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Smart security: how to keep your home safe while you’re away

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·11-min read
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<span>Photograph: Tim Robberts/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tim Robberts/Getty Images

With the prospect of trips out and holidays finally on the cards, over the next few weeks many of us will be leaving our houses unattended for the first time in months. So now is the time to think about making your home a bit more secure.

In addition to the basics, there is a range of DIY tech that may help to deter would-be intruders and allow you to keep an eye on your home from almost anywhere in the world.

From the simple video doorbell to a fully automated light show, here is a quick guide to what is available, plus some tips from police and insurers to help you keep burglars at bay.

Video doorbells

Simple to install, easy to use and immediately obvious to potential intruders, video doorbells are a popular home security option. While serving as a doorbell, they also have a camera, microphone and speaker, so you can see, hear and speak to visitors through an app on your phone, tablet or Google or Amazon smart display – whether you are at home or not.

You can see a live feed from your front door at any time and receive notifications when someone walks by or presses the bell. A subscription typically costing between £2.50 and £10 a month is required to store and view video clips after the fact, unless you buy a model such as the £130 Eufy video doorbell, which can record on to local storage.

Some, such as Google’s £229 Nest Hello, are wired to the mains, while others are battery-powered. Amazon’s popular Ring video doorbells start at only £89 and can be battery-only or connected to a solar panel or the mains, too.

Good and fast apps for your phone are vital, so you don’t miss things, and this makes cheap models from no-name brands generally not worth buying.

You have to trust the manufacturer to maintain your privacy with good encryption and security technologies, so read reviews and check out the companies.

You must also comply with data and privacy regulations if your camera captures people outside the boundaries of your property, such as on the street in front of your house or your neighbour’s driveway.

Smart cameras

If you are worried about the security of a garage, side-alley or garden, smart cameras can provide peace of mind. Like video doorbells, they come in a range of sizes, prices and capabilities, with most having mics and speakers. Some connect straight to wifi, with cloud storage options; others require base stations with local storage.

Battery-operated models can be placed just about anywhere with magnetic mounts – Arlo offers various models, with prices starting at £130. Others, such as Google’s £179 Nest Cam Outdoor, need to be wired into the mains.

My favourite type combines a light and a camera. Those on offer include Ring’s excellent Floodlight cameras (from £179), which are nice and obvious, shine brightly with adjustable lights and have a siren, too, if needed.

If you also want to keep an eye on the inside of your home, there are many battery and mains-powered indoor cameras available, starting from as little as £50.

Smart alarms

If the idea of installing surveillance equipment all over your home fills you with dread, a smart alarm system may be a preferable option.

There are many systems available that you can put together, from a range of battery-powered sensors you place on doors and windows, motion sensors for rooms, hallways and landings, and keypads for arming them.

Most systems will send alerts to your phone when something triggers a sensor, and have sirens built into their base stations, with optional wall-mounted bells available, too.

Traditional security firms such as Yale have smart systems starting at £200 with multiple bits in the kit. Amazon’s Ring Alarm has sleeker systems available from £219 with optional 3G backup if your wifi goes down. Many can be combined with smart cameras to record when the alarm is triggered.

As with smart cameras, the app on your phone is just as important as the device in your home, so it is worth making sure the manufacturer has good software. Many offer optional monitoring and can call contacts or security firms when the alarm is triggered – for a fee. Be aware, some charge for basic phone app functionality.

Smart lights

Smart security doesn’t always have to be about obvious intrusive devices. Smart lights are a 21st century alternative to lamps on timers, and many are as simple to install as just screwing in a new bulb.

Most smart lights can be triggered remotely from a smartphone but the majority, such as the popular Philips Hue bulbs (starter kits from £50), can also be set to come on and off with a routine, such as at sunset or dawn. To make things a little less predictable, in case anyone is watching your home, you can set some systems to light up at a random time within a set 60-minute period each day.

Smart lights can also be linked to other devices such as motion sensors and smart cameras, and be set to come on when someone approaches your home or the alarm goes off.

Repurpose your existing tech

The beauty of many smart devices is that they are multitalented. You may be surprised to learn that smart displays with a camera, such as Amazon’s £75 Echo Show 5 or Google’s £219 Nest Hub Max, can be used as smart cameras.

Most smart or wifi speakers can be set to play music or the radio between set times of the day, while many can be set to come on and play music if motion is detected – similar to smart lights. Some smart speakers can also be used to monitor for the sounds of a break-in or alarm going off, such as the currently US-only Alexa Guard, which turns Amazon’s Echo devices into home surveillance devices.

Does the smart tech actually work?

A house rigged with smart devices outside and in may feel more secure but is it really? Yes, according to Krystian Zajac, the chief executive and co-founder of the insurance startup Hiro. His top security recommendation is a video doorbell. “We’ve seen real, first-hand examples of thieves avoiding properties with video doorbells,” he says. “That includes our co-founder and CTO, whose neighbours on both sides of his house have been broken into, while his house was omitted because he had a video doorbell pointing up the driveway. He saw footage of the thieves looking at his house, spotting the video doorbell and moving to the next one. So they work. Hands down.”

