As safe as houses? It's a selling point

One in 40 people in the UK has their home broken into. So as far as developers are concerned, security is big business
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Does anyone return to an empty house after a holiday without a feeling of trepidation? Most of us anxiously scan the outside of the house for signs of anything unusual: open windows, a door lock hanging awry. However, unless we have either been very careless or very unlucky, we are more likely to be broken into while out walking the dog than holidaying in Disneyland.

Top of the burglary league, according to a survey by the insurers Eagle Star, are Holland and Scotland, with England coming in overall fourth. According to their statistics, one in 40 people in the UK is a victim of burglary. And as far as developers are concerned this is a significant selling point, particularly among women. It is regarded as one of the reasons for the current boom in new homes.

A good set of locks and an alarm system are, it seems, no longer enough. In many places a smart card has replaced keys and a house can be turned into a bunker from top to bottom at the press of a button as electronically operated shutters are sent into action.

However, if you cannot seal yourself completely from the outside world, a sophisticated spyhole is no bad thing. Berkeley Homes has found that the "key-hole" video camera system it installed in its London development in Barnes has been a huge success. A camera perched above the front door relays pictures of any visitor to the television screen - one moment the Brookside, next your MP. If you don't get any visitors, never mind, you can always watch your car instead. The new owners at Burlington House in Hampstead have their security cameras linked to the garage. A moment of boredom, a flicker of suspicion and you can check up on the Merc without moving.

Colin Barnes is a man motivated by suspicion. A Crime Prevention Officer based at Gypsy Hill in south- east London, he presides over an area that insurance companies dub high-risk, although becoming much less of one as the burglary rate has been dropping over the last three years.

Mr Barnes's patch is not wealthy; the burglars, he says, are mostly chancers. And too many of us make it too easy for them. "People still say, if the burglars want to get in they will, which is nonsense. But leave a wheelie bin alongside a 6ft side-gate and it becomes 2ft. I went to a break-in recently where the front door had only a cupboard ball-catch."

Mr Barnes is firstly a mortice and window lock man. It is no good, he says, just putting in an alarm, you need a physical barrier as well. "But given that 97 per cent of our alarm call outs are user error or malfunction, it is vital to get a reputable installer. False alarms are a major problem for the police."

This is something that one retired policeman from Gloucester knows all about. He did not want to give his name because he recently became a victim for the first time. "My wife went downstairs in the morning and discovered some mess and thought it felt cold in the house. She saw the video had gone and then that a whole double glazing panel had been removed from its frame. It was frightening that it happened during the night. We thought the windows were impregnable and had just upgraded the locks on them."

Like many people, only now has he put in an alarm. "We have an infra- red heat and movement sensitive system, with five sensors. It cost us about pounds 800 to have installed."

This figure would be a snip for anyone with a large house in a vulnerable area. Over the last two years, Noel De Keyzer of Savills' Hampstead office, has noticed an enormous increase in buyers' concerns about security, especially those from abroad. He says that people are spending money on research, then thousands of pounds on the systems themselves - and in a multimillion house, this could reach hundreds of thousands. "Hampstead has had an increasing number of opportunist attacks, with people being followed home at night.

Even mothers on the school run have been trailed home. One obvious security measure people are taking is not to display conspicuous wealth. Some have stopped wearing Rolex watches and others have got rid of expensive cars. Panic alarms in doorways are common now."

Yet spare a thought for the new owners of Toddington Park in Bedfordshire on the market with Savills for pounds 1.5m. Nipping out for a walk in the country will require military planning. The house and grounds are double ring- fenced in steel with electronically operated gates. There is a seven foot inner fence with seven security gates. An alarm system includes a communication network between rooms in the main house, gatehouse lodge and main gates. The estate is floodlit and a phone control system switches the lights on from anywhere in the world. And should everything fail, the Dobermans' cages can be operated by remote control.

But the buyers should still be able to enjoy country life. The present owner has been quoted as saying "Inside the inner security fence we can lead a relaxed normal lifestyle".

Security advice is available from your local Crime Prevention Officers

Contact the National Approval Council for Security Systems (NACOSS) for list of recognised security firms (01628 37512)