Physical Home Security

I talk a lot about digital privacy and cybersecurity. After all, it is the focus of the site. However, I think there’s a time and a place for us to give some thought to our home situations. Your home is your castle, and a home invasion is one of the most violating, confidence-shaking things that can happen to a person. You can spend the rest of your time there – maybe even the rest of your life – living in fear and feeling unsafe. Not to mention that there is, of course, an obvious crossover with privacy: keeping your home safe from would-be stalkers who mean you or your family harm, or even just jerks who want to rob the place.

Much like digital privacy and cybersecurity, there is no such thing as “invincible” when it comes to keeping your home safe. But also like privacy and security, there are things you can do to reduce your risk and the likelihood of something bad happening. So this week, I want to share the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years to help you harden your home and reduce your risk of harm.

Picking a Location

Let’s start at the top: picking a place to live. It’s a sad fact that “nicer” (aka “richer”) neighborhoods suffer less crime – or at least less violent, random crime. Therefore I would definitely encourage you not to save a few bucks by living in the rough part of town. Of course there’s a balance – you do hit a certain point where you’re paying more for the prestige of the zip code than you are for safety. You likely already know that that point varies from town to town, but my point is simply to be aware of the neighborhood you may be moving to.

This is probably a “no duh” concept, so let me give you something actionable: you can see what kind of crimes get reported in your area and how often. I found several such resources just by searching “crime heat map” and my city name. You can also contact your non-emergency line on a slow day and let them know you’re thinking about moving to a certain area and ask if they get a lot of reports of violent crime from that area. The dispatchers would be uniquely qualified to answer. You’ll probably never find a truly crime-free area, but if the only crimes on the block are “drunk in public” and not “breaking and entering,” (or at least the more troubling ones are rare) you’re probably in a good spot.

Here’s a trick I’ve started doing: knock on random doors. The most recent time my partner and I moved, we found a beautiful apartment complex in a great area with reasonable prices. After leaving the leasing office from our tour, I walked out of sight and knocked on a random door. When I explained to the people who answered that we were thinking about moving in and wanted to hear some tenant experiences, both of them immediately cut me off and exclaimed “don’t!” They rattled off their list of complaints with the property, which were verified by a few other doors we knocked on (never take one stranger’s word for something), and we dodged a bullet. We ended up settling in another complex in the area that wound up being even cheaper, but had none of the problems of the other complex. Another tip I was given said to visit a potential home near twilight: if people are out walking their dogs and exercising close to dark, that’s probably a safe neighborhood. Other good indicators could be if people park their cars outside their garages or on the street, or if the area is near a park or school.

Picking a Home

Once it comes to actually picking a house, you need to start thinking like a criminal. If you’re an apartment or condo dweller, I recommend getting a place at least on the second floor, but no higher than the sixth (firefighter ladders typically have a maximum height of 75-100 feet, so this ensures you can always be rescued by emergency services). This also gives a bit of privacy from people just passing by – most of whom are probably just going about their business, but a few may be casing the place. Be mindful of windows that are close to the walkways – you don’t want to open yourself up to a “smash and grab” where people break the window, grab whatever’s nearby, and go.

The next piece of advice is conflicting: yards. One way to deter criminals is to have yards that make it hard for them to enter – fences, hedges, etc. But on the other hand, having an empty yard makes criminals uneasy and feel exposed. A good middle ground is probably best: a fence with very few decorations (definitely nothing expensive or showy), but a well-kept yard that shows any passers-by that you maintain your stuff and they might get caught. Make sure to lock up anything that a criminal could use to gain entrance – like ladders or loose toys – and trim any trees that get too close to the roof or windows.

There’s also a lot of advice to get security system signs (or stickers in the window), and maybe even a “beware of dog” sign (with a big water bowl and some used chew toys to really complete the illusion). You don’t necessarily have to pay for a security system – I actually recommend against it, since most of them are ineffective and a waste of money – but if a criminal thinks you’ve got an alarm system, it may make them rush so they’re gone before the cops arrive and possibly not steal everything (or miss some things). I recommend purchasing some ADT security stickers or signs online as they're one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable brands out there.

