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Hardening Your Home for Home Owners

If you are building or buying your own home, you have the ability to determine what level of security will be maintained.

When considering where to build or buy, consider contacting the law enforcement agency having jurisdiction to ask what the crime history is for that neighborhood. Most agencies tabulate crime by geographic area (called districts, zones, sectors, sections, or something similar), and should be able to provide this data as public information.

Drive through the area to assess general conditions. Are the potential neighbors owners themselves, or are the owners predominantly absentee and the occupants primarily renters? While renters are not negative neighbors in any way, owners just naturally have a more intense interest in maintaining their own property in prime condition, and will tend to be more involved in neighborhood affairs.

  • Is the area generally clean? Graffiti-free? Homes in good repair?

  • Don't forget to check during hours of darkness to assess street lighting, area lighting, and the lighting on and around your residence.

  • Are street locator signs in place at intersections as you approach? Are street addresses prominently displayed on all (or most) of the residences?

  • Plant materials ("foundation plantings") should be trimmed so that they are not any higher than the sills of the windows OR they have no branches below three feet to create a clear-view zone.

    Plants should not create places of concealment, particularly adjacent to the entrance or at bedroom windows. If plants are overgrown, ask to have them trimmed before buying.

    If you are selecting plant materials, work with the landscape designer to ensure that the materials selected will not grow to create a problem.

  • If the yard is fenced, are there any gates? If so, where do they lead, and can they be locked?

    Remember that privacy fences limit the ability of your neighbors and police/security patrols to see the enclosed area; if you don't really need the privacy, consider a cyclone or other fencing material which does not block open view.

  • Buried utilities are far less susceptible to interruption, and are unlikely to be manipulated by criminals; see whether the service entrance for the residence is inside the perimeter fence so it is more difficult for the criminal to access.

    If the telephone and/or cable come in overhead, look to see where the nearest above-ground splice-boxes are located and whether those locations are inside fenced yards or are accessible to anyone.


Locks and Doors
Locks are your first line of security; most burglars enter through an existing opening.

With locks, perhaps more than with other hardware, you get what you pay for. You shouldn't scrimp when selecting locks; a few dollars up front can prevent a sizable loss later. You want the best quality locks you can afford!

You have security with a lock only when you can account for every key; if you are buying an existing home, pay for a qualified and reputable locksmith to change the keyways and establish good key control from the outset.

Key-in-the knob locksets offer virtually NO security; if your home is equipped with these, they should be replaced.

The most secure locks are double-cylinder deadbolts, which require a key to operate from either side.

  • The bolt (the part that extends from the door) should be at least one inch long, and should be hardened steel.
  • The strike (the plate which the bolt sticks into) should be installed with screws long enough to engage the structural stud behind the doorframe (and not just the door frame or trim like many are currently installed);

    a box strike (one which surrounds the bolt; not just a "plate") is best.

The door should swing in to prevent any attack on the hinges; if code requires a door swing outward, it should be installed on non-removable pin hinges or the hinges should be "pinned" (meaning you remove the screw from opposing positions on both top and bottom hinges, and drive a pin or nail into one of the holes; when the door is closed, this pin engages the matching hole, and holds the door in place even if the hinge pin is removed).

Any contractor can pin hinges (you can probably do it yourself with simple hand tools).

Whether to have double-cylinder deadbolts on a home (if permitted by local fire codes) is largely a safety decision. Double-cylinder deadbolts are those which have no inside thumb-turn, but require a key to open from the interior. While much more secure, they can pose a threat to personal safety in the event of fire.

Most law enforcement officials agree that this threat can be minimized by forming the habit of inserting yours key(s) in the main entry lockset whenever anyone is home. This enables you to have the security of the double-cylinder deadbolt, but ensure that no one is trapped should a fire or other emergency necessitate evacuation.

The safest locksets are called panic-proof deadbolts; they give you the security provided by a deadbolt but open from the inside with a single action (usually a turn of the knob), thus preventing any entrapment in the event of an emergency. Panic-proof deadbolts are somewhat vulnerable to manipulation from outside if adjacent to a glass panel.

