How to Secure Your Home without Buying a Security System
Last updated in May 2015
Do you have good deadbolts on all your doors? Strong latches on your windows? Do you always lock your doors and windows? Have a barky dog?
If you can answer “yes” to the first three questions, you’re way ahead when it comes to home security (and get extra credit for the dog). Because most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows—or pushing and kicking locked ones until they open—even the most basic measures of protection will improve your security.
While it doesn’t take a genius to get at your stuff, the good news is that the incidence of burglaries is fairly slim: Only about one in 50 U.S. homes get broken into each year. Over time, however, the odds turn against you. And given the financial, physical, and psychological damage that can result from a burglary, it makes sense to do what you can to become more secure.
For millions of American households, one component of a home security plan is an alarm system, and there is evidence that these systems do make a difference: It is estimated that homes with security systems are one-third as likely to be burglarized as homes without them. Although part of the difference no doubt has something to do with location and other protections alarmed homes have in place, electronic alarm systems clearly matter. In addition, these systems help prevent fire damage, and some alert you (or a central monitoring agency) to power outages, water leaks, and other problems.
The discounts homeowners insurance companies offer households equipped with alarm systems are one indication of their value. Many insurers discount policies by two to 10 percent (most typically five percent) for homes with systems that have central station monitoring.
Before investing in an alarm system, take a step back to evaluate—and improve—your home’s overall security. You can do many things to enhance protections that cost much less than an alarm system but do just as much good.
Know the Threat
It doesn’t take much brainpower to be a thief. Professionals capable of picking locks and circumventing alarm systems commit a very small portion of burglaries. Most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows, lifting sliding glass doors off their tracks, prying open locked doors and windows, or unauthorized use of a key. The most common points of entry are exterior doors and ground-level windows, sliding glass doors, doors to an attached garage, and basement windows. Few intruders break windows to enter homes if they can’t get in through unlocked doors or other methods. They prefer visual obscurity, silence, easy entry, and quick exits.
Almost all intruders are male, and more than one-third are in their teens or early twenties. Although it is commonly believed that illegal intrusions are primarily a risk during summer, rates actually vary by less than 10 percent from month to month. It is also widely presumed that most intrusions occur at night, but about half occur during the day.
Your primary objective when planning security for your home, then, is to beef up its locks and latches and maintain good security habits. More on this later.
Despite the best precautions, your home might still be penetrated. Make sure you maintain adequate insurance. Our articles and ratings on homeowners insurance will help you identify the best companies to buy from.
Homeowners and renters insurance policies do not provide reimbursement for personal injuries suffered during assaults, but they do cover property losses due to burglaries. The coverage limit for personal possessions is usually 50 to 75 percent of the amount of coverage purchased for the dwelling, but certain items (jewelry, silver, cash, computers, and guns) usually are covered at low limits.
In addition, unless you purchase a replacement cost provision, homeowners insurance policies cover only the “market value” of personal property, not “replacement value.” Market value is defined as the replacement cost minus depreciation. Insurance companies offer the option of covering the full replacement cost (with no deduction for depreciation) for about 10 percent more than the standard policy. If burglars clean out your home, coverage for full replacement cost could save you thousands of dollars. Most companies also offer riders that increase coverage on jewelry and other items covered at low limits under standard policies.
If you suffer a major loss from burglary or fire, an inventory list will help you get compensated. Ideally, the inventory should include a brief description of each possession, its purchase date, and price. Unless you have taken a vow of poverty, preparing a list like that will take days. An alternative is to list expensive items, and record the number of smaller items—for example, “12 miscellaneous cooking utensils.” If you do have to file a claim, the list could jog your memory for the additional details that your insurance company might request. Or make a video of possessions, with a voiceover providing details about each item.
If you own antiques, expensive jewelry, original paintings, or other items of substantial value that require authentication to establish value, get written appraisals—but first make sure your appraiser is acceptable to your insurance company. Because some appraisers are also dealers, specifically tell the appraiser that you want the evaluation for insurance purposes. If they think you want to sell the items, they might lowball the estimate of their value.
