12 cheap, effective ways to defend your home against burglaries and home invasions (© Alex Wilson/Getty Images)

You can make your home a whole lot more secure for little to no money. That’s because most of the best home protection simply involves smart thinking and good habits.

1. Pick your location carefully. Location is a huge factor in home security, so buy or rent in the best neighborhood you can afford. Real-estate agents can help point you in the right direction but they can’t — at the risk of committing housing discrimination — offer detailed guidance, so you must do your own research before you move:

· For the big picture, find statistics online (start with BestPlaces.net or Wikipedia). Make sure you’re looking at recent data.

· City police departments are the source for neighborhood-level crime statistics. The question is, will they share their data with you? Some cities — Portland, Ore., is one — post neighborhood crime stats online. Others will give the data if you phone the police department or the office of the mayor or city council members. You can also check with local newspapers.

· Finally, do your own sleuthing by spending time in the neighborhoods that interest you. Look for bars on doors and windows and alarm company signs in front of homes, giveaways to a troubled neighborhood. Chat with business owners. Knock on doors to ask neighbors about crime. If you’re renting, pick an upper-floor unit (ground-floor apartments can be attacked more easily). Look for on-site management and inspect the complex carefully, watching for damaged doors that signal previous break-ins. Best is an apartment with kick-proof metal door jambs rather than wood or a steel door.

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2. Get smart. “First of all, use the door locks that you already have,” advises Sgt. Dan Ryan, of the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department. People in friendly communities that are generally safe may think they don’t need to lock their doors. That’s a big mistake, Ryan says. Here are more strategies:

  • Make it a nightly routine to check the locks. Involve children, too, says Chris McGoey, a security expert and consultant who calls himself “The Crime Doctor.”
  • Don’t open the door — and don’t let kids open the door — to uninvited strangers.
  • Use your automatic garage opener to close the garage door when you get home before exiting your car.
  • Stick around when people are working in your home. Notice what they’re doing. Check after they’ve left to ensure that nothing’s missing and that no one has left a window or door unlocked as a way to break in later.
  • Door mats, flowerpots and fake rocks are the first places burglars look for your spare key. Instead, give it to a trusted neighbor. Train children (especially teens) to keep key locations, alarm codes and other family security information private from their friends.
  • Check in with family as you come and go. When you get home, phone to say that you’re getting out of the car and are almost at the door; require kids to check in when they arrive home or leave.
  • Have a family discussion to plan what you’ll do in case of a break-in or home invasion. Whoever can escape should, McGoey says. Although the first instinct of many men may be to stay and defend their family, it’s better to get reinforcements than to get hurt.
  • Check out Schlage’s security checklists for movers, seniors, renters and homeowners.

3. Call the police. Many departments have a home-security inspection program. A designated officer walks through your home looking for weaknesses and advises you on alarm systems, locks and lighting within a modest budget. For example, here’s the program for the city of Euless, Texas.

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4Join a Neighborhood Watch program. Or start one. Ask your police department for details. These programs build cohesive neighborhoods, and that helps reduce crime and reinforce property values. (Read “How potlucks help home values.”) Make friends with the folks on every side of your place. Suggest keeping an eye on each other’s homes every day and trading favors — feeding the cat or watering plants — when you leave town.

5Get a dog (or pretend to). A dog won’t make your home impregnable, but it can make it look less approachable. You don’t want a pooch? That’s OK. Post a “beware of dog” sign anyway. McGoey, who doesn’t have a dog, has a sign and makes a point of asking service people to wait before entering his property so he can “put the dog in the house.”  “The sign is cheap,” he says. “It makes people think twice.”

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6. Upgrade your house number. You want your home’s street number easily seen in the dark from across the street so police and firefighters can find you pronto in an emergency. Many fire departments or city or county governments sell inexpensive (around $5) reflective street numbers (see the Amherst, Mass., Police Department’s house number program). Whatever type you use, place it where it can be easily seen. Keep plants around the number well-trimmed.  

7. Cultivate the lived-in look. When you’re gone, don’t let stuff like newspapers, real-estate cards and pizza fliers accumulate in front of your door. “Make it look lived-in, even if you’re just gone for the weekend,” McGoey says. Before you leave, consider how your home will appear on the outside and avoid these classic mistakes that are like waving a red flag to invite burglars:

  • Leaving the porch light on 24 hours a day.
  • Leaving the trash out on Friday for pickup on Monday.