Doors should be configured so that any glass panel is at least thirty-six inches from the inside doorknob to prevent manipulation from the outside. If glazing panels must be closer than this, non-breakable glazing should be used (polycarbonate or acrylic panels are available).

If there is a mail slot in the door, it should removed and the hole patched, or the flap should be secured in place from the inside so that the opening cannot be used as a means through which the lock can be reached and manipulated.

There should be a light fixture outside every door on a house to enable a scan of the area to be accomplished safely from inside. Consideration should be given to use of globes on such fixtures, which are vandal-resistant.

It is possible to wire such fixtures to a photo-cell or timer so that they automatically come on at dusk and turn off at dawn; this arrangement ensures the exterior of your home is illuminated during hours of darkness and makes it more difficult for an observer to tell when you are gone.

Very inexpensive (starting at about $20) motion sensors can also be installed in almost any existing exterior fixture (as part of a new fixture, or as an add-in for existing fixtures) that will turn on the light automatically when anyone approaches the door. These can generally be adjusted to determine how close someone approaches before the light is activated. Most of these devices also have a photo-cell so they don't activate during the daytime.

If there is no glazing panel in the front door, or the glazing is not transparent, a door-viewer should be installed. Door viewers are available which give a very wide field of view; the wider the field, the better for security.

Sliding doors are inherently less secure, and should be avoided if possible. Double-door sets incorporating one fixed door and one working door within a sliding door-sized opening are much more secure and give nearly equal light and openness.

If sliding doors are already in place, or must be used for some other reason, make certain the sliding panel is inside. If it's outside, you've got a serious security problem, because most can be lifted and removed, and almost all effective security devices for sliding doors rely upon the sliding portion being inside.

Have your contractor install screws in the track above the sliding part so it cannot be lifted and tilted out of the frame. Ask for an after-market security device such as a "Charley-Bar", which is a solid bar that latches in place between the sliding panel and the frame.

Also install a pin-lock (drill a hole completely through the sliding panel so that a solid metal pin can be inserted and secure the sliding to the fixed panel).

Most locks on sliding doors are of poor quality; any device which latches to the frame can often be jostled out of the locked position from the outside. Look instead for a plunger-type lock which operates in the same manner as the pin-lock described above but incorporates a keyed plunger.

French doors, or any paired doors which do not have a center post, are inherently insecure, and should not be used on the exterior of a home. If an existing home has such doors, security can be enhanced by installing heavy-duty vertical bolts to secure the inactive leaf of the set to the threshold and the top jamb, and installing a quality deadbolt on the live leaf to secure it to the inactive one. Comments about hinges apply to these doors.

Auxiliary locks on doors, typically a sliding piece attached by a chain to the door jamb, are not effective security devices, and their use is discouraged, as it tends to create a false sense of security. Almost any adult can force open a door secured only with a chain; proper security is achieved by not opening your door until you are satisfied that you want to admit whomever is outside.

Locks are only effective when properly installed in a quality door and jamb assembly. Installing a quality lock on a cheap door is pointless. And installing a lock improperly negates almost all security value. Check to ensure your primary security devices are providing the desired protection!

Windows are an existing opening, and may also be exploited by a burglar if not adequately secured. Most burglars are, however, extremely reluctant to break glass as this sounds carries further than almost any other noise, and elicits a response from most people who hear it. Therefore, if you protect your windows, they are not a security liability, and can provide some security benefit.

The best single protection for windows is storm glazing. Installation of auxiliary storm windows on an existing house puts a whole additional security layer in place, and usually provides very adequate security. On new homes, double and triple glazing is normally used for insulation value, and accomplishes the same function of defense against simply breakage. Multiple layers of glazing are desirable.

Windows should be equipped with a locking device; most manufacturers install devices which provide very adequate security if properly maintained and used. Any lock used on windows should operable from the inside so the window can be used for emergency egress!

