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Think like a criminal: 6 ways to secure your home

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When you view a prospective home to buy, its security should be a top consideration. You will not care as much about your home's lovely view if your beautiful picture window gets shattered in a break-in. It will be nearly impossible to rest easy in a spectacular master suite after some petty thief gets away with all of your jewelry.

Here are six things to look for when evaluating a home's potential security.

Insurance reporter and former agent Ryan Hurlbert says, "Burglars look for easy access that is not visible from the street or the neighbor's place. Tall hedges, long driveways, etc., all contribute to hidden access. A lack of exterior lighting makes life easy for a thief as well. Upstairs windows are seldom locked, so houses with two stories and easy access to the second-floor windows (dormers, for example) are targets."

A secured gate and a property fence send a clear message to outsiders that the perimeter of your property is not easily accessible to anyone, anytime. Iron or steel fences and driveway gates add the most security, but even a basic wooden fence with a padlocked gate can help discourage unwanted visitors.

Exterior electrical or fuse boxes should be secured with strong locks, unless you want intruders to be able to cut your lights and possibly your alarm and phone systems.

Likewise, window-mounted air conditioners should not be fastened on the outside, where they can be easily removed by burglars; they should be bolted in place from the inside.

Homes with older patio doors, basement windows and flimsy entry doors extend open invitations to evildoers. Louvered windows are so easily removed that they should have no place anywhere they can be touched from the outside.

If you are buying or already own a home with these shortcomings, plan on purchasing heavy-duty replacements that have passed ASTM tests for structural forced entry ASAP. In addition, removing vulnerable tempered glass and putting in laminated glass makes it very difficult for intruders to penetrate these areas.

Entry doors should be steel or fiberglass with peepholes and deadbolts for maximum safety. Garage doors should lock, as should the entry door between the garage and your home. Homes that have motion-detecting security lighting shining brightly on points of entry are at an advantage.

Windows near entry doors can pose a hazard. If there is a window next to or in the door, the door should have a double cylinder deadbolt (it requires a key from each side). That way, a burglar cannot break the window to gain access to the deadbolt lock.

Your most basic home security system is the locks on your doors and windows. But many homes have already gone beyond just the basics and have installed actual alarm systems. Alarm systems come with many features and at many price points. You could purchase a DIY system (wireless) or have a professional install one for you. Wireless systems run on batteries and continue to function during a power outage (do not forget to replace those batteries often!). If you are unable to invest in an alarm system, fake it with alarm warning stickers on your doors and windows.

If you can afford it, experts advise that you contract to have your alarm system monitored. The monitoring service calls for immediate help if the alarm is triggered. Hurlbert says that alarm systems can often get you a break on your home insurance premiums, anywhere up to 20 percent. "An alarm that makes noise will get you something in most cases. A monitored alarm with a response will get you more in most cases."

James Hopkins, home security expert and author from Whitewater, Wis., has a home-shopping tip that can help you in two ways. "As you drive through the neighborhood, look for block watch signs. Not only is membership in a neighborhood watch a great way to meet your new neighbors, but you'll have many eyes looking out for potential problems," he says.

While high shrubbery near windows and doors can make it easy for a thief to break in unseen from the outside, and branches and trees can be used to climb over fences, onto roofs, or into windows on upper floors, some landscaping features are your friends in your battle for enhanced home security. A bank of roses or other prickly plants under ground-level windows or up against your fence can make breaking and entering a thorny issue!

Some home security improvements pay for themselves in part by lowering the cost of your homeowners insurance. But if financing the upfront cost is an issue, look into home equity loans which are available today at great rates. Secured home equity financing is one of the cheapest methods of getting funds for home improvements.

You can also pursue an FHA 203(k) loan that allows you to finance both the purchase of a home and the improvements that make it more secure. Last, FHA Title I loans allow you to finance the improvements in amounts up to $25,000.

So, if you're shopping for a home or just looking for ways to make your existing home more secure, these are some very basic steps you can take to deter potential thieves. Protecting your family and your investment is a big responsibility, and thinking like a criminal may be the best way to ensure you are doing both.

Photo credit: ThinkStock.com

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