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PRACTICAL TRAVELER Keeping home safe and sound

by Martha Stevenson Olson

An informative piece on home security by journalist Martha Stevenson Olson which quotes FBI statistics on the prevalence of burglary in the US. The Washington-based National Crime Protection Council tell us that ‘the key deterrent to burglars is to create the illusion that your house is occupied’. Even better – get a house sitter instead!

4 August 2002

SOME people, when planning a vacation, focus so completely on getting away that they neglect to attend to the place they are leaving behind. But nothing will deflate holiday euphoria faster than a home that’s been robbed or flooded in the owners’ absence.

According to F.B.I. statistics, July and August, peak travel periods, are also peak months for burglary, and preliminary figures for 2001 show a 2.6 percent rise for the first six months of the year, the first such increase in a decade. The average burglary, for the year 2000, involved a loss of $1,381; the cost nationally was nearly $3 billion. And according to the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit trade association based in Manhattan, summer is also a peak time for water leaks and damage, with more than $1 billion in insured residential losses annually.

The key deterrent to burglars is to create the illusion that your house is occupied, according to the Florida attorney general’s office and the National Crime Protection Council, a nonprofit agency in Washington. One way is to have a friend house-sit while you’re gone, or to ask a neighbor to come over daily, pick up mail and newspapers, water the plants, maybe move your car a bit, or park his car in your driveway. Give the neighbor a key and a telephone number where you can be reached in an emergency. Many police departments, including the New York Police Department, also offer free security evaluations of your property. When calling your precinct, ask for the crime prevention officer.

Time, light and noise are a burglar’s three enemies, the experts say. According to Jean O’Neil, director of research and evaluation for the National Crime Protection Council, more than 40 percent of burglaries are done ‘without force,’ that is, entry is through an unlocked window or door. Make sure, when you leave, that doors are dead-bolted, windows are locked, and sliding glass doors have a jam bar, as well as one or more bolts through the casing to prevent their being lifted off their tracks.

If you have a window air-conditioner that is accessible from the outside, remove it and lock the window, and consider security bars for shielded, vulnerable windows like those in a back basement. Assign someone to make sure that all windows and doors are secure before exiting – and locking! – the front door. And if you have a garage-door opener, don’t leave it in plain view in your car.

Also, Ms. O’Neil advised, eliminate tree limbs that lead to upstairs windows, trim hedges and shrubs that provide a burglar with cover, and lock away ladders and tools. Because most burglaries last only a few minutes, make finding your valuables time-consuming – hide them in nondescript boxes, and leave decoy valuables like costume jewelry in a dresser drawer.

If you don’t have a house sitter, try to create the illusion that your house is lived in: hire someone to mow lawns, rake leaves, and, in snowy weather, shovel walks and perhaps even drive a car up and down the driveway. Leave the blinds and curtains as you would if you were home; close them only if that’s the way they usually are. Use automatic timers to turn on a radio and lights at different intervals in at least two rooms. Also, turn down the ringer on your telephone, and either forward calls or collect messages regularly so as to avoid a long telltale ‘beep.’ Of course, don’t indicate on your answering-machine message that you are out of town, or broadcast your absence in other ways.

Make sure you have an inventory – written, photographed and/or videotaped – of your valuables, and keep a copy outside the house. Also, many police departments or local libraries lend engraving tools; engrave your driver’s license number on large valuables and post ‘Operation Identification’ stickers in doors and windows. Put smaller items in a safe-deposit box, along with any credit cards or personal papers you won’t be taking, and make sure your insurance is up to date.

If you have a lot of valuable electronic equipment or other possessions, you may want a professionally designed security system, with sensors wired to a control panel that is connected by telephone to a central monitoring station. When the system is breached, the security agency or police investigate immediately. These systems are expensive, however, and involve a monthly fee as well. For the average homeowner, say most experts, a host of inexpensive, easily installed devices can deter burglars almost as well.

Some people post signs on their lawns advising burglars of a security system that may or may not exist; these signs can discourage drive-by thieves. In addition to timers (some with multiple digital functions), there are motorized curtain controllers, solar-powered motion-sensitive lights, photo-sensitive lights that turn on at dusk and security alarms that emit the sound of a barking dog or a 110-decibel siren – just make sure whoever is checking your place knows how to work the alarm and whom to call if there’s a problem.

According to Ms. O’Neil of the Crime Protection Council, the best deterrent to crime generally is a strong community presence. Ideally, one wants an eagle-eyed, keen-eared neighbor who is quick to dial the police, and who can depend on you to return the favor when he or she is out of town. Information about how to form a Neighborhood Watch or Apartment Watch group is available on the council’s Web site,, or at (800) 937-7383.

Theft is not the only hazard to the traveler’s peace of mind. Burst pipes, frozen gutters and leaking toilets can cause much more damage in the course of a three-week vacation. According to Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California, which is affiliated with the New York group, the surest way to prevent leaks is to turn off water into the house at the main shut-off valve. Turn the valve off and on several days before leaving: many main valves haven’t been closed for years, and start leaking once you try to close them. At the very least, Ms. Miller said, turn off water to the washing machine and to toilets. For more information, visit the Insurance Information Institute at www, or the California branch at

Additionally, Ms. Miller said, be sure the water pressure does not exceed 80 pounds per square inch. The best way to determine this is to buy a water-pressure gauge, $5.95 at home-improvement stores, and attach it to an outside faucet. If the pressure is above 80, ‘call a plumber, because it’s not a question of if, but when’ pipes will burst.

Mark Hoyt, who owns a brochure delivery business in Wilmington, N.C., considers himself lucky that his mother, looking in while he was away in June, found water flooding a bathroom from a leaky pipe. Fortunately the damage came to only about $500.

‘It’s one thing people don’t think about,’ he said. ‘If my mom hadn’t been checking, it would have blown out all my hardwood floors.’

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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Posted in: MediaMedia archive
Martha Stevenson Olson

About the author: Martha Stevenson Olson

Martha Stevenson Olson writes extensively about travel as well as her other love: the works of JRR Tolkien.