One of the best things about being at home is that feeling of security. But how safe is your home, really – from burglary, fire, storm damage, natural disasters and all the other calamities that the world can come up with? If you stop and look at the reality, you may discover your home isn’t quite as safe as you think.
When it comes to improving home safety, knowledge is everything. For example, did you know that many Australian homes still have standard cylinder locks on their front doors, and that 90% of these types of locks are vulnerable to a lock picking technique called ‘key bumping’?1 Are you up to speed on how to prepare for an approaching bushfire, or fully understand what your home insurance policy covers (and what it doesn’t)? The more you know the better, so here are some tips to help you create a safer home.
If you’ve seen the movie Absolute Power, you might have formed the impression that the typical home thief is an aging Clint Eastwood with consummate professional skills and a code of honour.
According to police reports, the most popular items for thieves in Australian homes are cash, laptops, jewellery, cameras, mobile phones, wallets/handbags, ID documents (including credit cards) and televisions
In the real world, it’s more likely to be a younger (often teenage) opportunist who sees your side window open on a Friday afternoon – and would have to Google ‘code of honour’ to find out what it means.
According to police reports, the most popular items for thieves in Australian homes are cash, laptops, jewellery, cameras, mobile phones, wallets/handbags, ID documents (including credit cards) and televisions2.
Computer games and power tools are also in high demand. While it’s pretty hard to hide your large flat-screen TV, most of us could certainly do a better job of hiding less bulky items within our homes. If your wallet is in the bedside drawer, your purse is on the closet floor and your new laptop is sitting on the dining room table, a thief can be in and out of your home with a nice little haul in under a minute. Don’t make it so easy for them. Fortunately, there are plenty of useful and rather simple ways to significantly reduce your burglary risk:
Install durable locks and security grilles: New lock-picking techniques and burglary tools are being developed all the time and these are shared all over the Internet, so they’re not a secret. Pay a visit to a locksmith to ask about door and window security. They’ll usually recommend that key-operated, two-cylinder deadlocks be fitted to external hinged doors and that key-operated patio bolts or locks be fitted to external sliding doors. They’ll also suggest key-operated, single cylinder window locks on all accessible windows and the installation of solid, metal security grilles.
Anti-theft gardening: If you have shrubs close to your house (especially your windows), trim them back so they don’t offer hiding places for intruders. Or, have thorny plants like roses or bougainvillea in areas where thieves might try to gain access.
Don’t leave expensive tools in an unlocked backyard shed. Lock away bikes and ladders, too. Your rusty old axe, crowbar or hammer may not have much resale value for a thief, but they are handy tools to help that thief break in.
Don’t leave spare keys hidden outside your house. Those clever ‘secret hiding spots’ aren’t much of a secret to experienced thieves. If you’re propping your spare on a window ledge, under the mat or hiding it in a fake rock or a pot plant, you’re not fooling anyone. Leave a spare key with a 100% trustworthy neighbour instead.
Lights, camera, action: Don’t advertise the fact that you’re away from home. Your social media friends don’t need to know that you’re going away on holiday. Install automatically timed or motion-activated lighting so it’s less obvious you’re not at home, and consider a quality alarm system as well. Home security systems that incorporate CCTV cameras and can be accessed remotely from your smartphone are also becoming popular, so it’s worth doing some research to see what you can afford and what might give your home that extra bit of security. Technology has made great strides in alarm systems, so take a look. If you have highly valuable items, get yourself a sturdy, non-portable safe to store them in.
If you need to go out at night, leave some lights on and maybe a TV. Whenever you leave your house – even if it’s just for a few minutes – lock all your doors and windows.
Close and lock your garage door, even when you’re home. It’s no problem at all for a passerby to spot the open door, stroll inside and walk out with your possessions (or even steal your car). If your garage has windows, ensure these are locked up as well
In summer, it’s all too common for people to open lots of windows in their house for ventilation, then forget to close some (or all) of them when they go out. Whether you’re in the house or out in the backyard, never leave your front door unlocked – many thieves enter houses while the occupants are still at home but are unaware of what’s going on in other parts of the house (computers and television can absorb all your attention).
Close and lock your garage door, even when you’re home. It’s no problem at all for a passerby to spot the open door, stroll inside and walk out with your possessions (or even steal your car). If your garage has windows, ensure these are locked up as well.
One smart thing you should do is create a digital photographic record of your most valuable possessions and household items. Grab your camera and go through each room of the house, methodically photographing everything of value. Keep a copy of this record with a relative or somewhere else outside your house, so it’s still available if your home should be destroyed by fire or other disaster. It’s amazing how many people don’t bother to take this simple step, which can save huge headaches if you have to make an insurance claim later.
