Do-It-Yourself Home Security: Know the Basics

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Do-it-yourself (DIY) home security systems are cheaper than professionally monitored security services, and are often just as effective. In 2010 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that 60%(1) of all home burglaries were a result of forcible entry: a burglary in which the thief physically destroys a barrier to get into a home. While it would be useful to explore the motivations for these burglaries, the fact remains that keeping the basic security features of a home updated routinely can reduce the chances of a break in.

This does not mean that you need to purchase steel reinforced doors for your home, or that you have to turn your living space into a security monitoring station. But do you have a garage door that doesn’t quite fit into the jamb when it rains? Do you have windows that, with a bang or two of a fist, can be forced open from the outside? Basic tasks like ensuring your doors and windows are functional and lockable, and keeping your property lit at night if there are lots of places to hide (think bushes and shrubs), can go a long way in preventing burglary.



Doors, Windows, and Locks

It is precisely because doors, windows, and locks are so common that they are often overlooked (or even neglected) when it comes to securing a home. Develop a habit of checking entry points once or twice a year, especially if you live in a place with extreme variations in climate. Very cold temperatures can warp door and window frames and prevent them from closing completely, even if they are still lockable. If you find yourself needing to jiggle your door handle while twisting your key into a lock just right to access your home, it’s probably time to purchase and install a new lock.

Door Security

Doors are typically made of either wood, metal, or a combination of both. Depending on the size, design, your needs, and your ability to install, a door can range from about $200 to more than $2000. Some places offer tax credits for purchasing doors that are designed to save energy. A few things to consider when looking:

  • Windowless doors are best. Windows can be broken and, especially if they are close to the handle or lock, can serve as an easy way for a burglar to open the door without needing to go to great lengths to destroy the lock. If you do install a door with a window, be sure to look for glass that is designed to withstand strong blunt force like plexiglass, or that is reinforced with special film. Some doors feature security bars and grates that add additional reinforcement, should it be desired.
  • Sliding doors, while aesthetically pleasing, are generally weaker. If a door’s locking mechanism is easily dismantled with a crowbar, a hammer, or a commonly accessible tool, it should be avoided. If you have sliding doors, take extra care to ensure that they are not easily accessible (for example, sliding doors on balconies or upper levels are safer from burglarization if they cannot be climbed to).
  • Doors are designed to prevent blunt force break-in by withstanding direct, repeated trauma. Wooden doors with wooden frames will break more easily than a steel door of the same size because steel is better at keeping its shape under such force. Steel is also more resistant to the elements and to things like rot and mold, but it tends to lack the aesthetic of wood. If you decide to go with a wooden door, look for one that is reinforced with steel trim or steel edges, as they are much more effective at withstanding blunt force.


In order to standardize lock quality in a meaningful way, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) created a grading system to help consumers distinguish quality. Grade 1 certified locks have the strongest rating, while Grade 3 certified locks meet the bare minimum standards for residential use, with Grade 2 being average. Typically when shopping for locks this security rating will be listed in the product specifications. Locks range in cost from around $30 for simple, one-cylinder deadbolts to biometric and keyless electronic locks at about $250 or more.

  • If a burglar is intent on entering your home, he or she will typically come prepared to deal with a lock. Sometimes a door will break from its hinges or frame before the lock itself actually gives way, so there is only so much that a lock can do. Single cylinder locks that open with a key on the outside with a thumb twist on the inside are available at Grade 1 for less than $50.
  • Electronic locks that use key fobs or passcodes are only as effective as the strength of the door behind them. While it is true that a keyless lock cannot be “picked,” per se, it is a useless investment if the door itself can be easily destroyed with blunt force. But appearances do matter, and a door that looks strong, coupled with a lock that appears complex, can be enough to deter a burglar.

Window Security

Window security is especially prevalent in dense urban settings that have windows close to the ground. These windows are typically secured with steel bars to prevent entry, and although not as aesthetic as some would prefer, are extremely effective at deterring window intrusion. Window security on residential homes with larger yards is often overlooked for door security, but a stronger door necessitates the need for stronger windows, since a burglar will typically check other access points if the first one is hard to break. Double-paned windows range from $400 to more than $800, and there are tax credits available to some homeowners for energy efficient purchases and installations.

