Working with Home Security Systems

Although many home security systems out there are doing a great job at monitoring and protecting your home, some simple low-tech measures can be accomplished at little or no cost. Options and choices in this marketplace are full of new gadgets and sensors that connect you to your home. The cost of the monitoring systems are based on the complexity of the installation and whether or not it can be done by the homeowner. Use this report to get a solid understanding of what can be done to keep thieves out of your home, from low to no cost actions you can take on your own to pricey, high tech installations that hook right into private, off site security companies.

Home Invasion and Home Security Systems

Most residential burglary losses result from a door or window being left opened - residential burglars generally are not very skilled. The key to their success is that many families are lax about home security. Reasonable security measures on the part of homeowners (and their families) usually can foil the residential burglar and make them look for an easier target.

This report outlines the various measures that can be taken to improve the security of a home, and considers the expected costs associated with their implementation or installation. It is not suggested that all the measures outlined need to be applied to attain an acceptable level of security. Rather, the threat of burglary, the cost and installation of the security measure, and the degree to which the measure may inconvenience a family's way of life should determine which ones are used.

Zero Cost Security Measures

The following procedural security measures can be applied by the homeowner at little or no cost. These no-cost measures will likely deter most residential burglars.

  • Keep doors to enclosed porches and entryways securely locked at all times. A door or window within an enclosed porch or entryway is a preferred point of illegal access, since it affords the burglar an opportunity to work without fear of being seen by neighbors.
  • Keep shrubbery trimmed as neatly as possible to enhance the visibility of openings.
  • Remove names from the exterior of the house since the name from a plaque on the front door or mail box of the house can be used to obtain the telephone number. If a burglar feels the house is unoccupied, a call from a local pay phone can be used to check if anyone is home.
  • Never leave the garage door open, even if you will be away only for a short while. An open garage serves as an indicator that a house may be unoccupied and provides a burglar with the opportunity to work concealed. Also, an open garage can provide a burglar with a ladder for entry through a second-story window or with the tools for prying open a door.
  • Whenever the house is unoccupied, day or night, lock all doors, windows, and screens, keep a radio playing loud enough so that it can be heard just outside the door, and leave a light burning at night, preferably on a timer that can turn it on or off. Also, never leave notes (e.g., to the delivery man) stating that you are away and will be back soon.
  • Discuss your vacation plans (or business trips) as little as possible in public.
  • When on vacation or a long weekend trip, do not stop delivery of newspapers and mail - this only announces to others that you are away. Ask a neighbor to pick them up.
  • If you will be away for an extended period, notify the police and ask them to spot-check your home. Make arrangements to have the lawn mowed in summer, snow shoveled in winter, and other routine maintenance jobs performed. Give the house a lived-in look. Leave shades and blinds in a partially opened position. Use timers that will activate lights at irregular time intervals to give the appearance that the house is occupied.
  • Be extra vigilant when leaving home to attend weddings or funerals. Burglars have been known to read marriage and funeral notices to determine when a family may be away from home.
  • Make the job of the burglar as difficult as possible in the event that entry is accomplished. Conceal valuables - do not leave jewelry on bureaus or money in dresser drawers. The master bedroom is usually the first place a burglar will head for.
  • Participate in Operation Identification, which involves marking all valuables with an identification number. In this way, recovered items can be returned to you. Display an Operation Identification decal indicating that all items of value have been marked. The inscribing tools often can be borrowed, free of charge, from sponsoring local police departments. Inventory all valuable items and keep a written and video record in a safe place, preferably outside the home. Include a description of the item, the date and place of purchase, and the cost.
  • Request a residential crime prevention survey from your local police department. Most police departments have crime prevention units that will inspect a home and make security recommendations.
  • Join a Neighborhood Watch Program. Be your neighbor's keeper - report all suspicious persons, automobiles, and service trucks to the police immediately.
  • Do not have identification tags with your name and address on house key rings. Lost keys can end up in the wrong hands.
  • Do not leave keys hidden outside the home. Burglars have an uncanny ability of finding hiding spots. The best place to hide a key is in the hands of a trusted neighbor.
  • When moving into a residence with a radio-operated garage door opener, or if installing a new unit (manufacturers factory-set all devices to the same code), change the signal code for the device.
  • If your car is stolen with the garage door opener in it, change the signal code for the garage door opener as soon as possible. Also, when you leave your car for service at a repair shop, just as you would not leave your house keys in the car, do not leave the garage door opener.
  • Display decals or signs indicating that your home is protected by a burglar alarm system, whether or not you have one. Studies have shown that burglars are deterred by an alarm system.
  • If a visit by service personnel is unexpected, ask for identification and verify it with their employers before letting them in.

