Is Your Home Alone for the Holidays? How to Keep Your House Bandit-Free

Don't give burglars any gifts this holiday season – make sure your home is secure.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |Dec. 7, 2016, at 4:14 p.m.

Is Your Home Alone for the Holidays? How to Keep Your House Bandit-Free

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Keep the burglars at bay without the booby traps.

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When your family goes out of town for the holidays, fingers crossed, you won’t leave a kid behind. But then who’s going to keep your home safe from the criminals waiting to pounce on an empty house or apartment? There’s no need to call on Kevin McCallister of "Home Alone" if you follow these ways to secure your home before you take off for the holidays.

Lock up.

Lock up.

A bright blue front door with a stainless steel knob

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It’s obvious – maybe too obvious – but it’s easy for homeowners to forget to do a final check on the door handle when they’re juggling suitcases, presents for family and a road trip’s worth of snacks. If you don’t lock up, you’re making it easy on criminals. “The burglars are most likely coming through the front door,” says Chris McGoey, a crime prevention expert based in Los Angeles. Before you leave, double-check that doors and windows are locked, and try the front door as you leave to ensure it’s completely secure.

Go for a monitored security system.

Go for a monitored security system.

Pushing Alarm. Woman's hand, connecting a home alarm

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When shopping around for a home security system, you can opt for monitored or unmonitored systems. A monitored system requires an annual fee but is tracked by a security company, which can contact local authorities if an alarm goes off. With an unmonitored system, “There’s no security company on call if your alarm goes off,” says Sarah Brown, home and community safety expert for home security information company SafeWise. If you're planning an extended holiday vacation where you might not notice a mobile update right away, Brown recommends a monitored system.

Go high-tech with your doorbell.

Go high-tech with your doorbell.

door security with camera intercom

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If you want to increase your security before burglars even try to break in, a remote-access video doorbell is an effective option. David DeMille – a home security expert and website manager for ASecureLife.com, a personal security ratings and rankings website – explains that if you're not home, you can voice answer through your phone when someone rings your doorbell – potentially to case the property as a break-in target. A voice answer will likely send criminals away, even if they can tell you’re responding from somewhere else. “Either way, they know you’re watching,” DeMille says.

Be diligent.

Be diligent.

A man carrying a suitcase about to walk out the front door of his house to travel.

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When you’re rushing to get out of the house and on the road, it can be tough to go through a laundry list of tasks to ensure your home is secure. But it’s useful to be in the habit already – whether it’s activating your security system, double-checking the deadbolt or setting light timers. “There’s always human error. The old theory’s true: If it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” says Paul Ciepiela, president of the Maryland Crime Prevention Association and a detective for Baltimore County Police.

Get to know your neighbors.

Get to know your neighbors.

Two men talking near plants in a garden.

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Unlike in “Home Alone,” chances are slim that the entire neighborhood will be out of town. If you’re friendly with the people on your block – in a neighborhood watch or otherwise – those who stick around during the holidays are more likely to think twice if they see something out of the ordinary. “Community involvement is a huge factor in home safety and recovering things,” Brown says, noting that people who live on a cul-de-sac often have low risk of burglary because they interact with each other more and know their neighbors' comings and goings.

Call on friends to collect the mail.

Call on friends to collect the mail.

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“Don’t let newspapers or sales [fliers] pile up at your door. It is an indication to a burglar that no one is home,” says Commander Leslie Parsons of the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia. It helps to have a neighbor or friend pick up mail, newspapers and fliers on a regular basis, but you can also hold post office mail and newspaper delivery for the duration you’re gone and reschedule package delivery from UPS or FedEx for after you return.

Beware of burglar-friendly landscaping.

Beware of burglar-friendly landscaping.

Front Yard Garden with Heather Foliage, Golden Japanese Forest Grass, Helmond Pillar Barberry, and Japanese Maple

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Bushes and trees that hide windows and doors from the street can be ideal cloaking for a burglar trying to sneak into your home. But you can landscape to deter criminals as well. Your landscaping should ensure there’s no easy place to hide and make it difficult to get close to windows. “Putting bushes underneath windows, especially ones that have thorns, can be a great deterrent,” DeMille says. Lighted walkways, motion-detecting spotlights and a front porch light also help prevent potential burglars from getting a good look at your home's interior.

Time the lights.

Time the lights.

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A dark house all night is a good sign the home is empty, but so is a house that stays lit all day. “Most burglaries happen between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” Brown says, noting it’s the lights that stay on all day that are the bigger indicator that the house is empty. Attach light timers to a few lamps throughout your home so they go on when it starts to get dark, then turn off in the morning.

Fake like someone's there.

Fake like someone's there.

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You don’t need a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan dancing around your living room to make it seem like someone’s home. TV simulator lights, like the one by FakeTV, are sold on Amazon and at stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. “It actually throws colored lights up against the walls and it mimics the TV being on but uses a lot less electricity,” DeMille says. Set a timer on the TV light simulator and it looks like someone is watching TV for a few hours during the day and night.

Turn your phone ringer down.

Turn your phone ringer down.

Yellow rotary telephone sitting on a midcentury side table next to a retro upholstered chair.

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An age-old strategy for burglars is to call a home phone line before attempting to break in. Even if the burglar isn’t the one calling, hearing the phone ringing without answer from outside can be enough to inspire a break-in. Brown explains: “Phone ringers are actually really loud, so that could be a signal no one’s home” if a potential burglar is scouting your house and hears the phone go to voicemail. To make it more difficult for criminals, turn the ringer down so it can’t be heard from outside the home.

Keep your live-tweeting to a minimum.

Keep your live-tweeting to a minimum.

Woman using laptop with a cup of coffee

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It may be hard to not document your Christmas trip to Hawaii all over Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, but if your home is empty, it might be the best move. Friends, acquaintances and even strangers may see your airport selfie and make plans to stop by your empty abode while you’re away. “Saving your pictures until you get home would probably be a smarter idea,” Brown says.

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Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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