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Protect Your House from Burglars

cardboard cutout of owner water flowers as car drives away from house
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Experts suggest a list of things to do that will help make your house safer when you're away.

Long winter holidays provide the perfect excuse to get out of town—school's out, ski resorts are hopping, distant relatives beckon. Before you depart, take a few precautions to ensure your home stays undisturbed. An empty house is an invitation to steal, and many of the country's 2.1 million annual burglaries happen while the owners are on vacation.

"Nine out of 10 robberies could be prevented if homeowners knew how to burglar-proof their homes," says Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs for the Insurance Information Institute. The goal is to make your house look lived-in, Salvatore says, while you're living it up elsewhere. With the average burglar carting off $1,381 worth of goodies (not to mention your peace of mind), consider taking these measures before you leave home.

Think beyond the mail. Most people remember to stop the mail and the newspaper but forget they're in the wine-of-the-month club. "You don't want a box of wine sitting on your front stoop for a week," says David Johnson, a spokesman for the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association. "At the very least, you'll have your wine stolen."

Avoid a predictable pattern. Replace standard timers with the randomized variety, which typically cost less than $10 at hardware stores. These handy gadgets turn the lights inside your house on and off at various 15-minute intervals. Put timers on outside lights. "A porch light that stays on 24 hours a day is like a giant flag announcing you're gone," says Chris McGoey, owner of McGoey Security Consulting in Los Angeles.

Remember the telephone. Turn the ringer down, so outsiders won't hear a jangling, unanswered telephone. Most importantly, avoid the temptation to leave a message saying you're out of town, says Martin Levenson of ADT Security Services. "That's a dead giveaway."

Lock up your valuables. If you can't stand the thought of losing your great-aunt Mildred's diamond brooch, consider using either a small home safe or a safe-deposit box. If you choose a safe, be sure to bolt it to the floor so thieves can't make off with it, advises Curt Crum, super-visor of the crime prevention unit of the police department in Boise, Idaho.

Trim the grass. Arrange for someone to mow the lawn while you're on vacation. An unkempt lawn can encourage thieves.

Shovel snow. Nothing screams nobody's home like unmarred snow. Ask someone to rid your walk and driveway of the white stuff while you're away.

Employ Fido. A barking dog is one of the best security systems money can buy. Instead of packing your pooch off to the kennel, hire a pet-sitter to feed, water, and walk him daily.

Or consider a barking-dog alarm. These electrical devices usually include timers and produce varied yaps and growls—no bite, but plenty of bark.

Remember the no-brainers. Nearly a third of all burglars enter through an open window or unlocked door. Be sure to lock doors, secure windows, and shore up security in the garage. Check items off your to-do list as you leave. And most importantly, if you have a security alarm, use it, says Robert Bayless, owner of Minuteman Alarms in Boise.

Ask for help. Neighbors can make your home look occupied by parking in your driveway, putting trash cans out at the curb on pickup days, and perhaps even leaving an inexpensive rake, a shovel, or a toy in the front yard for a day or two. Offer to return the favor when they're out of town.

Illustration by William Duke

This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.