Keep Your Home Safe and Secure
Extreme weather, structural failure, or theft can shatter the safety and security of your home in an instant. Here are preventive measures and smart products to help you protect your greatest asset—and everyone inside.
Your home is a lot of things.
It’s your sanctuary, it’s an expression of your personal style, and, financially speaking, it’s likely your biggest investment and asset. So of course you want to keep it structurally safe and its contents well-protected.
Security, however, may mean managing a number of complex variables these days, from flash floods to wildfires, from break-ins to porch piracy. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), 6 percent of insured households submitted a claim in 2020, the most recent year studied; property damage, including theft, accounted for 97.7 percent of homeowners insurance claims. The average claim rang in at over $13,000, reflecting the severity of most of these incidents.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can reduce the odds of enduring a loss and having to file a claim. Inside your house and out, using both the latest tech tools and time-honored techniques, you can protect your home and enhance your peace of mind.
“Consumers can be more prepared and resilient, whether by installing a home security system, understanding their area’s environmental risks, or updating their insurance policies,” says III spokesperson Janet Ruiz. “There is an array of ways to take control.” Here, we share the latest thinking on how to do just that.
Protect Your Home From the Outside
Rain, snow, sleet, hail, and heat waves can all take their toll on your home. And sometimes, a critter or even a burglar may attempt a perimeter breach. Fear not: It doesn’t take a massive amount of effort or a huge investment to protect your place. With a bit of planning and some smart prep work, you can keep your property in prime condition.
Inspect the Roof
Leaks tend to be a major issue—and fixing damage to the surface of the roof or the rafters can cost a bundle: A new roof costs, on average, $8,994 (more if the roof framing needs replacing).
You could try to spot potential problems with binoculars, but that probably won’t tell you the full story (and please, no climbing on the roof yourself). “A proper roof inspection involves checking five zones: the home’s interior, attic, perimeter, exterior, and the rooftop itself to look for existing and emerging issues,” says Paul Watrous, president of the National Roof Certification and Inspection Association (NRCIA). This process identifies where moisture might be seeping in; any cracked, curled, or missing shingles; and issues with flashing around skylights, chimneys, and vents.
Though you may see contractors offering free inspections, Watrous cautions that these can come with a hidden price. “They’re doing free work as a potential first step to paid work,” he says. “Know what you are getting into and check the company’s references.” An alternate route: Pay an NRCIA-licensed professional (search by ZIP code) to perform an annual inspection. For a 2,500-square-foot house, this is likely to take about an hour and cost around $400; if the roof is in good shape, you can add a roof certification for two years at about $350. While this won’t cover damage from hurricanes and other acts of God, if your roof leaks for other reasons, the repair will be free.
Clean Those Gutters
If your gutters are packed with fallen leaves, pine needles, and other debris, water can cascade over the edges and seep inside your home, causing damage. If the wet mess in your gutters freezes during bitterly cold days, ice dams can damage the gutters and prevent them from routing melting ice and snow.
Getting your gutters thoroughly cleared once or twice a year costs about $160 per cleaning (this is the national average; actual costs can vary depending on your location and the size of your house). Flushing out the downspouts could add $50 to $100. Or you can install a gutter-guard system (between $100 and $2,000 for 200 feet installed, depending on the material you choose; steel mesh is considered top-notch). This offers fire-prevention benefits as well.
Protect the Inside of Your Home
While it’s important to secure your home from the outside, the interior can benefit from a watchful (electronic) eye as well. Indoor monitoring can tell you if there’s any risk to loved ones or pets or stop a problem before it starts—and causes pricey damage.
Watch Over the Indoor Environment
Smart thermostats, such as our two top models, the Google Nest Learning Thermostat, about $199, and the Honeywell Home T9 RCHT9510WF Thermostat, about $170, connect to a smartphone app, allowing you to remotely control your home’s heating and cooling. This is convenient—and can help you avoid disaster during unexpected cold snaps or heat waves while you’re away.
A temperature below 32° F is most likely to lead to pipe damage. But you’ll need to set your thermostat well above that level (some experts suggest 65° F or above) to make sure that the areas inside your walls where the pipes are—which can be much colder than the interior of your home—stay at a safe temperature.
A smart thermostat can also help you track heat and humidity. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends indoor humidity in the 30 to 50 percent range to avoid mold, mildew, and bacteria growth, or the humid conditions dust mites (a known allergen) thrive in.
Maintain HVAC Systems
Have your heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems inspected every year. The average cost is $75 to $200, and it can help keep your system operating smoothly and economically. What’s more, it can ward off damage, such as a fire from a furnace issue or water damage from your AC’s condensate pan overflowing.
Avoid Likely Leaks
“A leak detector is like wearing a seat belt,” says Kirk MacDowell, CEO of security consulting firm MacGuard Security Advisors. “You don’t realize its value until you need it.” And you may well need it: About 1 in 60 insured homeowners file a water-related claim every year.
These devices either measure the flow rate in pipes on your main water supply or detect water leaking onto the floor. They can be put near your water heater, under sinks, by pipes that run to your washer, and near exterior walls that could freeze. The detectors can be security system add-ons or purchased independently. They can notify you (and possibly a central monitoring station) of leaks, and some can even turn off the water.
