When we look at claims information, we see that many of the properties subject to break-ins, theft and vandalism are usually vacant or going through renovations to prepare them for sale or the next tenant. I’m sure it’s truly disappointing to arrive to show a house that was finished only two days before and see it broken into and missing key components like stoves, ovens, air conditioning, the furnace, water heater, and maybe even copper plumbing and electrical wiring. All your hard work and investment is gone and now you have to deal with police reports, plus put in more work and money to get it ready for sale or rent again, pushing back the start to getting a return on your investment.
Who are the “usual suspects” for break-ins?
- Neighborhood kids looking to make your vacant house their “club house”.
- Professional thieves looking to take your possessions and turn them into their gain.
- Contractors or their sub-contractors returning to the property they have worked on, knowing what’s inside the house.
HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOUR VALUABLE INVESTMENT?
Your first line of defense: deterrence.
If you own a home that has been vacant for a while, chances are there may be other vacant homes in the same neighborhood. Make sure your house is not the easiest target on the block. Lead thieves and vandals to believe the house is being lived in, or at least being watched. Don’t make their “job” easy for them.
Locks & Door Reinforcement.
Properly secure your property. Lock doors and windows with sturdy hardware. If you are purchasing a property or taking possession back from a tenant, change the locks or get them re-keyed. Who knows how many copies of keys could be floating around? Even with good locks, doors can still be kicked in. Consider reinforcing your exterior doors to keep the bad guys out. Adding metal door jamb shields and hinge shields can make a world of difference. Securing basement windows is also critical, as this often provides an easy access point to the house and to expensive housing components like water heaters, the furnace, pipes and wiring.
Getting to know your neighbors can be a big benefit. Discuss your plans for house and let them know you want to be sure they have good neighbors moving in as renters or buyers. Good relationships with your neighbors allow you to have “eyes and ears” around your investment property. They should feel free to call you if they see anything suspicious.
Driving by regularly and making sure the house is still secure is important. It may provide a good opportunity to wave at the neighbors or get out and talk to them to build that relationship. If you notice the house has been broken into, call the police and don’t enter the house until an officer arrives. The intruder may still be inside!
Maintain the outside appearance of the house. Keep the yard cut and clean. Trim back trees and shrubs that may block views of the house and provide thieves places to hide. Make sure that you also keep the mailbox from filling-up with mail. Newspapers stacking up on the lawn and mail flowing out of the mailbox is an indicator to a thief that nobody is at home. Even though you have stopped bills from going to the house or the past residents have redirected their mail, remember you may still get “junk” mail that will fill-up a mailbox fast.
A well-lit exterior will discourage thieves from approaching your house at night. Place lights at a height where it’s not easy to disable them. Consider using motion detector lights that instantly light up an area, startling a would-be thief. Lighting the inside of the house is critical too. Using lights on timers in various rooms and radios that come on and go off in the evening may make your vacant home look and sound occupied, dissuading potential thieves and vandals.
There’s a product out now that looks like a light bulb you would put in standard lamps. It records your usage and replicates your patterns at night gradually turning out lights downstairs and ending with turning out an upstairs light like you would when you go to bed. These lights can also be set-up to turn on if the doorbell were to ring, imitating a household being startled awake by a late-night visitor.
When appropriate and required you should board-up your property. There are several board-up solutions. The easiest fix might be to send over a handyman with plywood and long screws, but there are also cage systems, steel “shields” held in place by special hardware, and even a heavy-duty Plexiglas-type product that allows light in the house. It doesn’t make the house appear boarded-up but is strong enough to keep thieves and vandals out. Use the best method available to you that is also compliant with local codes. Remember, insurance policies often require that vacant houses are boarded-up as a security measure.
Posting a sign on the front window or in the yard indicating an alarm is monitoring the house is a great deterrent. Actually having an alarm is better, and I would urge you to get one that works best for you. Some alarm systems and components can be purchased for a few hundred dollars and there are a ton of choices. We found several portable systems that can be moved to another property once a vacant property is rented or from renovation to renovation as you are flipping. Get a system that is flexible, does not require Wi-Fi, and has monitoring set up on a monthly basis.
To best protect your investment, layer your security. If you create a security system that consists of the 8 components we addressed today, you will be well on your way to moving a theft or vandalism down the block. These types of losses at vacant or renovation properties aren’t inevitable; it just takes some effort and consistent monitoring by you or your property manager to protect your valuable investment.
About the Author
BreAnn Stephenson is the resident Loss Prevention expert at National Real Estate Insurance Group. BreAnn brings over 15 years of insurance and client/customer service experience to the team.