HOME TRUTHS; Your questions answered by experts

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keep 'em out

What steps should I take to make my house more secure from burglaries?

Mr L Murray

Winthorpe, Lincs

According to Home Office figures, there were 1,213,800 burglaries in the UK in the period June 1995 to June 1996. This figure was just 1.3 per cent down on the same period 12 months previously.

Thus, while burglary is booming, many housebreakers are opportunists - making the most of unwary and unguarded householders. Burglars take advantage of open or unlocked windows or doors and prefer the rear of properties where they hope to operate unseen.

There are a number of steps you can take without turning your home into a fortress:

l Get into a routine of closing accessible windows and locking external doors every time you're going to leave the house unattended. This is important even if you're only popping next door for a couple of minutes.

l If you can, erect high fences and gates to restrict entry to the side and rear of your property. Ideally these can be topped or bordered with trellis or thorny plants to provide additional protection.

l Fit good locks to external doors and any accessible windows - especially those on the ground floor. These measures may deter and will delay the burglar. However remember the need to be able to escape in an emergency.

l If there is one operating in your area, join an anti-burglary scheme like Neighbourhood Watch. Some schemes like this have helped to reduce burglaries by up to 75 per cent.

l Don't leave your key in the back door or close to it, especially if it has glass panels.

l Don't leave keys under pots, the doormat or dustbin - thieves know all the hiding places.

l Don't leave the place in darkness or just have the hall light on when you go out for the evening.

By adopting these measures, you will increase your security considerably. However, if you still feel vulnerable, it might be worthwhile installing a burglar alarm. You can have an effective system installed for no more than pounds 500 which you may consider worthwhile for the additional piece of mind it will bring.

hot property

I live in a 1930s house which has had its fireplaces taken out. I want to replace them. Are they easy to find, and how much work is involved?

Mrs A Crowell

Bexleyheath, Kent

Before you buy the fireplaces and install them, you should first check the chimney stacks and flues. Ensure the stacks are clear - they might contain anything from a bird's nest to a number of collapsed bricks.

You also must ensure that each chimney has a flue lining. If you start using a fireplace without one, sulphates will inevitably penetrate the brickwork, causing staining to the walls.

Flue lining, consisting of either cement or inserting a flexible steel tube, is easy to install.

Once you have checked out the feasibility of installation, you need to choose your fireplaces and find a competent builder - as with any building work, obtain at least two estimates. There is no shortage of salvage firms who have reclaimed fireplaces. You can find these through magazines such as Period Home.

moving story

I am selling my property but have not yet found another one I wish to buy. I will rent until I find somewhere suitable, into which I would want to move quickly. Is there any way, therefore, that I can avoid being tied into a six month tenancy?

Mr P Driver

Welling, Kent

Under the 1988 Housing Act, a landlord could not let a property for a period of less than six months. From 28 February 1997, the legislation changed with the result that a landlord can now agree to a tenancy for a shorter period of time.

In the current market, where demand is high and stock is low, the best you can realistically hope for may be a three month let, especially as most agents charge their landlords a minimum commission and a let must be cost-effective to the landlord.

Bearing in mind that a good letting agent will be trying to secure as long a tenure as possible for their client, your request for a shorter let may put you at the bottom of the list for consideration by the landlord.

Even so, you may be able to secure a three month deal which, given that a property move will usually take a minimum of three months, should ensure that you are protected against loss.

don't pay to spray

A salesman knocked on my door and told me that my outside brickwork was in terrible condition. He claimed his company could spray it with a special protective coating. Is it worth doing?

Louise Brown

West Bridgford, Nottingham

The answer is probably no. There is a plethora of firms selling spray- on treatments which come in a number of finishes. They will certainly seal your wall, but they are extremely expensive, and their effectiveness is doubtful. If your external walls are already in poor condition, spraying them won't help.

There could only be two reasons why you should need such a treatment - to improve the appearance of your house or to stop penetration of moisture.

If you hope it will stop moisture penetration, you must ask yourself where the moisture will go. The answer is that it must go inside the house - which will almost certainly mean damage to your internal walls.

If you want to improve the appearance of your house, you need to seriously ask yourself whether a protective coating will achieve this. If you are going to pay thousands of pounds for the treatment, you can guarantee that this will not be added to the value of your property.

Answers were supplied by a panel of experts at Woolwich Property Services and Ekins, the group's surveying services subsidiary. The panel is headed by Alan Oliver, MD of Woolwich Property Services, and will answer published queries on buying and selling, valuations, surveys, and market factors such as price trends.