How to: Prevent home burglaries
After a Saturday night out with friends, Michael and Erica O'Keeffe returned to their west end Toronto home to discover that it had been burglarized. “When we opened the front door there were coats and stuff all over the floor and we realized that somebody had been in the house,” says Michael O'Keeffe. The thieves had forced the rear door open and made off with “basically anything they could carry out” including irreplaceable jewellery, watches, a digital camera, and a bottle of Scotch that had been sitting on a counter by the door (the latter item leading police to believe that the crooks were likely kids). That night the O'Keeffe's joined the unwitting ranks of roughly 150,000 other Canadian families who experience a home burglary every year. And the following week, they joined countless others who have installed home alarm systems.
The most-basic home alarm system is just that: an alarm. If someone tries to enter your home through a window or door while the system is armed, a high pitched siren goes off alerting you – and most of the neighbourhood – to the break-in. With a typical system, you'll have contacts on the exterior doors and basement and ground-floor windows connected (wired or wireless) to a central control panel. More sophisticated set-ups can include interior motion detectors, noise sensors – to detect, for example, breaking glass – and security cameras.
You can hire a home security company to install a system or buy the components at the hardware store and install them yourself. You can pick up individual window and door alarms for $10 to $25, motion detectors for $30. Whole-house packages start at $250. While a piercing siren will be of obvious benefit if someone tries to break in while you sleep, they're largely ineffective when you're not home. As a rep from one alarm company put it, “When's the last time you did anything about a car alarm going off?”
Monitored alarm systems
Monitored systems use essentially the same sensors and equipment as a standard alarm but, instead of having to rely on your neighbours to investigate or call the police, you pay a monthly fee for 24-hour-a-day monitoring. Because the security needs for each home and homeowner will vary, most monitoring companies send a sales rep to do an on-site assessment to determine how much and what type of equipment you'll need. Equipment and installation charges range from free (provided you sign up for a multi-year contract) to in excess of $1,000, depending on the security company and package you choose, with monthly fees of $30 to $50 on top of that. When the alarm is set off, there are a number of variables for what can happen next. Bell, for example, has recently introduced a wireless system that you install and monitor yourself.
If the alarm is tripped, an alarm sounds and you will be notified via phone, email, or text message. Others, like Alarm- Force, use a “two-way wireless voice communication system” through which an operator can listen to and communicate with anyone in the house. If the occupant can't (or won't) provide the correct password, police are notified of a burglary in progress. Other companies send a private security service to investigate alarms before contacting the police.
With monitored systems, you can add on a variety of other features including smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, sensors that detect basement flooding or temperature-drops – indicating the furnace has shut down – for peace of mind while you're on vacation, and even medical alarms, with personal distress buttons for seniors living on their own.
As you would with any home renovation, get at least three different estimates and ask each sales rep why their system costs more (or less) than the competition. Be sure to inquire about backup power supplies and, since most systems rely on the phone line for communications, ask about what sort of fail-safe measures there are if the line is cut.
Of course, the oldest – and often most effective – alarm system works for kibble and the odd scratch behind the ear: the family dog. And while your toy poodle isn't likely to frighten off career criminals, even the most harmless dog's yapping can alert sleeping occupants to an in-progress break-in. Another no-budget option is to put stickers up warning that your house has an alarm system, even if it doesn't.
Professional thieves will likely recognize and ignore the fakes, but they can often be enough to deter would-be amateur burglars.
“Partly what you're trying to do [by installing an alarm] is say, ‘Don't pick our house, it's going to be more of a hassle. Pick one of the others,' '' points out Michael O'Keeffe. And anything you can do to deter crooks from getting into your home certainly beats the hassle of filing an insurance claim.
Burglar-proofing your home
No system will make your home completely secure. But there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you'll be victimized, and reduce your losses if you are.
Don't leave a spare key under the mat, on top of the doorframe, or hidden in a fake rock: Burglars know all the usual hiding places.
Lock your front door when you're in the house or working in the backyard, and make sure all windows and doors are locked every time you leave.
Don't hang your car keys in a visible spot by the door: Many burglars break into homes just to get the keys to bypass car alarms on many high-end vehicles.
Don't keep valuables in an obvious spot like a jewellery box on top of the dresser. Store them in a safe or safety deposit box.
Join Neighbourhood Watch and/or work with your neighbours to keep an eye on each other's homes.
When on vacation have a neighbour or friend collect your mail and newspapers and get them to shovel the snow or mow the lawn as required.
Take photos and keep a detailed list, including serial numbers, of all your valuables to provide to the police and your insurance company in the event of a break-in.