Keep copies of the inventory, videos, and appraisals in a secure place outside your home, such as a safe deposit box or a friend’s house. Because appraisals indicate your name and address, in the wrong hands they can invite burglary. Update your inventory every couple of years.
Get a Security Audit
A home security audit is a good start in the battle against intruders. Most police departments provide such services. Call your local police department and ask for the crime prevention or community services unit. Ask for an officer to come to your home to assess its vulnerabilities and recommend additional security measures. There is no charge for the service, and evening appointments usually can be arranged.
ID Your Stuff
Many experts recommend participating in Operation Identification, which involves engraving an ID number on your valuables and putting a decal in your window. The decal will deter some potential intruders because clearly marked items are harder to sell. Although only about 10 percent of burglarized homes recover any stolen items, positive identification improves your chances. Most police departments recommend engraving your driver’s license number.
Metal engravers cost from $8 to $25. Some police departments lend them out; call yours to see if one is available.
There are also various ways to “fingerprint” fine art, jewelry, and other items without damaging them. An appraiser or jeweler can provide more information.
Keep Valuables Out of Sight
Households often open their front doors to strangers and near-strangers—the pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the sketchy home improvement salesman whose people are “already doing work in the neighborhood,” and others. So it makes sense to place articles of ostensible value out of the view of anyone at your front door.
The layout of some houses makes it easy for strangers on the sidewalk to look through windows. Keep your valuables out of their line of sight.
Tradespeople working in your home also represent some risk. While they are unlikely to steal anything you’re likely to notice right away, they might grab a single piece of jewelry from a full box. Always hide away small valuables.
Work with Your Neighbors
One of the most effective and least costly ways to protect all the homes in the neighborhood is for community members to get involved in crime prevention. Involvement can range from making sure neighbors keep an eye out for suspicious activity to setting up shifts for foot patrols.
Neighborhood watch groups can be organized to cover a single block of 10 or 12 houses or dozens of blocks with 1,000 houses.
Neighborhood watch groups usually set up a system for members to exchange information. Typically, leaders (or “block captains”) work with police and neighbors to compile activity occurring in the neighborhood and distribute the information to members via newsletters, emails, or online groups.
Neighborhood watch groups get started when police officers train neighborhood residents on security measures, ways to spot “suspicious activity,” and ways to keep in contact with the police. Neighbors also are asked to define the geographical boundaries of their “neighborhood.” After these initial steps, block captains and residents take responsibility for keeping the ball rolling.
Some neighborhoods even form citizen patrols, a cadre of volunteers who walk or drive a designated area looking for suspicious activity that they report to the police.
Keep Up Appearances
Most burglars strike when no one is home, so make sure your house appears to be occupied.
When You Are Away During the Day or Evening…
- Leave music or a TV on.
- Don’t let your phone ring for a long time. Either turn down the volume of ringers, or lower the number of rings before voicemail or your answering machine picks up. A long-ringing phone tells passersby and prowlers that nobody’s home.
- Consider removing your address from phone listings. There is no extra charge, and if you have this type of listing potential thieves who dial random numbers looking for unoccupied homes won’t find out your address. Similarly, someone who cases the neighborhood and learns your name from the mailbox won’t be able to obtain your phone number. An alternative is having an unlisted or non-published phone number.
- Always leave your garage door closed. An open door to a car-less garage indicates that at least some occupants are away.
- Plug a light or two into timers. The timers should turn lights on at dusk, and off at bedtime.
When You Are on Vacation…
- Don’t let mail, packages, and newspapers pile up. Have a neighbor every day pick up mail, newspapers, and anything left on the porch. You could have mail and newspaper deliveries stopped, but be aware that these stops reveal your absence to several people at the post office and the newspaper.
- Arrange for your lawn to be mowed during the summer.
- Park a car in your driveway.
- Leave blinds, shades, and curtains closed unless that departs from your normal pattern. Even then, close off windows that are particularly vulnerable to observation and leave other curtains open.
- Do not let more people than necessary know you are leaving.
- Consider hiring a trusted house sitter.
Keep Your Landscaping in Check
Doors and windows hidden by garages, bushes, fences, and trees are attractive targets for intruders who prefer to invade unseen. Keep areas around your doors and windows visible from the street—to your neighbors and from within your house.