Older homes may need supplemental security devices if the original locks are no longer operable or if none exist. Double-hung sash windows can be secured with a pin-lock similar to those described above for sliding doors; a hole is drilled completely through the inside sash so that a pin can be inserted which projects into the outside sash, thus securing both in place. Care must be taken not to drill too close to the glazing.

Consider whether you want to install "stops" on windows to prevent them from being opened more than a pre-selected width, typically six or eight inches, which is adequate for ventilation but will not admit a human body. This is readily accomplished by screwing a block of wood (or metal to match the window, if available) into the track above the sliding sash.

With stops in place, even if a would-be intruder defeats your lock, he cannot open the sash more than the limited width without breaking glass. Thumbscrew metal stops are also available for some windows, which are easier to adjust/remove than traditional wooden stops. Obviously, "stops" limit the ability for you to use windows as a means of emergency exit, requiring you to break out the window to quickly exit a room.

Security grilles or bars are not recommended for home use; because they must be equipped with a device to enable them to be opened in the event of an emergency, they are vulnerable to manipulation from the outside. While they give the appearance of being secure, any competent burglar knows they really aren't effective.

Other Outside Openings
Access to your attic should be inside your security perimeter; in the garage or an interior space. If you have an external access door, consider having it professionally removed and the opening permanently sealed; there is no effective way to adequately secure such an opening.

The same applies to hatches to crawl spaces (externally-applied padlocks are much too easy to defeat to provide any but the most temporary security), and outside hatchways to basements (although modern all-steel hatchways usually are capable of being adequately secured from inside, and not very vulnerable to manipulation or defeat from outside).

If the garage is attached, does the overhead door have an outside keyway? The most secure garage lock is one which is applied inside and has no outside keyway.

Garage door openers are vulnerable to manipulation with electronic devices; if the overhead door is opener-equipped,

  • is it a current technology system with multi-channel (owner-selectable) coding?
  • Can it conveniently be turned off for vacations?

If it is an existing system, make certain the previous owner hasn't installed an outside button for convenience; if there is one, disconnect it.

If there is a side door to the garage,

  • is it a solid-core wood or metal door?
  • Is it equipped with a deadbolt lock with an inside keyway (to prevent operation from the outside)?

If you are building, consider putting in a garage side door without windows, and use better illumination. Garage side doors are often outside the fence line, and anyone can look into the garage and know there is no one home if there is no vehicle inside.....

  • Is the door between the garage and the house a solid-core wood or metal door?
  • Deadbolt?
  • Open inward (or have pinned or non-removable pin hinges)?
  • If the attic access is in the garage, is it equipped with a lock?


Alarm Systems
Alarm systems can significantly enhance security if installed and used properly.

Phony "Warning: These Premises Protected by the Acme Alarm Company" signs are usually not effective; a serious burglar need only look in the telephone directory to see whether an alarm company exists. Most companies won't let non-customers display their emblem, and the burglars know that, too. There's no harm in using such signs, but don't expect them to provide any protection.

Always use a licensed vendor to install, repair, or service an alarm system. While licensure does not guarantee honesty, it does indicates that the vendor has registered with the state, and has met the specified minimum criteria for your locale. In most cases, licensure is predicated upon proof of adequate insurance and/or bonding, so you have that protection as well.

Local alarm systems (those which sound only on the protected premises) are much less effective, especially when local ordinances limit the time for which the signal can sound to avoid nuisance disturbance of neighbors. If you invest in such an alarm, you are counting on your neighbors to call the police to respond. Having the signals from your alarm system monitored by a licensed vendor better assures that you get the protection you pay for when you install an alarm system.

Continually-monitored is much better than a center which your system dials; while almost all systems rely upon telephone connection for reporting, continually monitored systems respond to interrupted service, while those which use a dialer are useless if telephone service is cut off. Since monitoring costs more, this is a budget decision, but remember that you get what you pay for.

The best alarm systems are those which combine perimeter and interior detection devices. Every door should be protected with some type of switch device. Covering every window (or even every "downstairs window" in multi-story houses) can get very expensive very quickly; your decision should be guided by local experience with criminal entry through windows; if that's a common occurrence in your area, window protection is probably advisable. If not, interior protection may be adequate. If window protection is needed, glass-break sensors are the preferred device.

