Spring Property Survey: Nosy neighbours better than bolts: Buyers of new homes are becoming more conscious of security. David Lawson looks at how builders are tackling this challenge

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THE DOOR was open when Julie got back from work. She prepared to berate her husband for carelessness, because several homes in the street had been hit by sneak thieves. Then she remembered that he was away playing golf that evening.

'The place was ransacked. I couldn't believe it, as we were always careful about locking up every morning and night,' says Julie.

Her husband Philip still does a regular security check on the smart suburban home, but now only once a week. 'We moved out and rented a place instead. Most of our furniture is in storage and the house is for sale,' says Julie.

'I could not sleep at night, thinking there were people moving around downstairs. Philip also had trouble concentrating at work, worrying whether they would be back.'

In their current agitation, the couple prefers not to be identified, even though family and friends know about the burglary. 'Every time we visit a home we find ourselves pointing out weak door catches, lack of alarms and open windows. I think our friends are beginning to get a bit fed up but you feel you want to warn everyone you meet,' says Julie.

She might feel even more disturbed that even the strongest locks and most sophisticated alarms are no deterrent to the professional. 'Having selected a house, he can usually get in, given enough time and the right tools,' says a recent study by the Building Research Establishment.

So what is the answer to the rising tide of burglaries which have doubled insurance premiums in many large towns and made some homes almost impossible to cover?

'A nosy neighbour,' says Philip. 'While checking out one home we were considering buying I was stopped and questioned by police three times in successive weeks. It is not the perfect place for our needs but we are now determined to buy it.'

This is remarkably similar to findings by experts at the BRE. They were checking the success of an initiative launched in 1989 called Secure by Design, under which the police could be offered the chance to inspect plans for new homes and point out possible improvements.

From the beginning of March, local authorities have had the power to reject schemes which do not meet police guidelines. But the BRE discovered flaws in some schemes by bringing in another group of experts - the burglars themselves. It found that too much emphasis was often given to locks and bolts.

The real answer lies in the reason why our grandparents could leave their doors unlocked: there was always someone watching for strangers. In our desire for privacy, modern homes are often set out of sight of neighbours.

Builders have already learned some of these lessons. High quality locks and windows were quickly recognised as good selling points and are now part of the standard specifications set by the National House Building Council. 'But the way we lay out homes has also changed,' says Roger Date, design director for CALA Homes. 'Ten years ago you would have seen row on row of homes on a new estate. Today there are far more cul-de-sacs, which give more intimate spaces in which people can feel more secure.'

These place homes into mini-communities, where people are more likely to know who should be going into the house across the way - or fiddling with the car left in a communal parking area.

It is pointless to ensure that windows and cars are visible, however, if there are no prying eyes. People are more likely nowadays to be out working - one reason why an earlier study showed that most break-ins take place during the day, not under the cloak of darkness. 'We are trying to ameliorate this by changing the mix on each development,' says Paul Garber, chief planner for Wimpey Homes. Instead of grouping together similar types of semis, detached and terraced homes, builders aim for a more complex setup.

Mixing these types of home will attract people with different life patterns - young mothers and pensioners who are likely to be home all day will be overlooking houses left empty by professionals.

Crime does not just hit property. Mr Garber is also an adviser to the National Playing Fields Association, so he takes great interest in recreation areas. Keeping children safe - and vandals away - means integrating these areas into new housing rather than isolating playgrounds in plots unsuitable for building or tacked on to estates as an afterthought, he says.

This is all proving attractive to Julie and Philip, who have scouted several new developments as a fall-back if their first choice falls through. 'The one problem is that most are much further out of the town where we both work, so the extra travelling will eat into our leisure time,' says Philip.

'But I would rather lose half an hour on the golf course than come home again and find I have lost all my golf gear.'

(Photograph and graphic omitted)