Need to secure your home on a budget?

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You don't need to spend lots of money to feel more secure in your home but you do need to have a plan. Most homeowners put little or no thought into home security and, as a result, the thieves benefit. With some observation and careful thought you can create a plan that makes thieves skip your house and move on to something easier. 

The plan starts with the realization that there is no such thing as absolute security. The goal isn't to turn your home an impenetrable fortress. (Although there is something romantic about the idea of living in a castle with a moat.)  The goal is to make your home  an unattractive target for thieves.   This can be done without turning your home into a prison compound or breaking your budget.




Know thy Enemy:

Let's plan smarter and not harder and start by looking at the statistics to define the typical burglar. Every year, the FBI compiles a Uniform Crime Report. There is lots of information to be gleaned from the report.  The exact percentages change from year to year but these things are constant.

  • The typical burglar is an inexperienced male teenager that lives within 2 miles of your home.
  • Most burglaries happen during the middle of the day while the owners are at work.
  • Most burglars enter through the front door, back door, or first story window (in that order).
  • First stop is the master bedroom, where they search (trash is more like it) the dressers and closets.(Under the bed, under the mattress and the freezer in the kitchen are popular places to search as well)
  • Favorite items:cash, jewelry, electronics, silver, guns
  • Average time they spend in the house: 8-12 minutes.

While this profile gives us some valuable insight, it leaves out some important information I have learned from talking with law enforcement.The first is that the burglars don't care how much destruction they cause to your home.They have no problem doing thousands of dollars of damage to get something that will net them $20. All they care about is getting what they want. The second is that the more advanced criminals have a different skill set than you do. Just because you don't know how to get past a particular lock or obstacle doesn't mean that they don't. It is a mistake to underestimate how creative and skilled they can be at getting around common defenses. Tailor your defenses to their skill set not to yours.

It is worth it to look more in depth at the types of criminals the home owner is up against. The typical burglar as described above falls mostly into the category of  the "smash and dash" thief.  Keep in mind that each of these categories represent a range of experience.  The thieves start our inexperienced and as their life in crime progresses they develop skill and confidence.

Type 1 – The honest thief

This thief will steal when there is an opportunity but won't destroy things to do it. If they happen to see your iPod lying on the seat of your car and the window is open, they will reach in and grab it but they won't break your window to do so. If an item is lying on your porch or in your garage and the door is open, they may grab it and dash.  Pickpockets fall into this category.  I know of one instance where some honest thieves walked into a house party, as if they belonged there, grabbed all the purses that were piled up with the coats, and walked back out the door.

Type 2 – The smasher and dasher

These are honest thieves that have graduated to doing damage in order to get what they want.  When they are inexperienced, not a lot of planning goes into their actions and they don't carry sophisticated tools. A shoe, a jacket wrapped around the arm, or some item from your yard is used to break into your home. They may see a laptop though a window and decide to break the window before dashing off with the laptop. As they gain more experience and confidence they enter the home and head for the locations most people keep their valuables. They are going to toss out the contents of your dresser and your closet shelves. In extreme cases, they take pride in trashing your house and they may purposely do damage just because they can. Mostly they are selling items for drug money.

Type 3 – The Prowler

The prowler has graduated from "smashing and dashing" and even though they may still smash to get in, they are going to linger around until you are picked clean. They typically work with an accomplice or two and they are well connected to crime networks so they can fence the goods that they are stealing from your home. With a lookout, they may break into your home, pick through all your possessions and then either the accomplice pulls up in a car or they steal your car and drive away with all your stuff. The prowler, with his more sophisticated network, is also interested in identity theft. Clearing your name can be a much greater aggravation than having your stuff stolen. The prowler is usually stealing for a living. They are more skilled at entry and may even disguise themselves as delivery or repair men. They may become aggressive if interrupted and they may be on their way to more serious crimes like rape and murder. Prowlers are realistically the worst type of thief you will have to guard against.