A privacy trick I mention on the website is to get a home that’s not in your name. This is a complicated process that deserves an entire blog post, but basically if you’re buying a home put it in a trust, and if you’re renting an apartment put it in a shell corporation (this is known as a “corporate rental,” FYI. When scouting possible apartment complexes, ask if they do “corporate rentals”). I’m not a lawyer, I suggest you consult one before doing any of this as the exact regulations for how to set up a trust/company and stuff like that varies from state to state, but it’s usually not outrageously difficult or expensive and can be invaluable to protect against doxxers and stalkers.

Hardening the Home

Okay, you picked a safe neighborhood, you picked a good home that’s got some built-in deterrents, now let’s talk about steps you can take once you’ve moved in.

Let’s start with the front door. Your front door is probably garbage. If you live in a house you can probably buy a solid-core door that will be much harder to break down (if you own the house or the landlord approves). If you live in an apartment, this is probably not an option, but in both cases you can insert longer door screws. Chances are that your current door is being held in by ½” screws. I can break that down while sick. For solid-core doors, most websites recommend using 3” screws. For hollow doors, I’ve found 3” to be too long. Your screws are no good if they don't grip anything. I recommend 1 ½” – 2” screws instead. Be sure to replace both the door side and the frame side, as well as the screws around your lock. For additional security, you can even get a door frame reinforcement kit that makes the door even harder to break down, as well some locks that can't be accessed from outside like a deadbolt or a slide lock.

Speaking of your door lock, let’s talk about locks. Traditional consumer cylinder locks are total trash. Hard stop. End of story. No arguments welcomed. I have yet to find a good solution for this. Traditional locks can be picked easily in less than 30 seconds with a $15 lockpick kit from Walmart (personal experience talking here). Most digital locks also come with key backups, rendering them equally useless in my opinion. Fully digital no-backup locks run the risk of a battery failure, though I do think this is unlikely for most people as the lock should give you some indicators that the battery is low, allowing you to replace them before you get locked out. Perhaps the best solution is one with a key backup that’s hidden.

Regarding digital locks, there are generally three kinds: PIN, fingerprint, and keycard. Depending on your threat model (as always) PIN and fingerprint are probably okay if you make sure to wipe the panel down after each use or keep an eye on the number buttons to make sure they aren’t getting too noticeably faded. If the numbers 1, 2, 6, and 7 are all faded on your keypad (or if I can see the smudges), I can tell that your PIN is some variation of those four numbers, which means I only have to guess 24 combinations. Instead, I’ve come to believe that keycards are probably best for most people. No smudges, no buttons, no cylinders waiting to be broken. Of course, keycards can be skimmed and cloned if you don’t take proper precautions, but for most people I don’t think this is likely. Again, as always, weigh your own threat model. Spare keys – if you put any outside – should be reasonably hidden away from the door. Under the mat and even fake rocks or flower pots are all pretty well-known tricks. Attaching a magnetic case under the air conditioner unit in the back or putting the fake rock behind the shed is significantly less obvious.

This next trick I stumbled on by accident: my current home is not very well insulated. As such, we sought out some kind of solution and my partner discovered insulating window film. Most of these are easily removable (a plus for renters), dirt cheap, and can easily be installed by one or two people with a can-do attitude and some patience (personal tip: don’t start with the sliding glass door. Start with a smaller window so you get the hang of it). We can’t say for sure, but we do think this has had an impact on our energy bill (it definitely feels more comfortable than it did), but another pleasant side effect was that it gave us some privacy. These films are highly reflective from the outside – not “reflect the sun into your eyes” reflective, but kind of like a car window on a sunny day. As long as it’s brighter outside than in, nobody can see inside our home, giving us an additional layer of privacy during the day. Of course, we still close our windows at night because once the sun sets and we turn on the lights, the reflectivity stops working. You can find window insulator film kits at your local hardware store or online.

The next tip I have is to not put any names anywhere (ex, “The Johnsons” on the mailbox) and to make your house number highly visible with big, reflective, easily-seen-from-the-street numbers. The first tip will make you private (you should be using a PO Box anyways, in my opinion) while the second one makes it easier for police to find your house in an emergency. A final pretty common tip: I recommend putting motion-activated floodlights outside your home. Remember: criminals don’t like being seen – hence the stuff about the yard earlier. A bright light suddenly turning on as they approach may make a criminal reconsider and possibly even flee because it may be enough to get your attention – or your neighbors’ – and ruin both their element of surprise and stealth.

