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When Your Home Is Alone

(Updated November 19, 2002)

When you’re leaving for a vacation or the holidays, it’s easier to focus on packing rather than thinking about protecting your house. Like the majority of homeowners, I’ve always been prudent about arranging for things to be taken care of while I am away. I put timers on lamps, and have trusted neighbors to feed the cat, bring in the newspapers and mail, water plants, and cut the grass. Nevertheless, a couple of things happened to me this year that made me think twice before leaving my home alone again.

For Whom The Bell Rings

Last summer, after returning home from a two-week trip, I was awakened at 3 a.m. by the frantic ringing of my doorbell. At first, I thought something was very wrong—perhaps a fire, or someone in distress. Then I thought it might be some teenagers playing a joke. It wasn’t a joke. After turning the lights on, I discovered someone had tried to break into my home.

Scared, I immediately called the police. The officers discovered fresh tracks in the grass around the house’s perimeter, in particular around the basement windows. There was evidence someone tried to force one of the windows open. After telling the officers that I had just returned home from vacation, they guessed that someone had been staking out my house while I was away. To make sure that no one was home, they rang the doorbell. Obviously when the lights went on, they ran.

I asked, “Why would anyone want to break into a house with monitored security?” The officer was blunt in saying that they were probably amateurs looking for a “smash and grab.” He pointed to the laptop computer on the kitchen table and the dining room silver on display (all where in full view from the windows). He said that quick thieves could take off with thousands of dollars worth of items in just seconds.

Crime Stopper Tactics

The FBI reports that a burglary occurs every eight seconds in the U.S. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), nine out of ten burglaries are preventable. A burglar’s three worst enemies are light, time, and noise. It goes without saying that a burglar won’t find your home an attractive target if he or she is forced to work in the light, has to take a lot of time breaking in, and/or can’t break in without making a lot of noise.

The Insurance Information Institute offers the following tips for when you leave for vacation:

  • Leave blinds open in their usual position.

  • Have mail and packages picked up, forwarded, or held by the post office.

  • Lower the sound of your telephone ringer and answering machine so they can’t be heard outside. Also, never leave an outgoing message saying you’re away.

  • Arrange to have your lawn mowed or your walk shoveled.
  • Stop newspaper deliveries.

  • Ask a friend to pick up “throwaway” newspapers and circulars.

  • Use automatic timers to turn lights on and off in your living room and bedrooms at appropriate times. Consider connecting a radio to a timer.

  • Tell police and dependable neighbors when you plan to be away, and join with your neighbors to keep a close watch on what’s happening in your area—working closely with them is a good way to prevent crime.
One other thing to consider: if you are parking your car in a lot, remove your garage door opener from plain view. Numerous cases of home theft have resulted from people stealing garage door openers and using them to get into the house.

Damage Control

While thieves can run off with a few trinkets, accidental damage to your home could be a worse scenario. Most people worry about fire, so they take all the necessary precautions to prevent the occurrence. However, it is often the things we don’t consider that cause the most damage. Last winter, the Insurance Information Institute stated there was over $1.5 billion dollars in insured losses due to burst pipes, frozen gutters, and other disasters like leaking toilets.

A little over a month ago, a valve in the upstairs toilet began leaking. Unfortunately, it caused enough damage to have our insurance company authorize repairs. The insurance adjuster told me that I was lucky to be home during this leak. He went on to tell me a horrifying tale of a family that went on vacation for three weeks, only to come home to a flooded house. For them, a faulty seal in an upstairs toilet had broken, causing water to pour into the house for several weeks. The damage was substantial, well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Could this have been prevented? Yes. Simply put, as the adjuster recommends, turn off the water coming into the home before leaving on an extended trip. If turning the water off to your entire house isn’t possible, you can just shut off the water supply to the toilets and washing machine, the two biggest culprits for flood damage.

Another thing to consider: if you live where it’s cold, make sure that the heat stays on so that the pipes won’t freeze. If they do, they’re liable to crack or burst. It’s recommended that the temperature in the home should be at least 65 degrees because temperatures inside walls (where pipes are located) remain substantially colder than the walls themselves. Thermostat temperatures lower than 65 degrees will not keep pipes from freezing.

It goes without saying that you really don’t want anything bad to happen to your home while you are away. I was fortunate to be home during the two aforementioned incidents, but I quiver at the prospects had I not been there. Quivering aside, I learned an important lesson: that you really cannot take anything for granted when you leave your home alone.

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