  • A pane is the sheet of glass that makes up most windows. Double-paned windows have two sheets of glass (or more) separated by an air space. The air between the panes acts as an insulator and prevents heat from entering or escaping the home, resulting in large energy savings. Double-paned windows are naturally more difficult to break into because they require breaking through more than one layer of glass, and because the glass tends to be thicker and in a sturdier frame.
  • Windows that slide open can be reinforced with dowels and hooks. Dowels are placed along the track on the inside to prevent them from being rolled, and hooks help keep them from being pulled.
  • Since windows can be expensive, prioritize those that are most easily accessible: that is, ground level units and units that can potentially be accessed by climbing a tree or balcony.

Landscape Security

Thick bushes and shrubbery provide places for burglars to hide, either to catch a victim preemptively or to conceal themselves if they are spotted. It’s in a homeowner’s best interest to know their way around the hedges, bushes, trees, and ground plants in their yard at the very least. There are several practical rules that a homeowner can use as guidelines, if they choose, to get the most out of their landscape.

  • Keep bushes and hedges cut low. Being able to see over hedges makes it much more difficult for a burglar to hide. Bushes planted along windows or walkways that lead to access points should be maintained so that a homeowner or neighbors can spot movement beneath them with relative ease.  One way that homeowners improve their security without losing the aesthetic touch of manicured shrubbery is to purchase yard lights that line walkways or the areas beneath bushes. These lights can be timed to illuminate only at certain hours, and are a cheap means for quick and easy visibility.
  • If there are tall trees near windows, make them difficult to climb. Trees can be trimmed so that their primary, thickest branches are not very close to the ground. Consider trimming branches that are in close proximity to windows. Similarly, if your home has thick vines on any facade, or trellises that can be scaled to reach upper levels, consider extra protection for access points that could be reached using them.
  • Use pebbles and thorny plants in areas where a burglar might hide. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the artistry of landscaping while keeping your likelihood of burglary low. Plants that have thorns or sharp edges are visually pleasing while being downright uncomfortable to hide within. Gravel driveways, walkways, and patches can create enough noise to alert a homeowner of a potential intruder. Be creative: you don’t have to sacrifice beauty for functionality.

Security Lighting

Motion sensitive lighting (MSL) is exactly how it sounds: detectors attached to outdoor floodlights respond to motion around your home. These light systems are especially useful if you live in an area with little to no light from nearby streets, and are typically placed around points of entry like garages, walkways, and back exits. Just as low bushes prevent hiding, MSL can alarm potential burglars and scare them away before they reach an entry point. These systems can be purchased from between $40 for a single set containing two lights, to more than $100 depending on things like battery life, peripheral connectivity, and wattage.

  • Be weary that products in this area can vary in usefulness depending on your situation. If you live in an urban area, or in a place where there is a lot of peripheral movement around your home, you may end up with an over-sensitive system that triggers too often. More expensive systems allow for more control over the range and type of detection used to activate the lights.

Guard Animals

Any barrier to entry, whether it be psychological or physical, can make a burglar think twice about acting. In addition to being great household pets that bring love and joy to a home, dogs are effective burglary deterrents. Like an electronic alarm system, canines are loud barkers and can alert you to an unknown presence on your property (but be prepared for many false alarms caused by squirrels or mail carriers). Dogs present an added layer of complexity to a burglary that will generally cause a criminal to avoid your home. Why risk being bitten or attacked? Why risk alerting neighbors?

Dogs are more expensive natural alarms, but provide companionship and positive energy to a home. Some breeds are better for protection than others. A few general guidelines to follow when searching for the right guardian:

  • Choose a breed that is highly trainable. Obedient breeds that are known for their tendency to protect their families are preferred over more independent breeds.
  • Consider size. A guard dog doesn’t have to be large to do its job: some of the loudest and most ferocious barkers are actually the smallest in size. If you have a large property that needs surveillance, however, you may need a dog that is agile, powerful, and fast so that it can reach potential intrusion more quickly.
  • Invest in professional security training. It can be very difficult to balance a dog’s familial temperament with its protective instincts. While you want to ensure that your guard dog is friendly to family and neighbors, it can easily be distracted or tricked with food or toys from strangers. Training a dog to distinguish between these scenarios is very difficult, but not impossible. It requires constant upkeep.
  • Know your dog. Canines use different types of sounds to indicate their mood. A deep and guttural growl can indicate a completely different threat than a high-pitched, staccato bark.