Know where your home is most vulnerable: Common entry points for burglars include windows, doors and the garage (once they get inside your garage, they’re sheltered from further observation from the street or nosy neighbours). Keep all sliding doors locked, whether you’re at home or not. Consider placing a length of wood or a metal bar at the base to physically prevent them sliding open if the lock is breached.
Know exactly what your home and contents insurance policy covers (you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: ‘read the product disclosure statement for full details’). Ask your insurer about the steps you can take (or have already taken) to make your home more secure – being proactive with home security may even reduce your premium. There is a fair bit of variation in the policy options that Home and Contents insurers offer, so don’t be afraid to shop around until you get the cover that suits your particular needs.
Protect your home from the threat of fire
The first step in creating a fire safety plan for your home is to install a sufficient number of smoke alarms and test them regularly. You should have an escape plan in place for fire emergencies and make sure every occupant of the home knows what to do if a fire starts. Your family shouldn’t just talk about fire evacuation – they should practice it, because when a house is full of smoke, visibility is reduced and you’re not sure where the main fire is, things can get very confusing in a hurry.
Keep matches and lighters away from curious children. Make sure keys to locked doors are easily accessible in case you need to make a quick escape. Don’t smoke in bed or leave candles, oil burners or other open flames unattended. The combination of alcohol consumption and smoking causes its share of house fires, so try not to combine the two activities.
Switch off and unplug appliances when you’re not using them and don’t overload power outlets (invest in a power board with surge protection). Clean your clothes dryer’s lint filter each time you use it, and clean that decade’s worth of accumulated dust out of your computer.
Have an electrical safety switch installed at your home and use appropriately rated fuses. Get a professional to check your gas appliances and wood heaters annually
Winter is danger time for home fires, so take care with portable heaters, fireplaces and electric blankets (turn off and unplug electric blankets before going to sleep). When you refuel your lawn mower or whipper-snipper, do it outside (not in an enclosed shed) and while they’re cold.
Have an electrical safety switch installed at your home and use appropriately rated fuses. Get a professional to check your gas appliances and wood heaters annually.
If a fire does occur, it’s a mistake to assume the smell of smoke will wake you up – it may have the opposite effect. And if you’ve managed to get yourself and everyone else out of a burning house safely, don’t be silly and go back inside for your possessions (they’re not worth more than your life). Dial 000 and wait for the Fire Department.
The majority of home fires are the result of electrical faults, smoking-related incidents, lamps, open fires and heaters. Burnt-out fridge motors, tipped over candles and kitchen accidents cause fires in the home, as do hot lamps coming into contact with curtain material. Most home fire deaths aren’t caused by heat exposure or burns but by smoke inhalation, which is why installing smoke alarms is so crucial.
At a minimum, you should have at least one fire extinguisher (near the kitchen is a good spot) and a fire blanket in your home, easy to reach when you need them. Be careful to store flammable chemicals well away from any heat sources.
Bushfires are a serious problem in many parts of Australia. There are some handy government websites that provide useful information on how to prepare for bushfire season, and offer advice on what you should do if a bushfire is approaching your home. A good first step is to clean those dry leaves out of your gutters and clear away any dry plant fuel (grass, tree branches close to the house, thick underbrush, etc.) around your property.
Is your house ready for storms?
When it’s not being drought-stricken, this country can come up with some pretty mighty storms – and the total cost in home, business and infrastructure repairs can be staggering. Cyclone Yasi in 2011, for example, resulted in an estimated $3.6 billion worth of damage to northern Queensland3.
Weather forecasts are useful, but they’re not foolproof. The speed and ferocity of approaching storms can catch homeowners by surprise, so get your preparation in early. Severe storms are the most dangerous natural hazard in Australia and their dangers come in many forms: flying debris, exposed power lines, lightning strikes, falling tree limbs and destroyed roofs.
When it’s not being drought-stricken, this country can come up with some pretty mighty storms – and the total cost in home, business and infrastructure repairs can be staggering. Cyclone Yasi in 2011, for example, resulted in an estimated $3.6 billion worth of damage to northern Queensland
All it takes is one dodgy roof tile to allow water to pour into your home, so get your roof inspected before storm season arrives. Clear your gutters and downpipes of debris and trim tree branches adjacent to your house. Store any loose items (outdoor furniture, empty bins, kids’ toys, etc.) in the garage until the storm is over, so they don’t cause damage in high winds.
If you don’t already have an emergency storm kit organised, get that done. It should include a portable radio, a torch (with extra batteries), a decent first aid kit and items such as a hammer, nails, wood strips, rope and tarps to make quick emergency repairs. Add medications, portable valuables and extra clothing to your kit if it becomes obvious you’re going to have to temporarily evacuate your home.
