Home security steps help ensure happy ending to vacations

Modesto police community service Officer Stephany Valadez conducts a safety inspection at a home in Modesto on Thursday.
Modesto police community service Officer Stephany Valadez conducts a safety inspection at a home in Modesto on Thursday.

Home security – at any time, but especially when you’re away on vacation – is a matter of layers. Dead bolts. Check. Alarm system. Check. Lights on timers. Check.

But the most impenetrable layer of security is a strong network of neighborhood communications, say Modesto police and a resident who’s a big believer in the effectiveness of Neighborhood Watch and the private social network Nextdoor.

On condition that her name be withheld, the resident agreed to have Modesto Police Department community service Officer Stephany Valadez and public information Officer Heather Graves conduct a security inspection of the house she shares with her husband.

The woman said she feels very secure with her home’s “super-duper” alarm package, which includes monitored response when doors and windows are opened, a window is broken, or smoke or fire are detected. She has keypads in her laundry room and bedroom, a bedroom monitor that shows which door or window has set off the alarm, and a portable panic button.

Once, the alarm went off – because a bird hit a window – while she was in her garage, and she received a phone call within 30 seconds. “We’ve never had anyone try to break in,” she said. “The only thing that sets off the alarm is if a big enough bird flies into a window. ... That brought us home from Monterey one time” when it wasn’t clear what triggered the alarm.

Looking over the front exterior of the home, Valadez said a small tree in front of the window next to the door was a tad tall – enough for someone to hide behind it. “Overall, you did a good job with landscaping, though the hedges are a little high,” the officer said. “We like to keep them at 2 feet or lower.”

Lock those side gates

She and Graves said they were glad to see a lamppost and motion-sensor spotlights, and especially a padlock on the side gate. “A lot of people will hang a lock over it but don’t lock it because it’s inconvenient (to keep locking and unlocking as they use the gate),” Valadez said.

Burglars commonly gain access through side doors into garages, Graves said. If the burglar can get through an unlocked side gate, he’s not visible from the street, and those side doors generally are much weaker than front doors. Side doors also tend to be less often used, and Graves suggested the doors easily can be fortified against kicking by installing brackets on each side, into which a 2-by-4 board can be laid.

Moving to the front door, the officers observed it had no peephole. The resident said when someone is at the door, she looks through the nearby window and tells the person to show himself if he’s not easily visible. Still, the officers said, adding a 360-degree peephole to a front door is a worthwhile security measure.

Valadez asked if 3-inch screws were used for the faceplate of the front door lock, and was told yes. If people take the screws out of their faceplates, most will find they’re small, less than an inch, Graves said. Burglar entry by kicking in doors is common, she said, and those little screws tear out easily, whereas deep screws provide much more resistance.

Valadez commended the resident for keeping her drapes open. “When you have blinds and curtains open, what does that mean? It usually means you are home,” she said. “So with front windows especially, always try to keep your blinds open – that signals you’re home.” It also helps neighbors who are keeping an eye on your home while you’re away see if there’s suspicious activity, she said.

The home’s front door and doors to the side of the front porch and into the garage all have deadbolts. The homeowners also replaced a back bathroom window with a door to give people access from the swimming pool. The door has less glass than the long window had, and the deadbolt lock has a keyhole, not a latch, inside. Thanks to that, breaking a pane of glass won’t allow a burglar to simply reach through and unlock it.

The homeowner pointed out to the officers that the sliding glass door to the backyard has two thick latches, facing in opposite directions. The door also has a key lock on the exterior, something Valadez said she’s rarely seen and is a good feature. Then again, “I’ve not seen a lot of entry (by burglars) through sliding doors,” she said.

Windows much improved

The resident lives in a neighborhood built in the late 1960s to late 1970s, and windows and doors have come a long way since then, Graves said. Aluminum frame windows of that era are very easy to lift out, and that’s not the case with newer windows, she said. Graves also has observed that a lot of area homes from that time even had their sliding glass doors incorrectly installed, with the sliding portion on the outside, meaning the door can be lifted off its tracks. Having the sliding portion on the inner track prevents that, she said.

The resident said all of her doors and windows were replaced for a total of $6,000, including installation. The windows have double latches, are snug in their tracks and even have pop-up blocks that can be engaged to prevent the windows from being opened more than a couple of inches.

But you don’t have to install all new windows to improve security, the officers said. Adding screw-on stoppers to a window will prevent it from being opened beyond the point of your choosing, and the old trick of laying a wooden dowel into the track works well.

Likewise, Valadez said, many people move into homes that have alarm systems, but they can’t afford to pay for a monitoring service. Still, use the alarm, she said, because the burglar isn’t going to know if it’s monitored and the noise likely will be sufficient to scare him off.

Noise is a deterrent. The woman whose home was being inspected said her alarm is a booming voice saying “Burglary! Get out of the house!” Graves said a recording of a barking dog, tied to the doorbell or sound-activated, also can be effective.

“It’s all about building layers,” Graves said. “If all you have is a screen door, they’re going to get in. If you have 3-inch screws, they’re not going to be able to kick in the door.” A metal door provides greater security than a wood door, and so on.

Personal precautions

In addition to the safety features of her house, the resident said she practices cautious behavior. For example, she always enters her home through the garage.

“I do not have a keypad on the outside of my garage because anybody walking by could see me punch in the code.” Instead, she gets into the garage with the garage door opener she keeps in her car. It’s programmable, and she and her husband are good about resetting it every couple of months.

She lets trusted neighbors know when she’ll be away on vacation, she makes sure to meet anyone who’s moved in near her, and she uses Neighborhood Watch and Nextdoor to keep track of comings, goings and concerns.

Neighbors take in one another’s newspapers and mail when someone’s on vacation, she said, or delivery is halted. They also use vacationing neighbors’ garbage cans to help conceal the fact that someone is gone.

People with pets often hire someone to house-sit or at least come by to feed and water the animals. Having someone “in charge” of the house is a good idea when away on vacation, Valadez said. “Too many people don’t ask anyone to keep an eye on their place.”

National Night Out is in August, said the officer, who shared an idea she heard: Ask all who attend the block party to enter their name, address and phone number into a guestbook, then make copies so everyone has one another’s contact information.

And if you’re not part of a Neighborhood Watch program, join or start one. To do so, simply contact Valadez or fellow community service Officer Rosie Garcia at (209) 572-9636. They’ll talk with you and provide a package on getting started and having meetings.

Usually, Neighborhood Watch groups are started as a reaction to an incident, Valadez said, but it’s always better to be proactive.

On a final note, the officers said that while social media has great uses, such as Nextdoor, you should be careful about what you share on Facebook, Twitter and the like. If you’re tweeting out photos of yourself away on vacation, you’re trumpeting that your home likely is empty.

Deke Farrow: (209) 578-2327

While you’re away ...

The Modesto Police Department offers these safety tips:

  • Make your home look occupied, and make it difficult to break in.
  • Leave lights on when you go out. If you are going to be away for a length of time, connect some lamps to automatic timers to turn them on in the evening and off during the day.
  • Keep your garage door closed and locked.
  • Don’t allow daily deliveries of mail, newspapers or fliers to build up while you are away. Arrange with the post office to hold your mail, or arrange for a friend or neighbor to take them regularly.
  • Arrange for your lawn to be mowed if you are going away for an extended time.
  • Check your locks on doors and windows and replace them with secure devices as necessary.
  • Push-button locks on doorknobs are easy for burglars to open. Install deadbolt locks on all your outside doors.
  • Sliding glass doors are vulnerable. Special locks are available for better security.
  • Other windows may need better locks. Check with locksmith or hardware store for alternatives.