Interior devices cover a volume of space, and are typically ceiling-mounted. The least-susceptible to false alarm are passive infra-red sensors (which are really thermostats that detect the presence of a human intruder by comparing the 98.6 degree body heat to the usual ambient temperature in occupied space which is typically between fifty-five and seventy-five degrees). Pets, air currents, rodents, and other similar sources will not set off passive infrared devices, and thus generate minimal false alarms.

Don't forget to provide coverage for any attic access in exposed or semi-exposed locations (like the garage).

Consider installing one or more panic buttons at fixed locations, or obtaining one or more such devices which can be worn on a chain if you have members of the family with health problems or limited mobility.

You'll need to decide whether you intend to use the system when you're home, or only when you're out. If you want protection when you're at home, the system will have to have "zones" so you can arm the perimeter while leaving occupants freedom to move about.

Every system has a control panel of some type. In most home security systems, the controls are concealed in a closet or utility room, and only the controls necessary to operate the system are in occupied space. In most systems, these controls take the form of a touch-pad resembling the one on your telephone. You "arm" or "disarm" the system by punching in a code.

Most users find it convenient for all members of the family to use the same code, but many systems are capable of multiple codes. Some systems are also capable of using arm codes with one less digit that the disarm codes, allowing you to have a household worker turn the system on when they leave, but unable to turn the system off. You'll need to consider how you want to use the system before making a decision about type and installation.

Installing the keypad inside the protected space prevents any access by unauthorized persons, but necessitates that there be a delay in signaling an intrusion (at least from the entrance where the control is located) in order to allow sufficient time for a family member to disarm the system upon entering. You can eliminate this delay by installing the touch-pad outside the protected perimeter. While this does subject the pad to attack, you can minimize the risk by installing it inside the garage rather than at the front door.

Many people come and go through their garages, and inside installation of the touch-pad minimizes any opportunity for someone to attempt to defeat the system through that device.

If you have high-value assets inside your home, there are supplemental devices available to extend alarm protection to these items. You can alarm a closet used as an inside "strong-room", a display case for collectibles, a safe or vault, or wall-hung artwork. Any competent alarm vendor can assist in devising a means to protect almost any asset.

Alarm systems don't eat, sleep, get bored, or take vacations. They are, however, electro-mechanical devices subject to failure, and must be tested regularly to ensure they work as designed. Set up a test schedule with your vendor; at least once monthly is highly recommended.

A final word on alarms: If you're going to pay for a security alarm, it costs very little additional to incorporate fire detection in a system, and that signal can also be reported to your vendor, thus providing continual personal safety and security protection, but protection for the property from fire loss. Installing a few thermostatic detectors in the attic, above fireplace openings, in garages and shops, and in the kitchen will significantly enhance the speed and effectiveness of detection of fire.

Inside Strong Room
If you have certain assets which you wish to afford a higher level of security on a routine basis, or you want to create a space within which you can secure high-risk or high-value assets during periods when you will be gone from your home for extended periods, you might consider creating an inside strong room.

Select an interior closet or similar small space. Replace the door with a solid core wood or metal door, Use non-removable pin or pinned hinges. Install a deadbolt lock and a matching box strike in the manner described above.

If you have an alarm system, extend it to cover the door to the strong room; provide a separate activation touch-pad for this room if desired. Now you have the home equivalent of a vault; unless the intruder is willing to destroy interior walls, it is unlikely entry will be gained in the amount of time a typical home burglar is willing to spend on the premises.

Bear in mind that, absent special protection, this strong room remains as vulnerable to fire as the rest of your home. Use of a safety deposit box or off-premises storage for critical records and small valuables is still strongly recommended.


We hope you've enjoyed our "Hardening Your Home" series. We'll be making additions to these articles in the coming months, so stop by again!


For further information on home security issues, contact the OUPD Crime Prevention unit by email ( or call 325-2864.