How to Harden Your Home Security for Next to Nothing
By Marilyn Lewis
How secure is your castle? The FBI says Americans lost $4.5 billion to burglaries last year, and residential properties made up 74 percent of the total reported.
The good news: It takes a lot less than you may think to install sophisticated security equipment yourself, and you'll save plenty over the cost of a professional alarm company. Even better, there are tons of easy, no-tech ways to improve your home's security for free or next to nothing.
Most burglars work the daytime shift, just like most of us do. They decide whether to hit your home based on appearances: Is it easy to crack or not worth the trouble? The most effective improvements are the ones that persuade a burglar to move on to the next guy's home.
Easy and Free Ideas
- Enlist local police. Local police departments typically will send a trained officer to your home to do a walk through with you, pointing out your vulnerabilities and suggesting simple fixes. Check your police department's website for crime statistics and tips. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department's offers detailed list of home-security tips for residents. Remember to alert police when you'll be out of town.
- Chat up the neighbors. Join the local Neighborhood Watch program or start one. Chatting with neighbors updates you on local crime problems and enlists allies who'll watch your home while you're away. Neighbors are terrific watchdogs. My retired neighbor up the hill who likes peering out his window through a giant telescope spotted and chased a pre-dawn intruder from my garden once.
- Use your locks. Even if your neighborhood feels safe, make locking up a habit. Burglars often test a home by knocking on a door and, if no one answers, opening it. Keep every exterior door and window locked, including the door between the garage and house.
- Fake it. Install dummy security cameras (about $5). Pretend to have a dog. Buy a couple of "Beware of Dog" signs at a hardware store and put them up. When a stranger is at the door, make a show of putting the "dog" in the other room before you open the door.
- Keep the place looking lived in. Rotate lights on timers when you're gone. Sign up for USPS' Hold Mail service, reschedule expected deliveries and get friends to drop by randomly to water plants or just walk around.
- Trim shrubs. Bushy trees and shrubs provide cover for bad deeds. Keep foliage well-trimmed.
- Use your head. Don't open the door -- and don't let kids open the door -- to uninvited strangers. Stay home when workers are in or around your home. Don't put keys in obvious places like fake rocks and under pots and doormats. Train children (especially teens) to keep key locations, alarm codes and other family security information private.
- Light the night. Install bright, motion-triggered security lights outside the front and back of your home. Battery-powered lights start around $10 each. Hard-wired products start around $50.
- Replace the door ... or don't. The best entry doors are solid wood ($100 and up) or 16-gauge minimum steel ($120 and up), says the Los Angeles Police Department. Use non-removable hinge pins and avoid doors with glass windows unless the glass is burglar-resistant. Consumer Reports' test of entry doors found, however, that a strong door frame may count more than the door: "All [doors] eventually failed because the doorjamb split near the lock's strike plate, though we also found that beefed-up locks and strike plates can greatly increase a door's kick-in resistance."
- Install a high-quality deadbolt -– or two. Whatever you do, don't rely on a simple knob lock (built into the door handle) alone. Install a deadbolt above a knob lock. Use a solid core or metal door for all entrance points. Use a quality, heavy-duty deadbolt lock with a 1-inch throw bolt. Use a quality, heavy-duty knob-in-lock set with a dead-latch mechanism Use a heavy-duty, four-screw strike plate with 3-inch screws to penetrate into a wooden door frame. Use a wide-angle 160-degree peephole mounted no higher than 58 inches. Consumer Reports tested deadbolt locks: "Many of the dead-bolt locks we tested don't provide the level of protection you might expect." CR recommends the Medeco Maxum 11WC60L lock in brushed nickel (brass tarnishes), found online for less than $200. This Old House's video demonstrates how to install a keyed deadbolt.
- Replace the strike plate. Consumer Reports also found that a strong strike plate makes a big difference: "All locks come with a strike plate that attaches to the door frame. But as we've reported in the past, far too many of those are flimsy. Except for the Assa M80 [lock], $95, the kick-in resistance of most locks improved dramatically when we replaced the strike plates with a Mag High Security Box Strike, $10."
There's a wide range of home security products. Here's the lowdown on the wired type: "Basic home security systems, or burglar alarms, are typically wired to a central control panel in the home that will activate when windows or doors are opened while the system is armed," says The Chicago Tribune.
Most DIY systems, however, use wireless technology. They're easier to install and can save you a bundle over a wired setup, says The DIY Network, reviewing pros and cons of both. These products begin under $100.
Professional alarm companies may charge little to install a system, but they'll make up for it with monitoring fees. Some, but not all, wireless systems let you hire a professional service for monitoring, so you can comparison shop for price. Or monitor your wireless system yourself, through your computer or smartphone.
Says Fox News, in a review of products: "Log in online, and you can get live video feeds from all over your home, text alerts when anything moves, and even adjust the thermostat that you forgot to program before you left."
Video Surveillance and More
Many DIY systems include a video monitoring option. Or you can purchase cams separately. Think nannycams, but at the front door. Cameras are typically engaged by a motion sensor and allow you to monitor the video feed with an Android or iOS app on a high-speed mobile device.
Something new, trying to raise money on Kickstarter and reviewed by CNN, substitutes a listening device for cameras. Point "combines microphones with environmental sensors to detect anything out of the ordinary in your home while you are away."
Have you tried installing any of these or other improvements in your home? We'd love to hear about it. Post your comments below or on the Money Talks News Facebook page.