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How to stop home burglaries cheaply

Precautions can make your home unpalatable to thieves

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You
We've suffered a rash of home break-ins in our neighborhood lately. Not sure if it's the economy or what, but I'm getting scared. I'd love to install an alarm system, but we simply don't have the money for another monthly bill. What can I do to protect our stuff, cheaply? -- Ryan

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Ryan,
You're right to be concerned about burglaries. There were about 2.2 million of them in the United States in 2009. And, if you see an uptick of them in your neighborhood, that's a particularly bad sign.

It may or may not be the economy. The annual rate of burglaries has been steady for about 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 Statistical Abstract. Regardless of the cause, your goal is to protect your home and property without going to extra expense.

Police stress two lines of defense against burglars. The first is to keep them out of your home. The second is to make it difficult for them to sell your stuff.

First, don't invite burglars inside. Leaving the shipping box from an expensive flat-screen TV for the trash men might impress your neighbors. But it could also alert crooks that you have goodies inside. Likewise, bikes and lawnmowers left in the yard are tempting targets that don't require entry.

Next, look at your home from a burglar's perspective. How easy would it be for them to find a time when the home was empty? Is it simple to get in, take stuff and get out without anyone noticing? Police estimate that if the burglar thinks it will take four minutes to enter, they'll choose a different home.

Before you completely eliminate purchasing an alarm system you might want to check with your home insurance agent. Installing an alarm system might earn you a discount. That discount could partially offset the cost of the system.

Remember, too, that not all systems require monitoring (and with it a monthly bill). Some systems just set off sirens and lights. The idea is to scare away the would-be thieves.

But, let's assume you've checked prices and that any alarm system is too expensive to install and maintain. There are still many steps that you can take to prevent access to your home.

Can your home be easily seen from the street, especially the doors and windows? Bad guys don't want to be seen prying open a door or window. Trim bushes that could obscure the view.

Lighting is an excellent, cheap prevention tool, particularly on the back and sides of your home. The cost of dawn to dusk lighting is minimal. In most places, a 100-watt bulb can burn for 10 hours for about a penny. CFLs and LEDs cost even less.

Naturally you'll want to make sure that you have proper locks on doors and windows. Check with an expert. Not only do you need a good lock, but proper installation can be critical.

Metal or solid doors are a must, too. A hollow core door can be easily broken.

Check your door's hinge pins. If the pins are outside, a thief can just pull the pin and take the door out of its frame. Your local hardware store can show you how to prevent that.

Sliding glass doors offer a tempting target. Over time, tracks get loose, making it easy to overcome a lock. A pin inserted through a hole in the door and the frame on the inside could be enough to keep the door from being jimmied. Even a dowel rod placed in the track could keep the door from sliding.

An attached garage is another favorite entry point. You might not keep valuables in your garage but once inside, the burglar is out of sight and can take his time gaining access to the rest of your home.

And, finally, we all know not to announce when we're on vacation. Don't let mail stack up and watch what you say on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Suppose that despite all your efforts, thieves still break in. That's where your second line of defense pays off. Thieves will want to take items that they can easily and quickly turn into cash. So you want to make that difficult, and make it obvious to the bad guys that it will be difficult.

Wherever possible, find a spot on the back or underside of electronics and other tempting items to etch in your address. That's a unique identifier that will make it difficult to sell your stuff. I've even heard of people who put a note behind their TV saying that it's marked!

Keep a list of serial and model numbers. Take still or video pictures of expensive or important items -- especially jewelry. Pictures may be the key to getting your stuff back from a pawn shop or other reseller. It will also help you collect on your insurance policy if that becomes necessary.

Finally, go beyond this article. There are many more things that you can do to prevent burglaries. One good resource is the Burglary Prevention Council.

Ryan, you're right to be concerned about home security. It's much easier to prevent theft than it is to recover afterward.

See related: Whether a home alarm system is right for you, Worried about burglaries? How to pick the right homeowners insurance policy

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar Stretcher.com, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.

Published: March 15, 2012


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