If it’s impractical or unattractive to hack back your home’s jungle, consider planting thorny varieties close to the house so prowlers won’t hide behind them. You can get advice on what to plant, and help planting it, from garden nurseries, landscapers, and landscape designers.
Large trees may provide access to upstairs windows or, more often, to a porch roof with access to a window. Consider pruning them.
A high fence is a double-edged sword. It can make it more difficult for an intruder to get in and out, but it also can hide a burglar. If you have a gate, keep it locked so an intruder knows the fence would slow his escape.
Crowbars, hand tools, or yard tools lying about outside the house or in open garages invite trouble. Lock up any implements that could be used for prying or bashing. Also secure ladders.
Light It Up
Most nighttime prowlers flee the moment indoor lights go on, but bolder ones might hide until you go back to sleep. On the other hand, an outside light will chase away all but the nerviest.
You can use outdoor lights to illuminate the entire exterior of your house or just a few vulnerable areas. In either case, they can be set for all-night operation or to go on only when a prowler is detected. Some incorporate heat and motion detectors that turn the lights on whenever someone comes within about 25 feet of the lights.
For the greatest security, external lights should have break-proof lenses, strong mountings, hidden wiring, and tamper alarms. Security lights are available at some hardware stores, electrical equipment suppliers, and locksmith shops.
Professional installation of a whole-house security light system costs $1,000 to $3,000—and increases your electric bill. A do-it-yourself installation at one point of vulnerability may cost less than $200. Unsecured outdoor lights with outdoor sockets (which usually take reflector lamps) cost much less, but a careful intruder can remove the bulbs before attacking the house.
Place the switch for any outdoor light or lighting system intended to provide security in a convenient location away from the light. You probably won’t want to go down to your basement to turn on a light when a prowler is breaking through the door.
Keep Track of Keys
Intruders also invade homes by using an unauthorized key “hidden” under your doormat or on top of an adjacent window frame, or kept by a contractor, or held by a friend of the prior occupant, or made from a key lent to a plumber or since-dismissed housekeeper, or found on a key ring with an ID tag with your name and phone number, or copied by a parking lot attendant, or...you get the idea.
You can easily guard against these risks. Don’t hide spare door keys in any obvious places—which means any place that’s convenient. Instead, give a spare to a trusted neighbor.
When you move into a house or apartment, consider having all the lock cylinders replaced or re-keyed. If you must give a house key to anyone you don’t fully trust, install restricted key cylinders in the doors that they will be using. Duplicates of restricted keys, which require unusual key blanks and special key-cutting equipment, can be made only with the written authorization of the homeowners.
Never put identification on your key ring—even a phone number is risky because someone might get your address by doing a reverse match.
Signs in many affluent communities have proclamations like “Warning: Houses in this community are protected by an integrated alarm system.” Some of them are bluffs.
Similarly, you can post a “Beware of Dog” sign at the front entrance of your house—even if you have no dog or the dog you do have is scared of strangers, cats, the wind, and pretty much any moving object. If you want the bark but not a barky dog, you can buy electronic dog barkers that emit barks for a few seconds when triggered. Hang a vibration detector on a doorknob so the device barks when the door is rattled, or hook up the device to motion detectors hung outside the house. They cost about $60 to more than $100.
Most alarm system companies provide decals for doors or windows indicating that your home is “alarmed.” Some homeowners get fake decals. But be aware that knowledgeable burglars claim they can identify fakes. Also, if you have a decal on your home and live in a neighborhood where most houses do not have alarm decals, it suggests your house has more valuables than your neighbors’ and may attract intruders without providing any real protection.
Get a Dog
Dogs can offer several levels of protection from intruders. First and least is the family pet with no particular training in sounding an alert. Performance varies tremendously, depending on its breed and genealogy, gender, individual idiosyncrasies, and life experiences. Dobermans and German Shepherds get a lot of respect from intruders. A concern, of course, is that your untrained dog will attack innocent strangers, your neighbors, or their children.
The second level is to train your dog to bark at strangers but not attack. This will usually require the assistance of a professional trainer.