Insp Matt Turner from the Metropolitan police partnership and prevention team, agrees. He says: “The speaker capability via the smartphone allows you to communicate and challenge any visitors – a great way to drive off a burglar, as you can see them but they can’t see you.”

In a survey four years ago, former burglars cited CCTV and barking dogs as the biggest deterrents to break-ins and said they would be put off targeting a smart, connected home.

One problem with going out and buying your own smart security devices is that they will be ignored by most insurance companies when they calculate your premiums, so won’t reduce how much you pay.

It’s not sexy but leak detectors are my number one. Water escape is the biggest cause of property damage in the UK

Hiro's Krystian Zajac

Only security systems installed by professionals approved by the National Security Inspectorate or the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board are usually counted. Those systems also require regular professional maintenance and it could invalidate a claim if they were not working at the time of a burglary.

A handful of insurance companies, including Hiro, do take DIY solutions such as cameras and alarms into account to cut the cost of premiums. But you may be surprised to learn that security products aren’t Zajac’s number one recommendation.

“It’s not sexy but leak detectors are my number one. Water escape is the biggest cause of property damage in the UK, accounting for 30% of all claims in the UK, and costs the insurance industry more than fire and thefts combined.” Basic leak alarms you can shove near your washing machine or similar cost from about £10, with the smart variety costing £20-plus.

The last thing you want on returning from your long-awaited holiday is to find your home pristine on the outside but a mess made by burst pipes or your washing machine on the inside.

The basics

Smart tech is no substitute for securing your home with the basics. “One of the most common forms of entry is still by an open window or door,” says Turner from the Metropolitan police partnership and prevention team. Here are some of the team’s top tips:

  • Make sure your doors and windows are secured with robust locks that are British standard or insurance approved, and always double-lock them.

  • Keep your property visible by having one-metre high front fences to avoid providing cover for thieves. Gravel drives and paths will make intruders audible. Have two-metre high back and side fences topped with trellises or anti-climb tops, plus thorny shrubs around your borders.

  • Make sure your valuables are out of sight and have them forensically marked and registered with a scheme.

  • Burglaries often peak during the long nights of October to March, so put lights, the TV or a radio on timers to simulate occupancy.

  • Secure sheds and garages, particularly those containing tools that can be used to break into your home and others nearby.

  • Place bins and other objects that can be used as climbing aids behind gates.

  • Ask trusted neighbours to keep an eye on your property and park on your drive if you have one.

  • Keep electronic car keys in security pouches to stop them being scanned by thieves and used to open and steal your car if it is nearby.

  • Never advertise on social media that you are going away – this is an easy way for burglars to know when a house is unoccupied.

Insurance

Curtains open or closed? Burglar alarm, fake alarm box or nothing? And is it OK to give the neighbours house keys so they can come in and feed the pets and water the plants? These are some of the questions you may be mulling over as you prepare to head off on holiday.

They are things that can have an impact on your home insurance premium, and on any claim that you may have to make, so are well worth considering before you head out of the door.

The short answer is that with many of these scenarios, the impact will depend on your insurer. The Association of British Insurers says people should check their policy to see if there are any specific requirements relating to when property is left unattended. For example, it says many policies are likely to limit the scope of cover if the property is empty for longer than 30 days – and that if you are unsure, you should double-check the position with your insurer.

A man tries to force open a window on a house.
Simulating occupancy while you are away can help to prevent burglaries. Photograph: David J Green - Lifestyle/Alamy

Asking a trusted neighbour, relative or friend to keep an eye on your home, and to open and shut the curtains, switch lights on and off, pick up the post and put the bins back, etc, should, in theory, reduce the risk of a break-in and mean that any problem such as a water leak may be spotted and dealt with before it can cause too much damage.

“The terms and conditions of your policy will still apply, though,” says the AA’s home insurance arm. “So if your neighbour leaves a door unlocked and there’s a break-in, this could invalidate your claim.” Meanwhile, if the keys you give to your neighbour end up becoming lost and then being used to enter your home, this could also affect your insurance. Check what your policy says about lost keys.

When it comes to burglar alarms, the ABI says some insurers offer discounts while others don’t. Some will also offer a premium reduction for high-quality window and door locks.

If you go down the alarm route, talk to friends and neighbours about who they use and whether they are happy.

An empty burglar alarm box is probably better than nothing (and won’t annoy the neighbours by going off for no reason while you are away). Screwfix has one from the home security firm ERA with a flashing light and authentic casing for £29.99 that gets a good review.

Using reliable timer lights is a good idea, although Moneysupermarket says it is not aware of any insurer that would give you a lower premium for doing this.

So, what about curtains – open or closed? The AA’s home insurance people seem to lean towards the former, saying: “Permanently closed curtains are an obvious sign of an empty house.” The best thing is probably to have someone who can come in and open and close them.

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