating on it for several days. I don't need to see these events happening in real-time to know and understand the risks that are out there and the precautious I should be taking.

- I feel incredibly resentful needing to do this and feel very resistant about putting significant (for me, basically anything above $150) money into this. I will find more money if I need to but I feel crappy and angry every time I think about it. I could go up to $300 or so at most.

So, with all that in mind, what do I actually get to keep my house safe? Do any of my assumptions above need to be corrected? I feel like what I actually want is just something that acts as a loud noise / deterrent when doors and windows are touched but I don't seem to be able to obtain just that without a lot of other bells and whistles. Plus it would need to be deactivated when I'm away from home...and probably by smartphone...and then we're right back where we started.

I would greatly appreciate answers about home invasion that are more evidence-based and less anxiety-based 'cause I clearly got enough of that already (hahahaaaa sob). Thank you for your help!
posted by anderjen to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I’m wondering if just the appearance of obvious cameras would be enough. These days aside from a dog I’d think it would be the first thing burglars keep an eye out for. Get hold of a/several non working second hand camera and put them near your front door or around your house. Other people may have some ideas but this is a cost effective deterrent that would be worth a try first.
posted by Jubey at 1:18 PM on January 26, 2021

It sounds to me like you don't want to live as if you are in a threatened fortress, and I can empathize with that. I live in a relatively high crime neighborhood in Saint Paul, which I love. I'm more interested in living in my neighborhood, rather than fearing it. Crime remains a relatively rare event, even in the highest crime neighborhoods.

That said, we experienced an attempted break-in a couple of years ago -- before the increase in crime of the past year. When police responded, they were annoyed with us that we didn't have security cameras, so we added them. The cameras we got are cheap. They have an app, and we can look through them when we want, or (in theory) talk to a person outside, but they don't send us any notifications. They don't create any weird obsessions -- I don't think about them 90% of the time. We've had no further trouble, but there is some peace of mind in knowing we can check the cameras when we want to. (And it's possible that having the cameras visible serves as a bit of deterrent.)

I'd also recommend not reading Next Door.
posted by shadygrove at 1:24 PM on January 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I totally hear you anderjen. Over here in south Minneapolis, I'm feeling much of the same.

We've let go of the idea that police will respond to anything in the moment, if ever. Do cameras help? Well based on all the footage people keep sharing online, I'm going with no. I can spot a Ring camera from the car when we drive by a house, and we keep seeing Ring footage of people stealing stuff. We've concentrated our efforts on making sure our locks and windows are up to their tasks and minimizing the the stuff worth much in the detached garage.

And like shadygrove, not reading NextDoor or even the local neighborhood "mailing list."
posted by advicepig at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have motion lights in the backyard and around the sides? I've been told by someone with a shady history that this (and having a barky dog, but that won't work) is the single biggest thing you can do to discourage night-time break-ins.

If I were in your shoes, I'd do more lights, maybe timer lights for inside and reinforce your doors and windows - what kinds of locks do you have? Are your door frames really solid and do the bolts go in well? If you have a particularly frail window, you can put bars over it too - I lived in a place (in S MPLS) where there was a side window that was basically impossible to light and very hard to monitor - and it was barred. Since most of the windows weren't, I didn't worry about, eg, being trapped in a fire.

What exactly are you going to do if you're at your boyfriend's and you get a text that someone has been poking around anyway? Call the cops so they can arrive hours later and/or shoot someone? You can make the house safer and less attractive and let it alone.
posted by Frowner at 1:51 PM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've spent some time thinking about low-tech home security in a way that makes my house a pain in the ass to deal with for a burglar. That includes fortified and locked gates that are not easy to scale, good lighting, securing of the automatic garage door with both locks and lack of ability to look inside or snake a hook in to use the emergency garage pull. I've also looked into window films or covers to make breaking in harder, and a system of interior automatic lights/TV simulators so it looks like I'm home when I'm not home. I'd rather try to prevent a break-in than have footage of it after the fact.
posted by quince at 2:03 PM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I went through some similar feelings and thoughts a while back. I determined what I really wanted was security theater. In my situation, it seemed better and cheaper than actual security systems, when evaluated solely as a deterrent. I asked a question here about that and got some useful answers that you might find interesting.

Also things like Ring doorbells can broadly and generally facilitate racism in my opinion and experience, YMMV
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:17 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You don't have to do this. It sounds like your precautions worked pretty damn well to prevent a break-in. If you've reinforced your windows and doors since the attempted break-in, that's enough. Perhaps some more interior lights on timers to go on and off inside when you're not there, since it sounds like someone figured out that you weren't home.
posted by desuetude at 2:20 PM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

The backyard is equipped with a motion sensor that lights up the entire damn neighborhood at the slightest twitch of a bunny's tail or leaf blowing across the driveway.

That's good, but it sounds like that didn't detour the attempted burglary at all if they had time to try 3 different windows.

Regarding the Ring:

Most likely your across the street neighbor has set their Ring to only go off when there's someone in close proximity to their house.

You can set up the Ring to only send alerts for a doorbell or if an actual human body is within certain distance the camera.

