The other day, I stepped outside and found my neighbor lugging a broken door out of his garage and into the back of his pickup truck. It turns out he had locked himself out of his house. His wife was away and he had no spare keys. To make matters worse, their new puppy was inside the house.
He simply kicked the door in, got his keys and then went and purchased an identical door, which I helped him install.
Later on that day, I was talking with some other neighbors who are both police officers. They were staring at the mangled door next to the curb and wondering what happened. They commented that the doors and locks on our houses don’t really keep our possessions safe. For the most part, we rely on the good parts of human nature to protect our stuff. As my other neighbor illustrated, it isn’t hard to get into someone’s house without a key.
Here are several suggestions for keeping your house secure:
- When you are going to be gone, let your neighbors know what to expect. If you are going to have someone house sitting, describe what the house sitter looks like. Better yet, introduce them. (I’ve got it pretty good where I live. There are three cops living within paper airplane throwing distance of our front door.)
- Don’t leave a key under the mat. I know a family who came home to meet the plumber and discovered he had already found their hidden key and let himself into their house. He said “I thought you left it there for me to get in.” If the plumber can find it, so can anyone else.
- Keep Off site Backups. If your computer is stolen, it can be replaced. However, 10 years of family photos on the hard drive and backed up to an external drive cannot be replaced. I try to put backups of important pictures and files in a safety deposit box two or three times per year.
- Get a Safety Deposit Box. Where I live, you can get a mid sized safety deposit box for about $16 per year. This is the ideal place to keep car titles, social security cards, computer backups, jewelry and other valuable items. At that price, it is some of the cheapest insurance you can buy.
- Don’t Advertise What You Have. If you can avoid it, don’t put a huge television or computer setup right in front of a window facing a street. If someone is looking to rob someone, they want an easy target. Don’t advertise your valuables.
- Bolt Your Safe to the Floor. Safety deposit boxes are generally a much better option than a safe in your house. But if you do have a safe, make sure that a thief can’t just run off with it to open at their leisure. Even if you only keep documents in it to protect against fire, a thief won’t know that and it will look pretty valuable.
- Make It Look Like Someone is Home. If you are gone overnight or late in the evening, putting a light on a timer and leaving your second car in view will help make it look like someone is home. A running radio will also provide some sound that has the potential to make it sound as if someone is home.
- Security System. The most valuable part of a security system is the sign saying that there is a security system. If you want to save money, just buy the signs to put on the windows.
- Dogs. Some insurance companies will give you a lower price on home owner’s insurance if you have a dog. Statistically, burglars are less likely to rob a house with a dog at home. Like the security system, you might be able to get by with just a beware of dog sign.
- Information. Sophisticated criminals realize that the information in the house may be much more valuable than the possessions. If they can get your birthdate, mother’s maiden name, and your SSN, it won’t take much for them to get some credit cards (or even a mortgage) in your name. While you may not be liable for the debt they incur, it can be a big hassle to get it taken off your credit report.
So, let’s say that you have some important papers or money that you need to keep at your house. Here are some ideas of places to hide valuables that a thief is likely to overlook. (A safety deposit box is still a much better option.)
- Taped Under Furniture. An envelope taped under your dining room table is probably going to be overlooked. At the very least, they will check your desk drawers before looking under the table. Taped to the bottom of a trash can (outside the bag) or the bottom of the lowest shelf on a bookshelf are some other ideas.
- In Books. You can easily hide bills in a book if you don’t have too many of them. You can also create a “book safe” by taking an old book and cutting a compartment in the middle of the pages. You can secure the pages with glue or nails. Just make sure the book doesn’t seem out of place with the rest of your home library.
- Cold Air Return — Many cold air returns are great hiding places because they are fairly easy to get to, but an unlikely place for a thief to look.
- Back of the Toilet — You’ll need a water proof container, but hiding something under the water in the back of the toilet can be a fairly safe place. Update: This is a bad idea if the thief is looking for drugs.
- Refrigerator — You can easily hide an envelope in the back of the freezer under the frozen pizzas. Update: Also a bad idea if they are looking for drugs.
- Furnace Air Filter — The furnace air filter is a good hiding spot, just make sure you don’t put in anything that could be sucked into the blower. It is better to put something on the cold air return side of things.
- Suit or Coat Pocket — The pockets on clothes in the back of a closet can provide a good hiding place for valuables.
- Behind Picture Frames — This works as long as the thief doesn’t try to steal the picture or take it down to look for a wall safe. Putting something between the picture and the frame backing is less likely to be noticed and a family picture is less likely to look valuable than something that looks like it might be a piece of expensive art.
Obviously, anywhere you leave valuables in your house can be found. You are probably best off coming up with your own unique place to hide things. Just make sure you don’t hide valuables in something that is likely to be stolen. For example, hiding an envelope inside of your desktop computer might sound like a great idea until you consider that the computer, itself, is a likely target.
Update: An ex-burglar says that hiding something anywhere in the bathroom or refrigerator is a bad idea. Evidently these are common places to hide drugs so they often get extra attention.
Originally published July 15, 2007.