Safe as houses: If you want a really secure home, it's all about the hardware

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The Independent Online

Controversy surrounding the new crime website and news that Lily Allen has just spent £60,000 on a state-of-the-art security system for her new home should not blind us to one statistical reality: we are less likely now than we were 30 years ago to have our homes burgled.

Back in 1981, there were 749,000 reported burglaries or attempted burglaries in England and Wales – in 2010, there were 659,000. Three decades ago, there were 373,000 incidents where burglars got away with goods from homes – last year, the figure was 276,000.

The sharpest drop has been in burglaries of the largest houses because they have significantly improved security, reflecting their wealthy and often international and safety-conscious owners.

The newly restored properties on Cornwall Terrace near Regent's Park in north London, for example, have armour-plated garage doors backed by reinforced steel rods, motion-sensitive intruder alarms in the house and grounds, CCTV, and fingerprint- and retina-scanning entry systems. But then, these homes do cost £31m.

But more modest homes suffer a higher proportion of burglaries, as businessman Robert Green knows only too well: his south London home was burgled twice in 2010.

"The first time was during a weekday when the house was empty," he says. "I received a call from the police to say my neighbour's house and my own had been broken into. Three opportunistic teenagers – they were caught later – broke the rear window and stole a laptop, an iPhone, my wife's handbag and some cash."

Mr Green then fitted lockable bolts to prevent sash windows being opened. He was due to install alarms in January, but thieves beat him to it by breaking in just before Christmas.

"They stole the replacement laptop, a camera, our wallets and cash. They forced open the windows with a jack of some kind. It was a much more professional job," he says.

Now, he has a sophisticated mix of alarms and motion sensors and the police have provided him with marking kits and identity chips so that valuable items can be traced if stolen. He can even remotely access his laptop and take photographs of those using it should it be stolen.

So if you want to avoid the same experience, what should you do?

1. Outside

Saga, the group which offers advice and services to older people, recommends a thick, prickly hedge or a mature climbing rose as a natural deterrent. They "can be more attractive and effective than barbed wire," says a spokeswoman.

Keep garden tools and ladders locked away or out of sight, and if a garden shed or outbuilding is visible from a road, ensure it has obvious security such as a sturdy door and tough locks. Secure kids' climbing frames to an area away from windows. And remember always to close your front gate.

The big DIY stores sell easy-to-fit motion-sensitive lights and even CCTV which can monitor the approach to a front door and show the image on your television set. Wireless versions are usually cheaper and easier to install than hard-wired systems.

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2. Doors

If you are replacing front or back doors on a house, or an entrance door to a flat, ensure your choice is classified as British Standard (BS) Kitemark PAS 24-1, also called a "door of enhanced security". This will almost certainly mean it is at least 44 millimetres and some have metal plates around the lock area and a viewer at eye level to allow you to see who is calling. Check that the frame is as strong as the door, too.

Home-security experts say all house or flat entrance doors should have five-lever mortise locks with the Kitemark BS 3621 – these can be opened only with keys, so cannot be opened by burglars smashing a glass panel and putting their hands inside. Boost security further by fitting bolts at the top or bottom of all exterior doors, including patio and French doors.

One word of warning: retro-fitting tough locks or even laminated glass on to uPVC doors can backfire, as the doors are not always strong enough to take them, and their warranties may be nullified by later changes. Check with manufacturers.

3. Windows

The crucial element is how and where they are locked. Experts say very vulnerable windows – those not overlooked or on streets with little or no lighting, for example – may need particular security. For windows and glass, check for Kitemarks BS 7950 and BS 7412-PAS 011 for uPVC systems, and BS 644-PAS 011 for timber.

Police recommend fitting bolts and locks which secure the frames together, making them harder to force open, rather than locks which simply secure the handle or stay-bar. Mortise rack bolts, locked and unlocked internally with a key, are strongly recommended but should be installed at 90 degrees to the grain of the wood to reduce the chance of the wood splitting if force is applied.

Some windows are naturally more secure than others. Those with wired glass look strong but some older kinds break relatively easily as it is a fire-safety product, not for security. Louvred windows are also considered less secure because it is easy to remove the slats and for a burglar to get in without even having to break the glass.

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4. Alarms

Which?, the consumer protection group, has recently contacted 280 alarm suppliers and installers and concludes that prices and quality vary sharply. Prices are highest in the South-east of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Buying and fitting an alarm which goes off when a trip beam is broken, or movement is detected inside, can cost £400 to £600 plus another £80 to check annually – and then you must rely on someone phoning the police when they hear it.

Pay about £200 more and you can have your alarm automatically linked to the police, though there is no guarantee of a rapid response, especially in these days of service cuts. Some police authorities also strike you off their list if you have several false alarms.

Whatever type of alarm you fit, make sure the red "bell box" is highly visible. "About 75 per cent of making your home burglar-proof is deterring them from even approaching it in the first place, and the bell box is the single most persuasive element," says Rob Marston, a former police officer who now advises households in the Home Counties on crime prevention.

And when you go away...

* Government figures show 45 per cent of burglaries take place when a home is empty for more than a day. So when you are away, make it appear as if you are not.

* Set timers to turn on lights, radios and televisions, ideally at random times.

* Trim lawns and bushes so they do not appear overgrown even after two weeks.

* Cancel papers and milk deliveries, and ask neighbours to take in parcels.

* Ask neighbours to make occasional visits, drawing and opening curtains.

* Set any burglar alarm and let the police know you are away and where the key is.