You don't have to sign up for the Neighbor's feature either and if you do you can turn of the pings about it and review what's on there when you want, if you want to at all.

Is there anyone else you can add to help monitor the Ring (or any other system you might get?) Could help take the load off your anxiety.

The camera's have two way communication, so you can warns someone off, if need be.

If you sign up for the monthly ring service, it'll save all alerts into a video time line, which you can access at anytime, if you so choose. So all the motion alerts might not ping you at all, but the camera will still record what went on and you can review that at any time, here's an article about it..
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:33 PM on January 26, 2021

For pure deterrent, there are fake security products like fake cameras and fake "Protected by" security signs.

On the other hand, you *can* get cheaper home monitoring service that is live on the cloud and can contain multiple door sensors, cameras, motions sensors, and more. Wyze has lowered their annual plan to 60, which is $5 a month, and contains a whole kit (motion sensor, 2 entry sensors, base station, and you can add multiple Wyze cams to that, indoor or outdoor), which are very easy to setup (fixing them to the wall is a different problem). I have tested the Amazon Blinkx system but I didn't like it as much as it has no sensors, just cameras.
posted by kschang at 2:45 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, Ring isn't just video cameras, but a system, where door and window sensors can be added, instead of video cameras. Arguably, a sensor telling you a window or door is being opened is much more important than a sensor telling there's someone near your house.

The one thing about any electronic monitor/camera/system is that it's another damn device which you have to deal with, so that can get annoying. Something to keep in mind if you dislike having to fool with a lot of devices.

Finally, I'm sorry you're having to deal with all this and I hope you find a solution that gives you some peace of mind.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:52 PM on January 26, 2021

Best answer: When I think about this kind of stuff, I find it helpful to separate out the different things that various solutions can do, and then prioritize based on that.

For example, I might think about:

1. Deter someone from trying to break in (good lighting, maybe fences, visible cameras/fake cameras)
2. Make it harder for someone to actually break in (locks, reinforced doors and windows)
3. Be notified if someone is breaking in (alarm, cameras with notifications, dog)
4. Summon help if someone is breaking in (monitored alarm system, panic button)
5. Have evidence to track down burglars (cameras)

And then if the main goals are 1 and 2, then cloud cameras don't really help with that. But on the flip side, if it's more about 3 and 4, you'd want to look more closely at cameras and alarm systems.

I don't know if this is helpful to you or not, but maybe looking at smaller, simpler problems will make it less daunting.
posted by primethyme at 3:02 PM on January 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

A fake security sign, plus a Beware of the Dog sign. Both of those might be enough of a deterrent to someone casually casing the neighbourhood for them to try a house that doesn't have these. Who wants to risk it?

And like shadygrove, not reading NextDoor or even the local neighborhood "mailing list."

Yep, advicepig is one wise pig. All this rapid "news" is anxiety-creating. NextDoor sounds like a recipe for heart attacks, flagrant racism and selling you stuff.
posted by scruss at 5:12 PM on January 26, 2021

Best answer: With all you've done so far, add a lock on your back gate and motion sensor lights as suggested. Don't have a "beware of dog" sign unless you have a dog.
posted by nicenoice at 7:01 PM on January 26, 2021

My Minneapolis neighborhood has a lot more garage break-ins than house break-ins, so I have focused on locking up things in my garage that I don’t want stolen. The snowblower and bicycles are locked to wood boards and shelving units via bike locks, and we keep our few power tools in the basement rather than on a garage workbench. We try our hardest to hit the lock button on our car key fobs before bedtime to prevent any night-time car rifling and double check that the garage door is closed. In non-winter months I also lock our gas grill to the ground via cable lock + ground screw to prevent it from rolling off into the night.

Do you drive a Prius or Honda Element? Right now it seems like 95% of all crime on my dumpster fire Nextdoor feed is catalytic converter theft. It seems like your house was secure enough to prevent entry in three different places; maybe all that’s left to do is protect stuff outside your home?
posted by Maarika at 7:25 PM on January 26, 2021

Best answer: Hi there anderjen, I'm a cop from a medium sized Canadian city and this type of question is why I created this sockpuppet account.

So you already have some of the right answers provided above by others, (lights, etc) but I wanted to add a little information as to WHY these are the right answers.

First off, obviously Canada is not your home town, so this advice may not be exactly right for you, but I feel like when it comes to this type of crime the approach is pretty standard regardless of where you live. So the advice below is for placed where the cops will come at all, even just eventually. If I'm a bad guy, unless I know the town is full-on lawless and the cops will NEVER come, I want to do what I can to limit the amount of attention I draw. So bad guys choose their targets based not on how easy it will be to break in (it's always fairly easy) but on how likely they are to attract the wrong type of attention when doing so.

It may be scary to have noticed your doors and windows were damaged, but what I think you should actually take away is that they weren't fully kicked/smashed in. The reality is that if someone wants into YOUR house they can get in easily, unless you go way overboard on steel reinforcements even the best deadbolt can be kicked in by someone willing to take the time and effort to do so. Your doors/windows were attacked because the bad guy could not tell just by looking that they would be impossible to open, and because they thought no one could seem them trying to open them.