Inexpensive Home Security Choices

The security measures outlined in this section are designed specifically to increase the resistance of doors and windows to illegal entry. In general, they will cost under $100 to implement. However, in those cases where the homeowner can do the installation, the cost can be substantially reduced.

  • Replace exterior hollow-core doors with a solid wood door or steel door since exterior wood doors of hollow-core construction can be easily penetrated by smashing a hole in the door. If replacement is too costly, the door can be reinforced with 1/2-inch-thick (1.7-cm-thick) plywood attached to the interior side of the door. The door frame should also be strengthened by using long screws to secure it to the wall studs.
  • Have exterior doors fit tightly in the frame, with no more than 1/8-in (3.2-mm) gap between the door and frame, to deter a burglar placing a bar in the gap and prying open the door. If the gap is large, replace the door or install a sturdy metal strip to the door edge to cover the gap.
  • Assuming exterior doors are of solid construction, equip them with a good deadbolt lock ($50-100). To resist attempts at spreading the door frame to bypass the lock, called jimmying open a door, install locks that have a bolt with at least a 1-in (25.4-mm) throw. A vertical deadbolt lock ($35) that secures the door to the door frame is particularly effective against jimmying attempts. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) has a listing program for high security locking cylinders and door locks. Double cylinder deadbolt locks (i.e., locks requiring a key to be opened from either side) are not recommended, since they can hinder exit in an emergency.
  • To provide protection to the lock cylinder, provide a cylinder guard plate ($25) or a cylinder guard ring ($15).
  • Reinforce the strike for a deadbolt lock by installing a reinforced strike ($20), or using extra-long mounting screws that penetrate through the door frame into the wall studs. This will prevent a common method of burglary attack on a door in which the strike plate is broken out of the door frame.
  • Protect the hinged side on outward swinging doors by installing projecting pins in the hinged edge of the door that fit snugly into sockets in the door jamb when the door is closed. This will prevent attempts to open the door on the hinged side by removal of the hinge pins or by cutting off the hinge knuckles.
  • If an exterior door has a glass panel within 40 in (1.0 m) of the lock, replace the glass with UL-listed burglary-resisting glazing material, such as polycarbonate glazing ($10/sq ft plus installation). Alternatively, a sheet of polycarbonate can be attached to the inside of the door behind the glass to provide back-up protection, or the glass panel can be protected with a metal security screen ($35). This will prevent a burglar from breaking the glass and reaching in to unlock the door.
  • To aid in identifying visitors, provide exterior doors without glass panels with a wide-angled viewer that affords a 180° view outside the door.
  • Install and adjust the rollers on sliding glass patio doors so that a burglar cannot lift the doors out of their tracks and remove them. The rollers can be adjusted so that the door cannot be pushed up enough to lift it off the track. Alternatively, a projecting screw placed in the track above the door or a nail inserted through the inside frame and partway through the metal door frame will prevent the door from being lifted out of the track. The same techniques can be applied to sliding windows.
  • On sliding patio glass doors, since the lock catch can usually be easily pried out of the soft aluminum door frame, place a wood dowel or a patio door bar ($15) in the track of a sliding door that will positively block the travel of the sliding door even if the lock is broken.
  • Secure exterior basement doors on the interior with a slide bolt ($15), or on the exterior with a heavy-duty padlock ($30) that has a hardened steel hasp.
  • Secure overhead garage doors by drilling a hole in the roller track and placing a padlock in the hole. A garage door opener can also provide good security. Provide both the interior and exterior doors of an attached garage with a deadbolt lock.
  • Secure exterior windows. Most residential burglaries are through doors; however, if the doors provide reasonable barriers, a burglar will try the windows, which generally have inadequate locks. Several types of bolts, pins, and key locks are available for securing accessible windows. An inexpensive way to secure a double-hung window is to drill a hole, angled downward, through the inner stile and halfway through the outer stile of the windows. A screw or bolt placed in the hole will prevent the window from being opened. Secondary holes can be drilled in the frame to allow the window to be opened no more than 6 in (15.2 cm) for ventilation.
  • If there is concern that a burglar may break the glass and reach in to unlock a window, replace or back up the glass with polycarbonate glazing.
  • Use a folding steel gate ($100), stationary iron bars ($75), or vigilante bars ($25) over windows when aesthetics are not of concern and when the window will not be used as a means of exit in the event of fire.
  • Secure air conditioners in ground-floor windows to prevent their removal as a means of gaining entry.
  • Control exterior lights, as well as interior lights, with timers ($10-15) to turn them on and off when the home is vacant. Photocells that turn lights on at dusk and off at dawn can also be used.
  • Install burglar bars, preferably on the inside, over basement windows that are hidden and which provide easy and unobtrusive access into a home.
  • Before moving into a new residence, rekey all locks ($10-20 per lock) or replace the lock cylinders ($20-40 per cylinder).
  • Since burglars tend to avoid situations that create noise, consider having a dog. Dogs that bark when someone approaches the home can be effective deterrents to burglary. This is especially true of the amateur thief, who accounts for the majority of residential burglaries.