Type 4 – The Professional

Most people will never have to worry about a professional thief. Professional thieves can make a living off of 1 or 2 high yield jobs each year. They aren't interested in the small stuff that can be sold at a pawn shop. They are likely working with an informant at your insurance agency.  They are likely to know what you have and how you have it protected. Most people don't have anything so valuable as to attract the attention of a professional thief. In theory, you protect against them just like the other thieves but your defenses will have to be much more professional to thwart their attempts.


So how do you make your home unattractive to prowlers?


Know your enemies enemy

It all comes down to the risk/reward ratio. You can't count on the criminals to be stupid. But you can count on the fact that they have a self preservation mechanism. After all, they are only looking out for themselves. That is why they are in this line of work. When they sense that the risk is too much for the reward, they will move on to another target.  To increase the risk to reward ratio you have two main weapons at your disposal.

  1. Increase the chances that someone will be alerted to their presence
  2. Physically slow down the burglar so it takes them more time or requires more effort

There is a third deterrent of being identified but this isn't a concern to the more hardened and experienced criminals. They often have several outstanding arrest warrants. They are confident, to the point of cocky, that they won't get caught.

Your security plan should have many layers

The problem with most homes is that the owner hasn't thought about security and they are using the default plan which is locked doors and windows. This is one single layer of security and it is a passive layer at that. It isn't possible to know what any one potential burglar is thinking when they get to the edge of your property. Any measure by itself may not be a deterrent all by itself. Signs of an alarm may not bother one burglar but completely deter another. That is why layers are important. Each layer improves your chances of having a measure that deters the thief that shows up at your door.

Not only should you have layers but they should have active and passive elements

A locked door is a passive security measure. An alarm system is an active measure.  Try to include both in each layer of your security; starting from the outside and working your way into the home. 


Edge of Your Property

Defense Active/Passive Alert Slow Cost Comment
Alarm Stickers/Signs Passive Yes* No $20 *the fear of alert is what counts
No obvious hiding spots Passive No* No $0-50 *Increases chances they will be spotted
Visible part of the alarm Active (if part of alarm) Yes* No <$100 *Can be fake or part of an alarm system
Physical Fence Passive No Yes moderate Works well in rural areas
Proximity Alerts Active Yes Maybe Low Driveway alarm or Dogs
Signs you are home Can be both Yes No <$20 Increases risk to burglar
Other visual deterrents Passive No No <$20 Use common fears & psychology

Alarm Stickers/ Signs – inexpensive and they work by making the thief think that you have an alarm.   If an alarm is a deterrent to the thief, then the stickers should be enough.  Keep in mind that a smash and dash thief may not care if you have an alarm because they are planning on being gone before anyone shows up to check on the alarm.     

No obvious hiding spots – Look at your property and remove all the hiding spots that would allow the thief to work unseen. You can trim bushes, lock the gate to the backyard, install motion lights, etc.  Do whatever you need to do to make it difficult for a thief.  

Visible part of the alarm –  This can be a fake siren & strobe or it could be part of a real alarm system that will visually and audibly alert neighbors.  Thieves notice details.  If your home seems organized and they see multiple signs that you have thought about security, your home becomes a less attractive target.  The visible part of an alarm can help to create this impression.  Thieves want easy targets.

Physical fence with a locked gate –This works well in rural areas where there is open space between the property line and the house.  If they have to jump a fence and run across an acre of open land to get to the house, it makes them much more visible.  They also have to carry their loot back across the land and over the fence to get away.  

Proximity alerts work just like an entry chime for a store. They let everyone within earshot know that someone is there.  This could be dogs that bark or an electronic driveway chime.   Make sure your solution keeps the false positives to a minimum or the alert will just be ignored.  Burglars hate noisy dogs.

Signs you are home – Do anything you can do to make it appear that you are home.  This isn’t just for vacations where you stop the mail and paper delivery so they don’t pile up.  Empty houses are still and quiet.  Anything you can do to create motion and normal household noises can be a deterrent.  Use motion sensors that activate an outlet inside the house. Plug a radio, TV or fan into the outlet so that noise or motion is created inside the house.   