The third level is a personal protection dog professionally trained to attack on command or when he or she thinks a family member is being assaulted. Unfortunately, even after such training most dogs have trouble distinguishing between a friendly slap on the back and a real assault. Many are unreliable except when handled by their masters.
Securing Vulnerable Spots
Since most intruders break in through doors and windows, you’ll want to make yours as difficult to penetrate as possible. Intruders prefer unlocked doors and windows; however, many burglars can quickly and almost silently pry open locked ones. Some break a pane of glass so they can reach in and unlock the window or door. Only a few really determined burglars break out enough glass to walk or crawl through, or bash in a well-secured door, and they seldom try to pick locks.
Lose Lousy Locks
Good locks are essential. Our section on locksmiths describes various types of locks, how they can be strengthened, and how to find a good locksmith to do the work.
Secure Sliding Glass Doors
The locks on sliding glass doors are notoriously flimsy—many doors can be lifted right off their tracks. If you have a sliding glass door, consider paying a locksmith to evaluate its vulnerability and, if necessary, install reinforcements.
The figure on the right shows several do-it-yourself ways to secure sliding glass doors. One door is usually fixed (screwed or bolted at several points to the track) so you have to worry about only the other door. A sliding glass door can resist a pry bar attack if you place a broomstick or piece of lumber in the lower track to prevent the door from sliding open. Aluminum “Charley Bars” mounted waist-high function the same way. Well-designed ones require moving one or two parts before they can be lowered, making them somewhat more resistant to persistent intruders than wood in the track. Charley Bars cost $20 and less.
If both doors slide, secure them by drilling two 9/32-inch holes where their frames overlap at the top and bottom. Drill through the inside door’s frame and halfway into the outside door’s frame; then insert 1/4-inch bolts in the holes. This will prevent intruders from prying the doors open, and make it difficult to lift the doors off their tracks. The danger is that if your drill hits the glass, the glass may break. Usually the glass extends less than 1/2 inch into the frame, so position the hole as far from the glass as possible while keeping the drill perpendicular to the door.
To prevent burglars from lifting a sliding door off the track to open it fully, drill vertical holes through the overhead track every 12 inches or so, and drive screws into these holes just far enough so that the doors slide under their heads but can’t be lifted off the track (see the figure on the left). Before trying this, use a pencil or piece of wire to feel whether the top of the door frame is solid or hollow. This technique will not work on some hollow frames.
Replace Weak Doors
Although hinged doors are much safer than sliding glass doors, intruders can get through even securely locked ones.
Hollow wood doors are usually made of two 1/8-inch sheets of plywood separated by cardboard spacers. You don’t have to be a black belt to punch through them. And for outward-opening doors, hinge pins located on the outside can be pulled out with a pair of pliers.
Exterior doors should be solid wood (usually plywood surfaces over wood planks) or foam-filled steel. If doors do not open inward, the hinges should have non-removable pins. Hinges should also be installed so that the screws attaching them to the door and frame cannot be removed when the door is closed. Doors should fit snugly within the door frame, with no more than a 1/16-inch gap on either side.
If you replace a glass door with a wooden one, you do not necessarily forgo an opportunity to view whoever rings your doorbell. Wide-angle peepholes are available, but before you buy one look through it at objects two feet to five feet away. The focus should be clear and the view at least as wide as the distance.
The last word in door security is a heavy-duty steel door in a steel frame with a high-security lock. Click here for ratings of door installers.
One step down are a metal bar doors installed a few inches outside an existing door. Set into a brick or concrete block structure, defeating them generally takes a lot of time and makes a lot of noise. Their resistance to attack depends on the strength of the framing to which they are attached. The simplest kinds of metal bar doors, which are usually installed along with bars over the windows, make your place look like a prison. But some fabricators make attractive decorative ones, and a few custom-build them as individual pieces of art. These doors typically cost $400 to $1,200, when professionally installed.
Secure Your Windows
There are five common types of windows:
- Double-hung (sash) windows open vertically; sometimes the top half is fixed and sometimes not. Frames may be wood, vinyl, or metal.
- Horizontal sliders are like small sliding glass doors and usually have metal frames.
