15 Ways to Keep Your Home Safe When You’re Gone

Photo (cc) by West Midlands Police

The FBI says 2,159,878 burglaries occurred in the United States in 2010. A burglary happens once every 14.6 seconds, and those property crimes resulted in a loss of $15.7 billion.

As I was reading those statistics, I looked at my exterior doors and wondered how secure they really are. Then I started looking around the room at all of the things insurance couldn’t replace – like a pair of earrings I inherited from my aunt or a collectible figurine the company no longer makes. Not to mention the emotional toll a break-in would take. It’s enough to make me want to move into a bunker or build a moat around my house.

But I may not have to take such drastic measures. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shares a handful of easy ways you can keep your home safe while you’re away. Check it out and then read on for more…

Let’s expand on Stacy’s ideas and give you a few more…

1. Lock down your house

A few months ago, I took a day trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I came home late at night, pulled into my driveway, started to walk to my backdoor, and realized something was wrong. The back door was open about six inches. I ran back to my car and called 911. When the police arrived, there was no evidence of a break-in. One officer found that my adorable antique lock had simply come loose, allowing the door to open.

While it may sound odd that a lock can suddenly come loose, door frames can shift with time. That lock you installed 10 years ago may not be as secure as it once was. Exterior doors should always feature deadbolts.

And don’t forget sliding doors and windows. Make sure they lock and install a metal dowel along the bottom of every glass door or window. You can pick up a dowel cheap at any hardware store – they make it a lot harder to break in.

2. Don’t let mail and newspapers overflow

Before you leave, put a temporary hold on your newspapers and mail. In most areas, you can do this online through your local newspaper’s website or on the post office’s Hold Mail Service site. Better yet, have a neighbor collect your papers and mail. That way, you’re not telling a stranger at the newspaper office or post office you’re leaving.

Neighbors can also help clear out flyers, coupons, and delivery menus. Loose paper floating around is a surefire sign that you’re out of town.

3. Use timers for your lights

Pick up a few cheap timers at a hardware store and install them on different lamps throughout the house. Set the timers to go off at random intervals throughout the day. Thieves are less likely to try and break in if they think you’re home.

If you don’t have time for timers, give a friend or neighbor a key and ask them to come by at different times and turn the lights on and off.

4. Keep the lawn mowed

I’m no criminal mastermind, but even I can tell someone probably hasn’t been home for a while – especially when I drive by and see 6-inch-tall grass and the shrubs sprouting weeds. If you’re going to be out of town more than a few days, hire a lawn car service to mow your grass and keep your shrubs trimmed. Not only will it make it seem like you’re home, it gives an intruder fewer places to hide from watchful eyes.

5. Keep your driveway active

This is a trick that’s common in my neighborhood. When anyone is going to be out of town, we use their driveway for our guests. When I have friends or family over, I simply ask them to park in the driveway a couple of houses down. It makes the house seem active.

If you’re going out of town, ask your neighbors to do the same thing. Any bit of activity helps, especially if someone is watching your house for signs of life.

6. Don’t hide a key in an obvious place

The funny thing about hiding a key is that since you’re often afraid of losing it yourself, you hide it where you and anyone else will be sure to look. Don’t hide a key in an obvious place like under your doormat, under a planter, or above the doorframe. In fact, you probably shouldn’t have a key hidden anywhere.

Give a copy of your key to a trusted neighbor or nearby friend for emergencies instead. Just make sure the key doesn’t have any identifying markers on it, like your address or name.

7. Stop checking in on social networks

I used to be guilty of checking in on Facebook until I saw this: WeKnowWhatYoureDoing.com, a website that posts public statuses by category. If they can find this information, anyone can – including your boss, your mom, and potential thieves.

Eliminating the check-ins and revealing status updates is the simplest way to safeguard your house while you’re away. But if you want to post about your vacation, set your social networking accounts to a private status before you leave. Facebook has instructions for doing so on their Privacy Settings site.

8. Monitor your house with your smartphone

While you’re away, you can use your smartphone to monitor cameras inside your house. All you need to do is link a webcam (included on most desktops and laptops) to the app. Once linked, you can watch the camera directly from your smartphone.

For example, check out iCam, available for Androids and the iPhone. With this app, you can link up to 12 devices, set them up around your house, and keep track of things while you’re away.

9. Keep your blinds in their normal position

Once during a neighborhood watch meeting a visiting police officer told us that blinds and curtains can signal to thieves that you’ve gone out of town. He said that if someone was watching your house, they would learn your normal patterns – like how you leave the blinds and curtains when you’re at home. If you changed that pattern by closing the curtains entirely, it would tell the thieves that you’ve left the house.

10. Don’t change your answering machine message

If your phone number is publicly listed, it wouldn’t be hard for a criminal to find it and call ahead before breaking into your house. If you change the message on your answering machine to say that you’re out of town, it’s like rolling out a welcome mat to anyone who might want to gain access to your house.

Instead, always keep a generic message on your home answering machine. For example, my landline simply says, “We’re unable to come to the phone right now. Please leave your name and number at the beep.” My message doesn’t indicate where I am or when I might be home.

11. Ask a neighbor to watch your house

Get to know your neighbors and let them know when you plan to be away from the house. Whenever I leave my house, even overnight, I tell my neighbors. I’ve also introduced my neighbors to people who visit my house regularly and might stop by while I’m gone (like my dog walker). This way, my neighbors know to keep an eye on my house and they know who looks suspicious. I feel safer knowing someone might notice a problem and call the police.

12. Move expensive items out of sight

The next time you’re outside, take a walk around your house and look in your windows. If you can see expensive electronics, a jewelry box in your bedroom, or anything else worth stealing, so can everyone else. Don’t help criminals window shop. Move your expensive items out of view.

13. Keep the police in the loop

Many police departments have community safety programs. This can include a community officer who works a single beat and gets to know the locals or a program that helps homeowners prevent against invasion. For example, in my neighborhood, a police officer will come to your house and do a safety check, pointing out any potential security problems. Police officers will also drive by your house and keep an eye out if you let them know you’ll be out of town.

Not all police departments offer this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Call your local police station before you go.

An aside: The cop in the video told Stacy that if anyone ever comes to your door in the middle of the day and asks for a person who doesn’t live there, be suspicious. Lots of burglaries happen during the day, and knocking on doors is a simple way for a potential crook to see if anyone’s home. If your gut tells you something’s up, call the police. The detective told Stacy they have no problem cruising the neighborhood, finding people going door to door, and verifying they’re legit.

14. Hide lawn equipment

I always see signs in my neighborhood asking for information on stolen bicycles or lawn equipment. Most of the time, these items were just sitting in the backyard or locked up but in plain view.

Leaving bicycles, lawn care equipment, or power tools outside is just asking for someone to come along and take them. And when a crook enters your yard, they might notice you’re not home and go for the whole enchilada. Lock up anything valuable in a shed or garage before you leave.

15. Install good outside lighting

A well-lit yard is a great theft deterrent. After all, who wants to try to break into a house under a spotlight? At the very least, consider installing solar lights along the pathways to your front and backyard and leave the patio lights on when you leave the house.

For added security, pick up a few motion sensor lights at a hardware store. The lights will pop on whenever anyone comes into the range of the motion sensor.

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