My general advice for situations like this (which you have pretty much already done, it sounds like) is to stand on the street and look at your house vs your neighbors on each side. Why (or why not) would it be easier to break into your house vs theirs? It's (almost) nothing to do with what the door is made out of, it's whether the door can be seen from the street and whether it is well lit. If I have 5-10 kicks I can get almost any door open, but that's a long time to be kicking in a door. If you have huge shrubs that hide your front door and it's also in darkness I can take my time with those kicks and spread them out to limit the noise. On the other hand if your front door can be seen from the street and is well lit then it's pretty secure regardless of what it's made out of.

Same thing for the back and sides of the house. If your neighbors all have windows into your backyard that's great, a motion light will do the trick and secure it nicely. If no one can see into your back yard THEN you need to work on actually securing the doors and windows so that they are VISIBLY difficult to break into. Bars or obvious security devices that can be seen by the bad guys. It's better to prevent them from trying to open the widow then leave them wondering why they couldn't.

So if I had some money to spend I spend it in this order:
a) lights and lines of sight to the doors and windows.
b) indoor motion lights that trigger inside the house when motion happens near the house
c) obvious bars or blocking-bars on ground level windows that make it very clear it will be very difficult to open.
d) prickly plants along the outside of the house where people could otherwise access windows easily. Alternatively, something that would be loud and annoying to move e.g. put the garbage cans right under the window.
e) if it's a high fence around your backyard find a way to lock that gate so that it's annoying to open from the wrong side.

If you have money to burn fake cameras are ok, but there's a big psychological difference between being worried I'm going to be seen and being worried I'm going to be seen NOW. Criminals know that most surveillance cameras are crap quality (especially at night) and are much more worried about live response from neighbors or people walking/driving by.

In your case it sounds like you have good lights at the front and back doors. I would consider reinforcing the basement windows and placing motion lights inside one or more of the basement windows facing outwards, so that someone walking close to the window will get the light right in their face.

I agree that alarms are 100% useless for preventing break ins, and overall the psychological cost (and in many jurisdictions the actual $$ fee for false alarms) is not worth the cost of the system.

Also it's important to note that most residential break and enters (in the pre-pandemic days, I haven't seen any recent stats as to whether this has changed) actually happen in broad daylight while people are at work, and not at night. So if you're working from home most of the time it doesn't hurt to take a couple steps to ensure your presence is notable. Not from the street, but by the time someone is getting close to the house it good if they can see there are lights on, even during the day.

Here's a pretty good Home Audit Security guide (PDF) by a bunch of police agencies that are not my own, but with which I mostly agree. They put a little more emphasis on physical security and less on appearance, but they do talk about appearance a decent amount.

I hope this helps you feel safe in your home. :)
posted by BlueSock at 7:58 PM on January 26, 2021 [25 favorites]

Kickshields are cheap and easy to install - they are just brass plates that reinforce your doorframe and prevent a solid kick from sending the deadbolt through the doorframe. Just make sure to screw them into the framing beyond the doorframe.
posted by benzenedream at 3:53 AM on January 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your thoughtful and balanced answers, especially BlueSock's! After reading everything, I definitely came away with some very tangible improvements I can make to my place, namely a lock on the back gate, more lights on timers inside, and additional motion sensor lights on sides of the house that are far darker and less visible than I had realized. I can get those done by the weekend. I was raised to turn off all the lights always, and it's a hard habit to break. :) I've gotten way better about making the house always look occupied since November.

I also feel good that the house is probably more secure than I had thought previously. The windows that were targeted had obvious weaknesses, now that I'm looking at them more critically — the basement one in particular had a loose frame that I'd been meaning to fix for ages as well as being the sole ground window that did not have a bar on it! Now that I know what to look for, I feel way more confident that I'm applying meaningful fixes whereas before I was just flailing around on Amazon going "fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck must buy ALL the things." And yes, one thing that I've taken away from seeing these reports from my neighborhood is that homes are generally not getting significantly damaged in the process (doors kicked in, glass broken, etc.) — the majority have been the result of small lapses like doors or windows left unlocked or keys "hidden" in obvious places, so if it's not generally fast/easy to get in, they're not getting in.

I definitely don't make a habit of reading NextDoor — I don't even have the app on my phone save for a single occasion in the last few weeks when it was the fastest way to rehome some furniture and I still couldn't avoid seeing the main feed of doom and terror once I was logged in. :) Perhaps I'll find some other avenue for those tasks next time, or get a friend to help me so I'm not exposed again.

I feel much more calm and clearheaded now. I sincerely appreciate everyone's help.
posted by anderjen at 9:02 AM on January 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can use game cameras that hunters use to keep tabs on deer migration (or whatever else wanders by). They take a picture when they detect motion, and you can either retrieve the pics manually (usb) or through wifi. The cheaper ones cost about 50 bucks, and you can, of course, find a ton of reviews on them. I have no personal experience with these type of devices, but they are built to withstand rough weather, and you can bolt them to a secure object to make theft more difficult.
posted by Beholder at 3:37 AM on January 28, 2021

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