- Casement windows swing outward and are usually opened and closed by a lever attached to a geared hand crank.
- Jalousie windows are a series of panes about four inches wide set in metal frames interconnected by levers.
- Fixed pane windows do not open.
To secure a window, you must make it resistant to being pried open. In addition, it should be difficult to open the window frame after a pane of glass has been broken. Most intruders are not keen on breaking glass, but it still happens often enough to justify concern. For the highest level of protection, the window should have unbreakable glazing or steel bars across it.
The most difficult-to-secure type of window is the jalousie. Even when closed tight, someone can quietly remove a pane. If you have this type of window anywhere accessible to intruders, consider replacing it, adding bars over it, or attaching an alarm to it.
Casement windows, when closed, often will withstand a prying attack. The geared hand crank mechanism resists prying, and most have an additional lock on the window frame. If a casement window is open a few inches, however, someone can easily reach in and turn the hand crank to fully open the window. You can make that more difficult by removing the handle, but intruders can still substitute a pair of pliers for the hand crank. If you have a ground-level casement window that you commonly leave partially open, back it up with bars or cover it with an alarm screen.
Locks on horizontal sliders are often flimsy enough to be snapped with gentle prying. Auxiliary locks for these windows include small devices that clamp onto or bolt through the track. However, the former may not resist prying and the latter generally are unsuitable for securing windows in partially open positions because attackers can reach through openings to remove the bolts.
A homemade stop that works well on some frames is drilling a 1/4-inch hole through the inside rung of the bottom track, then placing a small padlock through the hole. A hole drilled as far as five inches from the fully closed position can still prevent an intruder from entering when opened.
Double-hung windows are relatively easy to secure, but many commonly available locks are not effective. A simple way to secure this type of window is to pin the two frames together. Drill a 9/32-inch hole on each side where the lower and upper frames overlap. Drill entirely through the inner frame and three-fourths of the way through the outer frame. Use a 1/4-inch bolt as the pin. To allow the window to be left slightly open, drill a second hole as far as five inches up from the fully closed position. Unfortunately, intruders can remove such pins easily after breaking the glass once they notice them. Also, with the windows partially opened, intruders can use a stick to reach in and knock out the pins.
The same basic arrangement, using smaller diameter holes and two-inch 14 screws, would require the intruder to have a screwdriver and patience. You can even obtain screws with strange heads that cannot be removed without a special socket.
The next level up in window security is to get impact-resistant glazing, such as Plexiglas or Lexan. Premium grades of these plastics are virtually free of visual distortion and more resistant to abrasion during cleaning. Make sure you or an installer follow manufacturers’ instructions for mounting these glazing materials. Temperature increases make them expand more than glass, and intruders can bash in an entire improperly mounted pane.
At considerably greater cost, you can have a professional replace particularly vulnerable windows with the type of glass used in automobile windshields, which is not difficult to break but is difficult to remove.
The ultimate in window protection consists of protective metal bars. These bars (also called grates and grills) come in straight prison-issue and various decorative versions. Most are fully welded on a semi-custom basis by local installers who do not sell them for do-it-yourself installation.
Hardware stores, however, often stock bar sets that can be adjusted in size to fit your windows; they come in several heights and expand up to 42 inches wide. These bar sets cost $20 to $80. Although they won’t resist attack as effectively as fully welded bars, if properly installed they will discourage all but the most determined intruders. Some hardware stores have begun to stock fully welded window bars, although the selection is limited and may not be suitable for your windows. If the width doesn’t fit exactly, you can cut the fasteners with a hacksaw.
Both expandable bars and fully welded bars should be installed with large one-way screws—or with carriage bolts, as long as they are punched with square holes and the nuts would not be accessible to intruders.
Custom-fashioned bars vary not only in decorative patterns but also in quality. Some are heavier gauge than others. Some put the “pickets” (vertical bars) through holes in the “spreaders” (horizontal bars), creating a stronger unit than just welding them to the sides of the spreaders. Some have better welding than others, some have more coats of paint, and some can be more securely attached to the wall.
