Keep your home safe

Preventing break-ins starts with making your home a less inviting target

By Allan Britnell


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“The front door was open, so I knew something was up right away,” says Gary Davidson, a former Canadian Home Workshop art director who returned home after a short motorcycle ride one spring night to discover his Toronto apartment had been burglarized. In the hour that Davidson was out, a thief had cut away the screen on an open ground-floor window, ransacked the apartment and made off with cash, CDs, a Dremel tool-given to him as a going-away gift from CHW staff when he left the magazine-and three cameras.

Inside, Davidson describes the scene as “typical of what you'd imagine for a break and enter: things strewn all around, bed turned upside down, bedroom drawers pulled out, things thrownon the floor….”

Sadly, this scene is all too familiar to thousands of Canadians. Statistics Canada reports that in 2003 alone, almost 154,000 homes were broken into.

While it's impossible to burglarproof your property completely, there are some ways to make your home a less tempting target, reduce your losses if someone gets in and get your stuff back if it's stolen.

The first step is to eliminate the easy entry points. Far too many burglars get into houses the same way you do: by walking through the front door. While the owners are in the back lounging or doing yardwork, brazen burglars simply enter through unlocked doors. “It only takes a minute for somebody to go in and grab your valuables, and you don't even know they've been there,” says Sylvia Oakley, program director with Edmonton's Neighbourhood Watch. Forgetting to lock windows when you go out, as Davidson did, also provides an easy entrance. Another common mistake is to leave the garage door open-not only is it a potential means of entry to your home but you're also advertising all the tools and equipment available to any burglar passing by.

And while it should go without saying, don't leave a spare key for crooks to find. They know all the obvious spots (under the mat, on top of the door frame) and even the supposedly secret ones (inside a flowerpot or a fake rock). Leave your extra key with a trusted friend or neighbour.

Target Practice

Regardless of your habits and security measures, some homes-such as those in rural areas or that back onto urban parkland-are more prone to break-ins than others. Burglars also target properties with heavy foliage and those on quiet, dead-end streets.

Not sure if you're a likely target? The best way to find out is to inspect your home from the outside. Const. Byron McNeil of the London, Ont., police suggests homeowners conduct a complete perimeter inspection of the building. On your walkabout, stop every five feet or so and look away from the house. Do you see any windows or doors that a neighbour could potentially observe an intruder from? If not, a thief is going to target that blind spot. If there happens to be a window or door in the hidden area, trim shrubbery or beef up security there.

Properly positioned exterior lighting can help, but don't simply rely on motion sensors or a couple of bright floodlights. “Everyone thinks bright is better,” says James Solecki of Integra Works, a custom-lighting installer in Port Sydney, Ont. But it's not. “Floodlights create high levels of contrast, [with] bright areas and dark areas. Your eye will automatically adjust to the brightest areas, and the darkest areas essentially seem even darker.” The result is that a criminal can lurk out in the open but be hidden behind the glare.

And the problem with a motion sensor is that if it's frequently set off by people and wildlife, your neighbours won't pay any attention.

A better option is to use multiple, energy-efficient lights around the property. “Multiple sources of light along paths, in trees and on the house give it a very lived-in look,” says Solecki. “Most people will think, ‘No one would leave that many lights on if they weren't home.'”

A Tight Ship

Burglars are people too, and given the choice between walking through the front door and having to scale the walls to clamber in a second-storey window, they'll take the door. Since it's the most common entry point for burglars, you should spend some time shoring up its defences. The door itself should be solid wood or steel-clad, and be equipped with a quality deadbolt lock. The bolt should pass through a metal strike plate on the frame that's secured with screws three inches or longer, driven right into the wall stud. Windows in or beside the door should be coated with shatterproof glazing. Finally, if a stranger comes knocking, be aware that a sliding chain lock is easy to force open. For extra safety, a peephole with a 180-degree angle of view is a security feature you can add to a door in a matter of minutes. (For step-by-step details on how to secure entrance doors, see “Show Thieves the Door”.)

The patio door is another tempting target. Many new doors come with swing bars or step-engaged bolts that prevent the door from sliding open if the lock is jimmied. If you don't have one of these, the tried-and-true method of laying a length of hockey stick or broom handle in the track does the same job. Some doors can be lifted straight up and out of their tracks. If there seems to be a lot of upward play on your door, adjust (or add) metal brackets to the top of the door frame that restrict this movement.

Rather than learning a lesson the hard way, make a habit of locking all your windows before you step out, particularly on the basement and ground-floor levels, even if it's just for a couple of minutes. In high-crime areas, you may want to add security bars to lower-level windows. (Note that for fire safety, security bars must have a quick-release mechanism that opens from the inside.)