Electronic and “Smart” Do-It-Yourself Security Systems

Technology has come a long way in connecting various aspects of life, and the most advanced home security systems can today be controlled remotely from a smartphone. Smart security systems take advantage of electricity to surveil a home, and are in a lot of ways very similar to a computer.

These systems typically have:

  • A central processing unit that is the brain of the security system. This is the alarm panel that is installed somewhere inside of your home, and it is attached to a power supply. Alarm panels that are more sophisticated also have phone lines that link them to emergency operators or monitoring services, but these typically require a monthly or yearly subscription fee.
  • Input devices are like the mouse and keyboard of a computer: an action is performed on them and they cause a change. These devices represent any kind of technology that detects breakage of the main alarm circuit, and they are typically installed at various points of entry around a home. They include:
    • Door sensors — these detect when a door is opened. You should prioritize ground-level doors and entryways with door sensors, including garages. If a door sensor detects an open door, an alarm will sound. For individuals with larger homes, these sensors can be programmed to simply chime or beep quickly when a door is opened instead of firing the main alarm.
    • Window Sensors — these detect when a window is opened, and are typically installed directly onto a window so that they are visible from the outside. If a burglar attempts to break into a window, but notices that there is an alarm placed inside, he or she may think twice about entering. If you are concerned about the aesthetic of your windows, embedded sensors are available that can be drilled into the window itself.
  • Motion detectors — these use waves to scan for motion in an area of your home. Your should prioritize ground-level areas with easy corners, as sensors have a limited range of effectiveness. These invisible waves travel throughout a space and trigger an alarm when they are interrupted by motion. Be weary of false alarms, especially if you have pets that roam your residence at night. Some detectors are designed especially to ignore animals of a certain weight, but may cost more money.
  • A key panel is a place where you can enter the alarm’s code to activate and deactivate the entire system (separate from the alarm panel). Today, these key panels can usually be accessed through an application on a smartphone, and allow you to control the alarm remotely. Keypads can also be installed in places you frequent inside of your home: near exits, or in your bedroom.
  • An output device is what lets you know that the alarm has been tripped. It is not a requirement to have a siren that blares in the event of a burglary, but it can scare off a perpetrator. Loud alarms can be a nuisance to neighbors if you experience a lot of false alarms, so be wary. Output devices can also trigger flashing lights to indicate that the alarm is active instead.

Do-It-Yourself Security Cameras

Security cameras allow a homeowner to record audio and video feeds around desired entry points or frequented areas. Camera systems can be wired directly in and around a home or can take advantage of wireless technology. There are benefits and disadvantages to both cases, so the best thing for a homeowner to do is to consider a checklist.

  • What’s your budget?
    • Wireless security camera purchases range in price depending on the technology. A single wireless camera can be purchased for as little as $30, while a more complex system of four or more units can cost upwards of $600. Wireless cameras are simple, low-budget, discreet additions to home security. They can be easily installed and moved around a home if your needs change.
    • Wired security systems are wired directly into your home. Their installation can include drilling into walls and running cords to power sources, and this labor and material cost is what makes them more expensive. These systems are harder to move around a home, are often bulkier than wireless systems, and may not be as discreet–it is much more difficult and expensive to conceal external wiring. Wired cameras are generally the same in cost as wireless units.
  • Are you in a place where the potential for electrical interference is high?
    • Wireless systems send their signals through the air. They are much more susceptible to interference from other electronics and storms. Just like wireless internet, these signals can be vulnerable and require technological vigilance and upkeep. Wireless camera feeds can be accessed remotely from a smartphone, and are a common feature of modern security packages with professional monitoring.
    • Wired systems are often connected to a back-up battery that can run even in the event of a power outage. They are not susceptible to outside noise because they are directly connected to the system. Houses with a need for larger areas of surveillance will do better with wired systems, as wireless signals can weaken considerably over big distances.
  • How much do you value the quality of the saved image?
    • Wireless camera image quality tends to be lower than images transmitted in a wired system.
  • How much upkeep do you want to be responsible for?
    • Wireless cameras need to be checked for battery life and consistent power, and are fairly easy to maintain.
    • Wired systems may be more difficult to troubleshoot and easily fix if a wire is compromised.