Moderate Cost House Security Options

Each measure outlined in this section will cost in the range of $100-500. A major part of the cost may involve the installation of the security device (assuming it cannot be done by the homeowner).

  • Consider the use of a lock that operates multiple deadbolts ($200-350 installed) to provide a door with a higher level of security against physical attack. These locks can provide locking bolts on as many as all four edges (i.e., top, bottom and both sides) of the door.
  • Protect accessible windows with ornamental steel window guards ($175 installed for a 3' x 5' window).
  • Protect windows leading to fire escapes, or that may be used in an emergency, with a folding gate ($200 installed for a 3' x 5' window) that is approved by the local fire department for such use. Contact the local fire department for the name of a manufacturer.
  • As a deterrent to burglary, utilize energy-efficient outdoor lighting systems ($150) that operate on photoelectric sensors and provide dusk-to-dawn lighting.
  • Consider using a do-it-yourself, UL-Listed residential burglar alarm system ($150-500), consisting of a central control box, wireless sensors for doors and windows, motion detection devices, and a local siren or bell, which may scare off a burglar.

Expensive Home Security Measures

The application of the appropriate procedural and physical security measures previously discussed may provide an acceptable level of security. However, there are more costly measures that can be applied, ranging from $500 to thousands of dollars, which can provide the homeowner with a “higher” sense of security. The decision to use these "more expensive" measures will be based on the value of the property to be protected and the homeowner's need for personal security.

  • Replace all insecure exterior doors that are installed in weak frames with solid wood doors or steel doors in reinforced steel frames ($500-600 installed). Alternatively, a decorative steel security storm door ($550 installed) can be used.
  • Protect cash, jewelry, and other valuables by the use of a safe. A UL-Listed fire-resistant safe ($350) will protect money and important paper records from damage due to fire and provide some measure of burglary protection. A UL-Listed burglary-resistant safe ($1,000) will protect against burglary but is ineffective against fire. A combination fire- and burglary-resistant safe is available at a higher cost.
  • Use a security closet ($500-1,000) to protect firearms, silverware, cameras, and furs. The security closet can be made by installing 1/2-in-thick (12.7-mm-thick) plywood on the inside walls of a closet and replacing the door with a steel door in a reinforced frame.
  • Purchase a professionally installed burglar alarm system that provides perimeter protection and interior motion detection in selected areas and signals an alarm locally or to a remote central station office. Purchase and installation costs for these systems can be as little as $200, for an average-size home, to as much as $2,500, for a large home. The price depends on the extent of the alarm protection provided. Some alarm companies waive purchase and installation charges if a two- or three-year monitoring contract is purchased.
  • UL offers a certificate service for residential burglar alarm systems. The UL Certificate serves as evidence that the alarm system meets UL requirements for installation and operation and is covered by a maintenance and service contract. Only UL-listed alarm companies can provide UL-Certificated service.

Home Security as a Theft Deterrent

Many home burglaries are due to the ability of a burglar to take advantage of improperly locked entry points and a general lack of knowledge on the part of homeowners about basic security measures. Generally, residential burglars want to make an easy entry, work undisturbed, and leave undetected. Reasonable security measures can deter these opportunistic thieves.

The degree of burglary protection a homeowner desires is a subjective matter. A homeowner who has been a victim of burglary may feel the need for maximum protection, while someone who has not been victimized may object to making a home look like a fortress. Some types of burglary protection can create a fortress-like impression; however, others can provide good protection and be accomplished in an attractive manner.

Because of the danger of a face-to-face confrontation, burglary protection should be designed to prevent the burglar from gaining entry. Good locks installed on strong doors and windows are effective in keeping the burglar out. When an alarm system is used, it should detect intruders before entry is gained, scare them off, and notify an outside agency of the attempted intrusion. This requires that the system have a local bell or siren and be connected to a central monitoring station.

Protecting your home starts with common sense measures that you can take to keep your home from becoming a target, like keeping desirable possessions out of plain sight and installing sensors on doors and windows. And protection shouldn’t stop there, as the potential for robbery losses can be substantial. Take a moment and consider fine-tuning your homeowners policy, and contact your American Family Insurance agent today. You’re going to feel great with the knowledge that your family is protected, and that you’ve done all you can to keep what matters most safe and secure.


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