You’ve just spent a glorious week on vacation with your family. The sun was out the whole time, the food was good, and the kids behaved. Miraculous! As you pull into the garage, though, you realize something seems amiss. The door into the house is ajar, and you’re sure you closed it on the way out. You cautiously open the door, only to realize that while you were away, burglars made off with your electronics, jewelry, cash, etc. The glee from your previous week is wiped away, and you’re left wondering, “Why me?”
It’s scenario that plays out thousands of times each year in households across the country, and world. In the days following, you’re sure to ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” This article is here to help you answer that question.
There are of course instances where no amount of preparation would have prevented a break in. But with a few simple steps, you can lower your home’s risk of being targeted and infiltrated by burglars.
Note: I don’t mention security systems here, as you either have one or you don’t. It’s not likely you’d get one installed simply for vacation. (If you’re away a lot, though, and don’t already have a system, it’s probably worth looking into.) If you do have a system, just be sure to call your security company and inform them that you’ll be on vacation, so that any alert gets taken seriously right away.
One of the best ways to protect your home is to be a good neighbor. That is, when you get to know your neighbors and talk with them regularly, you can mention that you’ll be going on vacation and that you’d appreciate their looking out for the place a little.
Don’t necessarily ask them to do a bunch of chores (be respectful of their time and efforts), but it’s no problem to ask that they be aware of anything that might make the house look unoccupied — packages on the front step, a sprinkler system gone awry, etc. They’re the first line of defense while you’re gone, and you can return the favor when they’re away. You’ll also want to give them your vacation contact information, just in case of emergency.
If you’re not at a point of being comfortable with your neighbors, you can also ask friends and family to check up on the place a couple times a week while you’re gone. Again, you don’t need to ask them to do all the chores (unless they owe you!), but just to make sure that things look normal and lived in.
You can also actually call your local PD and let them know you’ll be going on vacation; they’ll often send an extra patrol or two through your neighborhood just to establish a presence. While this isn’t a replacement for asking someone trusted to stop by a few times, it is an additional layer of security.
A dark house at night for a week straight is a sure sign that someone is on vacation. By the same token, you don’t want to just flip a light on as you head out the door and leave it on the entire time (yes, I’ve done that, and I know other people who have too).
Luckily, there are a huge variety of timers on the market that plug right into an outlet and turn your lights and other electronics on and off at certain times of day.
Most people only think of using these timers on lamps, but having TVs and/or radios plugged into them is a good idea too to create noise and the flickering lights associated with most American homes in the evening.
Be sure to get the variety of timer that works with random intervals. You don’t want lights that turn on at exactly 7pm and turn off at 10pm every night; if someone is watching the neighborhood, they’ll notice. Some models even pair with your smartphone so you can turn certain outlets on and off at will. (Note that many security systems offer this feature as well.)
Two of the biggest giveaways that someone is away from home are an unkempt lawn and a snowy driveway with not the slightest hint of human movement. So in the summer, find a neighbor kid, family member, friend, or landscaping company to mow your lawn (if it’s one of those first three options, paying them in some way is good form; obviously, you’ll be paying the landscaping company), and in the winter do the same with clearing your driveway and sidewalks of snow.
Also, asking someone to take care of any other outdoor chores that might arise is a good idea. For instance, if a storm comes through and knocks some branches down in everyone’s yard, and you’re the only house that hasn’t picked them up, it’s clear you aren’t home. Hopefully these incidences are few and far between, but they do happen. Neighbors are probably your best bet here, as they’ll be the ones to know if something has happened on your street.
An overflowing mailbox and a pile of packages on the front step are clear indications that someone hasn’t been home for a while. It’s incredibly easy to stop your USPS delivery for any amount of time (up to 30 days) and for the dates you specify. They even deliver your mail in a large bundle when you get home.
You can also stop UPS and FedEx service or hold the packages at a pickup location, although those require registration to do so (some services are free, some are paid for). If you know you’re going to be away, it’s best to just not order things that are scheduled to arrive while you’re gone. With carriers other than USPS, it can be a pain to retrieve those packages.
Also stop newspaper delivery; if it’s a city or neighborhood paper that comes for free, you can ask a neighbor to grab yours. (Ours comes on Thursdays in a big blue bag at the end of the driveway, and it’s always obvious through the neighborhood when someone hasn’t picked theirs up by the weekend — a dead giveaway of either a vacationer or a very lazy person, both of which make good targets for burglars!)
If you’re someone who regularly leaves the blinds open in your home during the day, don’t go closing them when you leave for vacation. It may seem strange and you might feel that you don’t want anyone peeping into your home while you’re not there, but it’s also an obvious giveaway to burglars that something is outside the normal routine. As already noted, you want things to look normal and lived in — a house that’s all shuttered up for a week straight does not give that appearance.