Be sure to check how the bars will be attached to the house. They should be attached with bolts or screws positioned parallel to the wall, and then welded to the bars. This kind of installation makes it very difficult to remove the fasteners and also difficult to pry off the bars, because prying away from one wall tends to push the whole bar assembly against the other wall.
Professionally installed, fully welded bars cost about $100 to $300 for a 30-inch-by-60-inch window if you get bars for several windows at one time.
Don’t Block Escape Routes
Metal bars on windows or doors, or difficult-to-remove locking devices (such as screws in window frames), pose hazards in the event of fire. Most building codes specify that any sleeping room without an exterior door should have an easily opened window. Window bars with hinges on one side and a lock on the other are risky because the keys can easily be misplaced. Hinged bars with an extended mechanical latch release are safer: No one outside can reach them, but they can be easily operated by someone inside.
If windows are secured with screws, make all occupants aware that to escape through the window they’ll need to knock out the glass, place a blanket or other padding on the bottom frame, and carefully climb out. Even then, escape through broken glass will be hazardous.
Block Other Access Routes
Intruders love unlocked attached garages. After entering the garage and closing the door, they can then work at breaking into the house without fear of being seen or heard.
Standard twist handle locks on overhead garage doors can be easily defeated. Most electric door openers ($150 to $300) provide more resistance, but because even these may yield to a crowbar attack it’s good to have a backup lock. One simple and inexpensive solution is to drill holes in the track on each side just above the closed door and put U-bolts or padlocks through the holes. This arrangement permits the door to be secured only from inside the garage when the door is closed. Alternatively, the door can be secured from the outside with a hasp and padlock.
A preference for hidden entries leads intruders to also favor utility rooms and enclosed porches. Make it difficult for them to get inside them; if that’s not possible, make sure a solid-core door with reinforced locks separates one of these areas from the rest of your house.
If someone could conceivably enter your attic from the outside, lock the attic hatch or door. Instead of glass, most skylights are now a thin plastic that is easily broken. Consider shatter-resistant glazing or adding metal steel bars.
Most window air conditioners can be removed easily from the outside or by pushing the unit in. The first precaution is to secure the partly raised window frame tight against the A/C case by pinning or screwing the frames together. Resist pivot attacks by filling any gaps between the bottom of the case and the windowsill with lumber. The easiest way to prevent pushing attacks is to screw a piece of lumber to the top of the windowsill. You can improve the aesthetics by extending the board from one side of the frame to the other and painting it the same color as the sill.
Even if you have strong physical barriers, intruders can still penetrate your perimeter. There are several things you can do to protect yourself:
- Keep a phone in your bedroom.
- Consider getting a lock for your bedroom door. It’s the room where most of us spend about half of our time when at home. You may also want to put a solid-core door with a heavy lock on your bedroom entrance. If you don’t have kids, you can then sleep with your bedroom door locked. If you have kids, sleeping behind a solid, locked door probably sounds like a fantastic idea in terms of getting more sleep and privacy, but it’s a bad idea in terms of safety. On the other hand, if you have a bedroom door that locks you can retrieve your kids and lock out home invaders.
- Install a safe. Small fire-resistant models with about one cubic foot of storage space cost $100 to $200. Safecrackers can open these units, but other burglars usually can’t. These units weigh 60 to 100 pounds and can be screwed to the floor. Highly secure—but much more expensive—safes are also available.
- Hide valuables. Stash cash and expensive jewelry in unlikely places—for example, in a large envelope or among many paper files. Be sure to select containers no one will accidentally discard.
- Rent a safe deposit box. A box may be inconvenient, but it provides a level of security against theft and fire that cannot be duplicated at home for less than several thousand dollars.
- Lock up guns. Burglaries are major sources of guns for criminals, although estimates of the percentage of crimes involving stolen guns vary widely. Each year more than 100,000 guns are reported stolen—no one knows how many more gun thefts are unreported (some studies estimate over 60 percent). Trigger locks can prevent accidental shootings but not thefts. If you have guns, store them in locked gun boxes or on gun racks that cannot be easily removed. Another option is to use a Simplex lock, which is a small gun safe that is opened by pressing five buttons in a specific order, a process that can be done quickly even in the dark. Steel gun boxes with Simplex locks usually cost $150 and up.