Being Proactive

Hopefully all these steps will be enough, but sometimes they’re not. Despite our best efforts, sometimes things happen and people can be unpredictable. In this context, there’s a few things I think you should do just in case the worst ever does happen. The first thing I suggest is to inventory everything of value in your house. Go through your house now, identify the valuable stuff, take pictures of it, and make a spreadsheet that lists make, model, serial number (if it has one), and value. Unfortunately, I have been robbed before and I know firsthand this is what the cops want. If you can provide them will all five of these things, that will make their investigation a exponentially more likely to succeed. It should go without saying that you don’t have to list every single “live laugh love” poster in the house, but you should at least get the things that are most valuable or most meaningful to you: game consoles, computers, musical instruments, jewelry, grandma's ashes, etc.

Regarding pets: you should both train (if possible) and microchip them. Even if you have a big dog, it probably won’t actually attack the person breaking in unless you’ve explicitly trained it to. Find a good, credible dog trainer in your area and train your dog on how to be able to defend the home. If you have a small dog, cat, or other animal that either can’t trained or training would be useless, I recommend microchipping them and getting them tagged (I recommend this for the big dog, too, by the way). A criminal probably doesn’t really care about being polite. as in they’re not going to shut the door when they leave (in fact, if you followed these tips, they probably had to break the door down or break a window to get in). This means your pets may wander off, either out of fear or simply curiosity of the outside world. Making sure they have collars with a phone number and/or microchipping them may be the difference between getting them back and never seeing them again. As a pet owner, I can imagine firsthand how devastating this would be.

I know I’m getting kind of long here, but there’s one last thing I want to address: guns. I’m not going to weigh in or express my opinions too much, but I do think this is something you should ask yourself about if you live in a place that allows gun ownership. Guns are sometimes called “the great equalizer.” No matter how big or small an attacker is or how much judo they know, a gun is likely to take them down. Likewise, no matter how big or small a victim is or how much judo you know, a gun will defend you all the same (assuming you get the right one and know how to use it, which I talk about in a second). And in America you can often get a pizza to your house faster than a cop. If you’re staunchly anti-gun, that's fine. I’m not here to make the case for why you should get one. But if you’re pro gun or on the fence, I encourage you to ask yourself if getting a gun for home defense is right for you. Even some pro-gun people may not be comfortable with a weapon in the house if they have small children, mental health issues, or other circumstances. In that case – or if you're anti-gun – I would advise getting a baseball bat or something else you can to defend yourself if the worst happens. If you think a gun is right for you, I offer three pieces of advice: first, get the right gun. An assault rifle in a small, cramped hallway is – in my opinion – not a good choice. If you have a very wide, open home, maybe it is for you. Just put thought into it. Second, similar to the first, get the right ammo. This is especially important if you live in an apartment or have other people in your house. If you miss the criminal – or if the bullet goes through them – what will it hit? Will it blow right through the drywall and hit someone in the unit next door? Will it hit your kids sleeping in the next room? I’m being dark, but serious. Guns are not toys. They kill. That’s their purpose. Period. Make sure you’re not killing something you didn’t mean to. And finally, on that note: training. Guns are deceptively complicated. They’re not as simple as “point and click.” I mean, they are, but they aren’t. There’s a lot to be said for learning how to shoot the gun right – how to SQUEEZE and not PULL the trigger, how to handle the recoil, the follow-through of the shot, etc. Don’t just buy a handgun and go “yay! Now my family is safe!” Learn how to use it, get actual lessons from an expert, and make sure you go to the range regularly to keep those shooting skills sharp. When someone’s in your home, you’re under high stress with a million things going through your mind. Knowing how to shoot – and hit your target – needs to be second nature that just happens without any thought, and you need to be practiced so that – again – you don’t miss or hit something you didn’t mean to.

Conclusion

Hopefully all of this helpful and gave you some tips to help keep your home safe. In my opinion, the best defense is deterrents. I would put the most energy into the initial steps I discussed: finding a home in a good neighborhood, putting up signs and fences that deter criminals, etc. Just like with basic cybersecurity tips (password managers, 2FA, etc), having good deterrents in place will make you far less likely to be victim of a crime. And, should the worst happen anyways, hopefully some of these tips will make it easier for you to pick up the pieces, fix the damage as much as possible, and reduce stress during a stressful time. The world is crazy, and not all of our threats are digital. Make sure you take some time to consider your physical footprint and how you can protect yourself. Be safe this week.

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