8. Other ways to fake it while you're gone:

  • Hold the mail delivery. Do this by visiting the post office to fill out a form or go online here, to the USPS.com Web site.
  • Set a few lights and appliances to switch on and off. Digital timers (around $9 to $15) let you set a schedule. You plug the timer into a wall receptacle and plug the radio, TV or lamp into the timer.
  • Leave a vehicle in your carport or in front of the house if possible. Ask a neighbor or friend to help you out by parking there.
  • Get friends to pick up newspapers, cut the grass, water plants, feed pets and open and close curtains, varying their routine to add a note of unpredictability if possible.

With a modest budget
Most burglaries take place between 2 and 5 p.m. midweek, while residents are at work, McGoey says. These daylight jobs require a burglar to be quick, typically spending around 45 minutes selecting a home to target and just three minutes actually doing the job. For a small investment, you can further secure your home. The idea, Ryan says, is to make your place look difficult enough that a burglar moves on to an easier target:

9. Doors: Thieves prefer the easy route, which is usually a door. Creeping out a window is hard, and it’s far more difficult when carting out a load of loot. Thieves typically test a house by first ringing the bell to ensure no one’s home, then trying the door handle and perhaps putting a shoulder to the door to see how solid and how firmly attached it is. To enter, the usual tool is a pry bar or a strong kick of the boot. Sadly, many doors fly open easily.

  • Upgrade the lock. For $25 to $150, you can buy a good Grade 1 (commercial grade) or Grade 2 deadbolt. No need for a locksmith; you can install it yourself;
  • Reinforce the strike plate. The strike plate is the metal plate in the door jamb into which the bolt slides. Strike plates, typically held in place by two half-inch wood screws, pull easily from the jamb, especially in older homes. Replace yours with a heavy-duty brass strike plate ($3 and up) that accepts up to six screws. Use 3-inch screws that screw into the door frame. “Now you can kick on the door and your foot will fall off before it gives in,” McGoey says. Reinforce all doors leading outside, including the door between the garage and house;
  • Get a better door. Replace your hollow-core door (easily kicked in) with a solid wood (around $300 on up) or metal-clad (starting at around $35) door.  A new steel door (roughly $1,172) brought a return of $1,470, on average — a 129% return on the investment, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2008-09 Cost vs. Value report.

10. Windows: Keep your windows from opening more than 6 inches. Install replacement windows that include this as a built-in feature or cut a wooden dowel 6 inches shorter than the height of each window and drop the dowel into the metal gutter of each window frame so the window can’t be opened fully.

  • Burglars know that older sliding windows can be lifted right out of their frames. If yours is the type that pops out, install sheet-metal screws into the upper window track, screwing them in only halfway. The protruding screw fills the gap between window and frame, keeping the window in place.
  • Window and glass laminate films (prices available through dealers) can toughen glass, making it more difficult to break. One advantage is that the product slows down intruders and forces them to create a racket trying to smash the glass.

11. Secure the perimeter:

  • Outdoor lights. Replacing porch lights and other outdoor lights with motion-sensor lights is cheap ($50 and up) and easy. “They don’t know for sure if you’re home or (if it’s) a sensor light,” McGoey says. “Burglars are all about taking the easiest path of resistance,” so most will flee. Program it to turn off in 30 seconds. Put sensor-triggered lights all around the perimeter of your home.
  • Erect a fence. Even a 3-foot fence helps create a psychological boundary that helps in deterring intruders, McGoey says.  “It says, ‘This is my house, my property.’ People are going to be reluctant to step over that fence.” Higher fences may be appropriate in high-threat neighborhoods. Before building a fence, check with your city or county planning office. Most require a permit and many restrict the height and even building materials.
  • Eliminate hiding spots: Trim the trees and shrubs. A pruned and maintained landscape robs intruders of hiding places. It also signals to outsiders that your home is cared for and probably more secure. Put sensor-triggered lights all around the perimeter of your home.

12. Alarms: What alarm is best? The one that makes the worst, most god-awful noise, Ryan says. (Renters can buy portable wireless alarm systems to take along when they move.)

What's your home worth?

Many people spend thousands of dollars buying, leasing and installing electronic alarms, and then they sign contracts requiring them to shell out thousands more to a company that monitors the alarm. Don’t, McGoey says. He says the most effective part of these systems is the warning sticker on your window or the sign in your yard. Otherwise, except for elderly residents and second homes with absent owners, there’s no need for expensive monitoring. A 30-second alarm blast should scare away intruders. Also, newer alarms can be programmed to do what monitoring companies do first anyway: phone you (or text you) when the alarm has been tripped.

Read more home-security tips: “8 easy (and cheap) ways to prevent home theft.”