It gets tricky when you have electronics on a timer; when they turn on at night, it could end up being obvious that there’s nobody in the living room watching the television. So, close the blinds halfway, or close them strategically so that certain areas or rooms are hidden, while blinds in other areas remain open.
In our Instagram world, every vacation is instantly shared on the internet for the entire world to behold. It’s indeed tempting to post your photos right as you snap them and induce FOMO to your entire stream of friends. What that also does, however, is broadcast to the world that you aren’t home right now, and your stuff is ripe for the taking. So skip the photo-posting, checking in, and status updates like “Off to the airport!”
Feel free to share all your awesome pics, just wait until you’re home to do so.
Also note that this is less of a worry if all your accounts are private — hopefully there are no would-be burglars among your circle of family and friends! Though one never can tell. I’m looking at you Uncle Borrowed-My-Leafblower-Without-Asking-And-Never-Gave-It-Back.
While it seems like common sense, be sure to lock every single possible entry to your home, including deadbolts. While you may lock the main doors when you’re gone at work, there are surely windows and/or doors (such as into the garage or a second-floor deck) that usually stay unlocked or un-deadbolted. Before you leave for a vacation though, go through the house and lock absolutely every window and every door.
If you have a spare key hidden somewhere — under a mat, attached to a mailbox, in a fake rock — now is the time to remove them and stow them away. If a would-be thief knows you’re away, they’ll feel free to take their time in searching for spare keys. They also know all the most common hiding spots way better than you do, so don’t try fooling them.
If you have an automatic garage opener (rather than a manual door that you have to open and close by hand), you’re already pretty secure. Those doors are hard to open for burglars. There is a workaround, however, called “fishing.” It’s where a burglar will snake a coat hanger through the top of the door, and pull the emergency release trigger, turning off the automatic opener and allowing the door to be opened manually. This isn’t possible on all openers, but it’s definitely a risk for some.
No matter which type of door you have, the best way to protect it is to install a deadbolt-style lock. Just one per garage door will do the trick, but you could install one on each side as a failsafe.
Many a GPS, either the portable or built-in style, has led thieves directly to unsuspecting homes. When a car is left at the airport, a bad guy can break in, turn on the GPS unit and often find out exactly where home is. If you have a portable unit, don’t leave it in the car either at the airport, or in your hotel parking lot at night if you’re road-tripping. If you have a built-in unit, set “home” for something other than your actual exact address. Use a nearby intersection or cafe instead. That way you’ll still get home, but won’t lead anyone else there either. (It’s not a bad idea to do this with your portable unit as well just in case anyone gets their hands on it!)
While we’re home, there’s often cash, jewelry, family heirlooms, etc. that are out for our use and enjoyment. When you go away, however, it’s best to put all of that stuff into your safe (you have a safe, right?). Just in case your home is broken to, the bad guys won’t get to your truly valuable stuff.
When trash sits in a garage or outside for a week or more, it not only stinks up the joint (as well as neighboring homes), it can attract bad guys. If they catch wind (literally), they’ll be suspicious and more prone to snooping around. If your trash is visible from the curb, it’s also a visual cue to burglars if everyone else’s cans are empty in the neighborhood and yours is stuffed to the brim.
If trash day comes while you’re on vacation, ask a neighbor if they can pull your cans out and bring them back in after the trash is taken. Since they’re already doing it themselves, it’s generally not too much of an inconvenience.
One option that covers many of these tactics is to hire a house sitter. Whether a family member, a friend, or other acquaintance (nannies often make great house sitters!), having someone actually stay at your home to care for and keep an eye on it is a great way to ensure its safety – especially if you’re taking a longer trip. It can be a pricey option; you can’t very well ask someone to stay and care for someplace other than their home for a week or more without compensation (even friends and family, unless they offer, and even then, you should pay them with a gift card or nice dinner). Having said that, if you have someone trusted who is convenient to your location, plants can be watered, mail/packages can be taken care of, and the house can generally be cared for in one fell swoop.
There are also companies and agencies that offer house-sitting services. The most reputable of which offer reviews, references, and even background checks. Some newer companies are doing free exchanges — the homeowner gets free house sitting, the sitter gets free lodging for a week. Of the companies that do that, the majority do not offer background checks. Personally, I’d either have someone trusted look after the house, or go with an agency that thoroughly vets their sitters.
Last summer, as Brett was preparing to head out on his annual family vacation, he realized that having a handy dandy pre-trip checklist would help not only get the family out the door on time, but keep the house in tip-top shape while they were away.
You’d do well to not only have a vacation checklist for yourself, but to have a security-specific section. Go through the list of action steps above, note the ones that are relevant to your home and situation, and add them to your list so you never forget them again. If you rush out the door and forget just a single lock which then allows entry to a burglar, all that security planning has gone to waste.
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