Simple Steps to Protect Your Home While You're on Vacation

CR's expert advice can help you beef up security at home

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It’s hard to imagine a worse ending to a summer vacation than returning to find that someone has broken into your home. And while it’s true that there’s not much you can do to thwart a professional burglar, according to University of Pennsylvania criminology professor Richard Berk, that’s not who you need to worry about. “Most burglaries are done impulsively, by kids,” Berk says.

The good news is that you can do a lot to stop home invasions by making some simple household fixes and upgrades. Indeed, the FBI estimates that nearly 90 percent of burglaries can be prevented.

Now’s the time to do something about it.

Summer, when many people take a week or two off for vacation, is peak season for burglaries, according to the Department of Justice. Here are five ways to make would-be thieves think twice before breaking into your home.

1. Start With a Great Lock

At Consumer Reports, our test engineers find big differences when they evaluate deadbolt door locks for their ability to resist being kicked in, drilled, or picked. And price is no predictor of quality.

The highly rated Kwikset 980 is a bargain and earns Excellent ratings in CR’s kick-in and picking tests.

More on Home Security

One thing that makes the Kwikset a standout? It has a heavy-duty strike plate and 3-inch screws to anchor it securely. Many locks come with a standard-gauge strike plate and 3⁄4-inch screws.

“Using screws that are too short means the strike plate is attached only to the door jamb, and that’s often made of soft pine,” says CR test engineer Dave Trezza, who runs the lock program. The locked deadbolt can break through the jamb itself, taking the strike plate with it, if someone kicks in the door.

At least that’s a weakness you can easily fix.

“With just about any deadbolt, you can seriously beef up its out-of-the-box performance,” Trezza says. Just install a 4-screw box strike plate with 2-inch screws that go through the jamb to catch the framing of the house.

2. Lock Your Windows

Around 30 percent of burglars gain access to a home through an unlocked window or door, according to a report published by the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. So lock your windows and doors, folks.

3. Put On a Good Show

Taking steps to make your home appear occupied when you’re away is an effective way to deter burglars, according to Berk. “Leave items in your yard that make it look like you’ve got a dog,” he adds, and “put a few lights on an automatic timer, so it looks like people are home.” Or invest in a home security system that turns lights on automatically while you’re away.

It’s also a good idea to install pathway lighting and keep bushes trimmed, particularly near windows and doors. Ask a trusted neighbor to pick up any packages that are left at the front door while you’re away. And don’t tell the world your plans—the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more often than not, burglaries are committed by people you know.

4. Look for Weak Spots

A thoroughly secured front door won’t do much good if you leave other entry points, like a cellar door, unsecured. Those are best locked from inside, rather than with a padlock on the outside, which can be cut with bolt cutters.

Garage doors are another weak point: Some older models can be opened with a wire hanger, and even modern ones can be hacked. Pay extra attention to the door and lock that separate your garage from the rest of your home. Better yet, unplug your automatic garage door opener, rendering it inoperable while you’re away.

Window air conditioners introduce an inherent security vulnerability because they make it impossible to secure windows with their sash locks. Consider using a dowel or, even better, a locking metal rod called a Charlie bar between the top rail of the open sash and the window jamb. That way, a would-be burglar can’t simply slide the window open and will be forced to break the glass, attracting attention in the process.

5. Consider a Security System

“Get a home security system and display the sign prominently,” says Berk, the University of Pennsylvania criminology professor. According to the FBI, on average only 12.4 percent of burglaries end in a conviction. In other words, the majority of burglars get away with their crimes, a fact that may embolden some.

Consider buying a home security system, or at least adding a few signs to give that impression. Berk says that will make any thief who’s paying attention find your home less appealing than others in the neighborhood.

It’s just one of a few simple steps you can take to protect your home. “It’s not rocket science,” Berk says. But these steps can dramatically reduce the chances of a break-in while you’re away.

Below, CR members can see ratings of three recommended do-it-yourself home security systems. Each receives a rating of Excellent for security essentials—those features we consider crucial—and a rating of Very Good for security add-ons, which make the system more versatile.

3 Top DIY Home Security Systems

These systems all score high enough in our test to earn a spot on CR's recommended list.

Security Systems 101

Self-installed security systems are becoming more popular, but there are a few things to consider. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Dan Wroclawski explains to host Jack Rico what to look for when buying one.

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.