If a storm is imminent, close and secure all doors and windows. Seek shelter in the strongest part of your house, unless ordered by the authorities to evacuate. Stay clear of windows, glass doors and skylights. Unplug all electrical items. Cover yourself with a thick mattress (or two) and/or a sturdy table if it looks like your roof is in danger of collapse.
Just because a storm has passed doesn’t mean the danger is over. This is when children can get into strife playing in flooded streets, drivers can become too optimistic about driving through high water and downed powerlines can claim unsuspecting victims. Use caution when checking your house for possible damage. If you need assistance from the SES, power company, water supplier or your insurer, be patient – after a heavy storm all of these people are extremely busy, and they’re going as fast as they can to respond to every homeowner’s issues in priority order.
If you have gas appliances, make sure they’re installed by a licensed gasfitter. If you ever smell gas in your home, turn off the gas at the meter; then turn off any appliances and pilot lights. Ventilate the house by opening doors and windows if it’s safe to do so. Don’t touch switches for lights or fans – they might cause a spark and gnite the gas. Don’t smoke. Evacuate the area immediately.
Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that cannot be detected by smell. The best defence against it is one or more carbon monoxide alarms installed in the home – in addition to your smoke alarms. Carbon monoxide can become a real danger in winter when heaters, oil stoves or wood burners are used in enclosed spaces. It results from incomplete combustion of fuel, and because it can attack while you’re sleeping, it’s aptly called ‘the silent killer’.
Only use approved Australian Gas Industry (AGI) appliances in your home. If your appliance is working properly, it will normally have a blue flame; if you see a red or yellowish flame it means that something’s not right, and you should get your appliance professionally checked out immediately.
Outdoor gas barbecues should never be used inside the house. Give them a good clean after cooking so you don’t get a build-up of flammable grease. Store gas cylinders out of the sun in an upright position.
While you’re away
Everyone needs a holiday once in awhile, and you should have enough confidence in your home’s security to feel you can always leave it for awhile without worrying too much. Ideally, have a trusted friend check on your home periodically while you’re away. Give them a key so they can water your plants, collect your mail, feed your cat, pick newspapers up off the driveway, etc.
If you’re off on an extended vacation, you might want to organise for someone to mow your lawn, rake up leaves or do whatever else is necessary to reduce that ‘owners are going to be gone for awhile’ look about the place. And keep in mind that home and contents insurance policies may not cover certain things if you’re away from home for longer than a specified period, so make sure you check with your insurer for details.
When a stranger knocks on your front door
One of the unfortunate things about not having a magical force-field around your home is that any joker with something to peddle can walk right up to your house, knock on the front door and start rudely interrupting your day (unless your house is behind a locked gate). There can be all sorts of reasons for the visit:
- A potential burglar checking to see if anyone’s home. They might be dressed as a yard worker (fluorescent work vest and all) or a survey taker, clipboard in hand. They may use the old ‘we’re just checking the neighbourhood to see if anyone needs their gutters cleaned’ line.
- Someone selling a product: dubious oil paintings, home insulation, solar panels, roof restorations, etc. The thing is, most reputable service providers and product sellers don’t need to door-knock to do business, so the types of people who bother you at home to sell things are probably best avoided.
When someone knocks on your door, don’t just open it wide unless you know and trust who’s on the other side. Look out a window to check who it is first; if they’re a stranger, ask them what they want through the door. Alternatively, just ignore the knock and go about your business, as noisily as you like. The danger in being quiet as a mouse and pretending you’re not at home is that if it’s a burglar, they may go right ahead and break into your home, putting you in danger.
And remember, even bad people who come to your door can be quite well dressed and well spoken. Don’t let your guard down
You may think opening your door just as far as the chain allows is appropriate, but the truth is, most standard door chains are pretty flimsy and are vulnerable to a ‘push-in’.
If you’re going to install a door chain, get a sturdy model with long screws. Or, simply install an inexpensive intercom system (with or without camera) so you can talk without opening your door at all.
If you have a secondary metal security grille in place on the outside of your main door, you could partially open your wooden door to speak to the person. Don’t open it all the way – they don’t need to see whatever valuable items you might have in the room behind you.
And remember, even bad people who come to your door can be quite well dressed and well spoken. Don’t let your guard down.
Has your insurance got you covered?
If you’re not sure exactly what’s covered in your home and insurance policy, now’s the time to drag it out and have a look – NOT after the earthquake, bushfire or neighbourhood burglary spree hits. And if you’re not happy with the price and policy benefits of your current Home and Contents cover, don’t be shy about changing to a new insurer. There are some great deals out there – you just have to look for them.