Other visual deterrents – This is a long shot but it is worth mentioning.  Since burglars are people too, use some basic psychology to make your home a less attractive target.  This can be the threatening signs like "Forget the dog beware of the owner"  or it could be something crazy like a fake sign from the Health Department saying the house is quarantined because of infectious TB.    Get creative without freaking the neighbors out.



Close to Your House

Defense Active/Passive Alert Slow Cost Comment
Unfriendly Barriers Passive No Yes Low Bushes, moats, caltrops
Curtains/Blinds Passive No No Low Remove items from sight
Lock gates to backyard Passive No Yes <$20 Deny easy access
Motion Lights Active Maybe No Low Don't allow them to be disabled
Other Motion Devices Active Yes No Low Sprayer, Electronic Dog
Video Cameras Active *Yes No Low-Mod *If they fear identification


Unfriendly barriers such as rose bushes, pyracantha, barberry, Japanese rose, Oregon grape, holly, blackberry or raspberry, bougainvillea, natal plums, spine tipped yucca, prickly pear cactus can be used  as barriers to keep thieves from being someplace they shouldn’t be.  It doesn’t have to be a bush, you could use a metal sculpture or water feature as a barrier.  You could use barbed wire or an electric fence too but there really isn’t a need to make your yard look like a prison yard.  A little creativity and some careful thought can go a long way.

Curtains/Blinds  can be used to keep potential thieves from scouting your home for valuables.  No need to let them have a clear view into your home.  Don’t give them more information.

Locking the gates to your backyard makes it more difficult for thieves to get into your backyard where they can work in privacy.  If you have dogs that live in the backyard, it also keeps them from opening the gate and letting the dogs out.

Motion lights can be used to keep thieves from hiding in the dark.   Most burglaries don’t happen at night.  If you do use motion lights, try to take measures to make sure the potential burglar doesn’t just disable it (remove/break the bulb).  

Other motion devices – Two interesting devices that might be useful are the electronic watchdog and motion sprayers used to keep wildlife away from gardens.  Obviously how well they will work for you is very dependent on your situation.

Video cameras can be real or fake and should help to convince the thief you are really serious about security. If they are fake, they need to be convincing.  If they are real, they won’t actually stop a burglar but at least you will have video memories of who stole all your stuff. 



Entry Points

Defense Active/Passive Alert Slow Cost Comment
Security doors and locks Passive No Yes Mod Door frame too
Window bars Passive No Yes Mod Ugly, Potential fire hazard
Window security film Passive No Yes Mod Improves safety too
Monitored Alarm System Active Yes No Mod – High Needs to be well thought out

Security doors and locks – It is important to have strong doors, locks and a good door frame.  The front door is the main entry point.  Burglars either kick it in or pry it open.  The weakness of most often in the door frame itself.   If you have a window by the front door, they can break it out and then unlock the door.  Assess your door and make sure you have a solid door and a good deadbolt lock that extends well into the door frame.  You might consider a security product like  Door Jamb Armor to strengthen your door jamb.  Locks that are resistant to bump keys may also be a wise investment.  You can read more about bump keying in this article (.PDF file).  An outer security or storm door  can also help by forcing them to defeat multiple doors.

Window bars work to prevent entry but they are ugly and can be a fire hazard.  If it stops a thief from entering, then it can stop you from exiting.  This is not good during a house fire. You can buy bars that can be released from inside the house to mitigate the fire hazard but there are more elegant solutions to keep thieves from climbing in your windows.  (See unfriendly barriers above)  Besides it is the thieves that should live behind bars and not you.

Window slide locks – stop the window from opening more than it already is.  This can be simple wooden rod  or a more elaborate device.   Thieves see a cracked window as an invitation.  They WILL come test to see how well your slide lock mechanism works.  They can be very adept at knocking that wooden rod out of the way.  If you are going to keep windows cracked, try to restrict it to windows that aren’t going the catch the eye of a passing thief and invest in a quality mechanism to stop the window from opening.