Don’t Let a Thunderstorm Fry Your Tech
Poof! One good lightning strike, and your valuable computer and TV can sizzle their way out of service. Surge protectors are helpful, but Giammanco recommends putting your most valuable devices on an uninterruptible power supply, which is a bigger version of a power strip that looks like a black box. Prices range from around $50 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the type. If you live in an area known for frequent lightning storms, such as central Florida, you might want to consider a whole-home surge protector, a device that goes on your breaker box and costs around $500.
Do a Fire-Safety Sweep
In 2021, a home fire was reported every 93 seconds in America, and a home fire injury occurred every 47 minutes. Help protect your home and loved ones by requiring all smoking to take place outside and having smokers douse butts to extinguish them; taking care not to leave burning candles unattended; and moving combustible materials (such as papers) away from space heaters—and always turn those off when you leave a room or go to bed, the American Red Cross says.
Make sure you have operational smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, such as CR’s top-rated First Alert Smart ZCOMBO-G (1039833) Combination Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector, $55, located in or near bedrooms. Change the batteries whenever the clocks spring forward or fall back.
Put Security Cameras in the Right Spots
If you use security cameras indoors, make sure you position them in locations suited to your specific areas of concern.
• If you’re worried about intruders, you’ll want to monitor the area they’ll walk through first if they get inside your front or back door (e.g., the hallway or mudroom).
• Add cameras in rooms where your valuables are kept, such as areas where you display collections, have expensive electronics, or keep cash. For privacy reasons, it’s best not to install cameras in bedrooms.
• Mounting a camera in a corner usually delivers the widest view; just be careful not to aim it at strong indoor or natural light, which can wash out the video and make it hard to see what’s happening.
• Want to keep an eye on pets? Place a camera where they spend most of their time.
• If you have an older person living with you and you worry about falls, you might want to install an indoor camera to monitor your home’s staircase.
Get a Security System
The latest FBI statistics show an estimated annual loss of $3 billion due to burglaries, with an average loss of $2,661. But a security system can be a deterrent. In University of North Carolina at Charlotte research involving 400-plus convicted burglars, about 60 percent of respondents said they would keep moving if a potential target had one. A security system might also save you 5 to 20 percent on your insurance premium, depending on how sophisticated it is.
The word “sophisticated,” in fact, describes how this category is evolving. Artificial intelligence and video analytics help cameras and sensors to better distinguish between, say, your dog chasing a squirrel and a burglar attempting to get in, says Elizabeth Parks, president and chief marketing officer at Parks Associates, a technology research and consulting company. Today’s systems can also monitor for smoke and more.
Keeping your home secure starts with sturdy locks on all entry points. A security system adds another level of protection, alerting you to a breach at any of those entries or to unexpected movement inside the house. A DIY system, such as those from Ring and SimpliSafe, is fairly easy to set up and typically operates via an app on your mobile device, allowing you to monitor it on the go. The equipment in starter kits for these systems varies slightly, but the kits generally include a base station, a keypad, and some combination of door and window sensors, motion sensors, and cameras. Some have a range extender to enhance coverage. Most systems also offer optional extras, from panic buttons to glass-break sensors to smoke and carbon monoxide monitors, for about $35 to $40 each. You can also install smart wireless WiFi-enabled video cameras, a video doorbell, a thermostat, smoke and CO detectors, leak detectors, and more that are independent of a security system but still allow remote control.
Home Security System Basics
Considering a home security system? Here are some common components that CR tests, and that you’ll want to be familiar with:
DIY security systems: These wireless setups are typically easy to install yourself, without an electrician. They are sold as starter kits, and you can add more components and sensors à la carte. Some offer optional professional monitoring.
Security cameras: Wireless security cameras connect to WiFi and can be plugged in for power or run on a rechargeable battery. You monitor them yourself via a smartphone app.
Video doorbells: They offer all the features of a wireless security camera while also alerting you if someone rings the doorbell. You probably won’t need an additional security camera covering the same door.
Door locks: A high-security drillproof lock is the best option. New smart locks—also available in retrofit versions that add on to an existing lock—offer conveniences such as remote locking and unlocking.
Pro-Installed Security Systems
The security systems we test are kits that you buy and install yourself with basic tools. But you can also use a company that provides professionally installed systems, such as ADT or Vivint, to design a system for your home and install it. Here’s how to decide which type is best.
What’s your budget? A professionally installed system is probably the more expensive option. “I’d estimate $1 per square foot for an installed system that is monitoring all the doors and windows of your home with sensors,” says Kirk MacDowell, CEO of security consulting firm MacGuard Security Advisors. “Video cameras will add to the cost.” You’re likely to pay between $15 and $30 per month for monitoring. A basic DIY setup will cost much less (see above), but adding components—door and window sensors, cameras—can easily drive that price up significantly.
How big is your home? If you live in a smaller home with a simple layout, you may be fine with a DIY system. This can be a good solution for renters, too. But if you live in a home with, say, multiple entry points, sliding glass doors, a guest cottage or workshop out back, and other features that make it more challenging to monitor, you might do better with a professionally installed system.
Do you want to monitor your system yourself? A pro security system will come with required monitoring (for a monthly fee)—so if an alarm goes off, it will alert the company’s service, and they’ll call emergency personnel. Most DIY systems offer monitoring (and may require it) for a fee each month, but some let you monitor your alerts yourself at no extra charge. See our review of the best self-monitored security systems with no monthly fee.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2023 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.