Holiday Plans

Everyone knows to cancel the paper before going on vacation, and to ask someone to collect the mail and flyers that accumulate. But to ensure that your house has that lived-in look while you're away, you should also ask a friend or neighbour to mow the lawn, rake the leaves or shovel the snow, as the season warrants. Moving a car around on the driveway can also help. You shouldn't advertise the fact you're about to embark on a journey. If possible, pack your car inside the garage, away from prying eyes. And whatever you do, don't leave a message on the answering machine telling callers that you're “away until the end of the month….”

Tech Support

If you live in the city, you probably don't like alarm systems. The prevalence of false alarms has caused most of us to ignore (and curse) these disturbers of the peace.

An increasingly popular option is a monitored system. With these systems, when a sensor is tripped, the signal is sent to a control centre. If the correct pass code isn't entered (or given, in the case of two-way voice systems), uniformed security guards are dispatched or the police are notified.

Many companies offer free system installation, provided that you sign up for multi-year service contracts, with monitoring fees typically ranging from $20 to $40 a month.

While a sticker saying you have an alarm (even if you don't) may scare off mischievous kids, professional thieves will be undeterred because they know that, even with a monitored system, the odds of them being caught red-handed is unlikely. Inevitably, there are delays in the time it takes the company to verify the alarm is legitimate, contact police and have officers dispatched. And thanks to the number of false alarms, police generally treat the call as a non-emergency, meaning they won't be speeding or running red lights to get there. “When the average [burglar] is in and out in less than five minutes, the chances of us getting there and catching them is pretty slim,” says McNeil.

That's why programs such as Neighbourhood Watch (or simply having nosey neighbours) are so important. If someone calls the police to say they've seen a burglary in progress, the police will handle it as an emergency call and have a much faster response time. (Members of the Edmonton Neighbourhood Watch can also sign up for automated telephone recordings that notify them if thieves have been targeting a specific area so residents can be on heightened alert.)

The family dog can also help alert you or the neighbours to prowlers and is often enough to frighten them off, but even Fido isn't foolproof: “People that do break-ins will often come with a piece of meat to throw to the dog,” says McNeil. You come home to a well-fed pet and an empty house.

Lost and Found

In the event your perimeter defences are breached, there are ways to reduce your losses. To keep the amount of time thieves spend in a house to a minimum, professional crooks tend to target two rooms: the living room, where they'll find CDs, DVDs and electronic items they can fence, and the bedroom, where they're looking for jewelry and cash.

Think about it for a minute. Do you have an envelope of cash in a dresser drawer? Or a jewelry box full of valuable and irreplaceable heirlooms? Those are the first things a burglar is going to find. If you do keep valuables in the home, lock them in a safe, recommends McNeil: “We suggest that [the safe] be stored in the furnace room and be bolted to the floor. It's not an area of the home the bad guy's going to go to.”

Of course, it's unlikely you'll bolt down your DVD player or stereo. That's why it's important to write down the serial numbers of your appliances. Some police departments and Neighbourhood Watch groups have engravers that they‘ll lend out so homeowners can make additional identifying marks on their property. One of the problems police face is that even when they do recover stolen property, they have no way of identifying the rightful owner.

Another innovation may one day come your way. In conjunction with the local RCMP, the Neighbourhood Watch Association of St. Albert, Alta., has created a unique program in which homeowners can record the serial numbers of their property on a secure online database. If police recover stolen goods, they can cross-check serial numbers against the list and return them to the owners. Launched slightly more than a year ago, hundreds of residents have already signed up. The organization hopes to see the program roll out across the province and, eventually, nationwide.

In addition to recording identification numbers, you should also take photos of all the items in your house. These will help you recall what's missing and identify items in the event that your property is recovered. Store these pictures in a safety deposit box or another off-site location as they can also help with insurance claims in the event of a fire.

Shop Talk

If you have a detached garage or workshop, you should apply these security tips to your home away from home.

Start by making a detailed inventory-including serial numbers-of all your tools, bikes and other valuables that could go missing. (This list can also be used to help track which neighbour borrowed the lawn mower...)

Next, replace flimsy doors and locks with the same calibre you'd use on your home's exterior doors. If there's a window, consider security bars or, at the very least, curtains to prevent snooping.

Finally, a motion-sensor light inside the building may frighten away burglars. It will also prevent you from having to grope around in the dark whenever you get a midnight urge to build something.

Case Closed

Davidson was one of the lucky ones. He'd happened to write his name on some of the CDs that were stolen. When police later apprehended the burglar-a heroin addict eventually charged with more than 50 B and Es-he still had some of Davidson's possessions on him. This, unfortunately, is the exception to the rule. But if you make a few DIY modifications and alter some bad habits, you just might be able to keep all your belongings and avoid becoming one of next year's robbery statistics.

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