Window Film – A clear film (3M makes some very good security films) can be applied to your windows to make them very entry resistant.  This makes it much more difficult to gain access to the home via a broken window.

Monitored Alarm System –  A good alarm system can be very helpful but it should not be the entirety of you home security plan.   Alarms, just like all other measures, have weaknesses.  An alarm may not deter a smash and dash thief.  They are only in the home for an average of 8-12 minutes and they plan on being gone before a response arrives. If your alarm isn’t well thought out and installed, thieves may disable it by smashing the control panel, or cutting the power to phone lines.   If you forget to set your alarm, it wont' pose any problems to the thief.

Alarms do have good points.  Prowlers don’t like monitored alarms because it denies them the time they want to pick your house clean.  This is why it is important to get a monitored alarm.  A monitored alarm means a live person has been notified and someone is probably on the way.   An alarm that just alerts locally is no more threatening than a car alarm.  Alarms go off so often that they are mostly ignored.  A good alarm system does more than just detect entry.  They can have fire alarms, CO2 sensors, freeze sensors,  and a variety of features that let you check on an elderly person in the home.  They can also have latchkey features that alert you when your children arrive home.

I recommend an alarm with internal pet immune motion sensors, battery backup, phone backup, a metal box that restricts access to the alarm panel, and one that allows self monitoring.  I plan to write an article on monitored alarm systems in the near future.



Inside the Home

Defense Active/Passive Alert Slow Cost Comment
A quality safe Passive No Yes Mod Bolt it to the floor
Computer locks Passive No Yes Low They come with most laptops today
Locked drawers Passive No Yes Low For day to day items
Light timers Passive No No Low Give the impression you are home
Video of your property Passive No No Low For insurance claim
Double key locks Passive No Yes Low May be a fire hazard
Don't give them keys Passive No No Low Don't make it easy
Inscribe items Passive No No Low Reduce Reward

A quality safe – It is a good idea to have a high quality safe that is secured to the floor to protect your most valuable items.  A good safe can protect from fire as well as theft.  Use a safe for documents, jewelry, guns, money, etc.   

Computer locks – Use cables to lock your computers and laptops to their desk.  An entire market exists for keeping computers from waking away. It isn’t the value of the computer but the data on the computer that is valuable.  You do have a backup plan right?  

Locking drawers –  Keeping things you use frequently in the safe can be a major pain which means you won’t do it.  So have a few locking drawers or cabinets to lock up items that are somewhat valuable but that you use all the time.  (iPods, cameras, other electronic gadgets).  The thieves may be able to break open the drawer but you can make them work for it.  

Light timers – A good random timer can be used to turn on lights at random around the house to fool thieves from thinking you aren’t on vacation.

Video of property – Useful for theft and fire when you need to prove to the insurance company you have a loss.  Also useful for proof of ownership in the unlikely event the police ever recover your stuff.

Double key locks – Are locks that require a key to unlock  them on both the inside and outside of the door, Stop the thief from leaving through a door if they came in through a window.  They may be a fire hazard if you don’t keep the key in them on the inside of the door while you are home.

Don’t leave keys to your vehicles hanging on a key hook inside your house.  Lock them up so the thieves don’t steal your stuff and drive away in your own vehicle.

Inscribe items – You could permanently etch your name and drivers license number (never your SS number) into high value items to make them harder to pawn.  Thieves may not figure out that you have done this until after they have stolen the items.  


Protect the protection

After you have implemented a plan with passive and active measures in each layer, go back over your plan and try to think of how to defeat each of your measures then implement counter measures.  Guard against disabling the alarm, removing the safe, disabling motion lights or cameras.   At this point you will have gone through your plan twice.  Now you can relax and get on with your life.  There is no sense in worrying all the time about your home.  There is no such thing as absolute security.  You can't possibly guard against all the possible scenarios.  


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