20 Jan 2015

Security Tips for Selfbuilders

The average private dwelling currently suffers an attempted break-in every 12 years and over half of these attempts are successful. Of course, it all depends on where you live. Some quiet locations still exist where no one locks their front doors, whilst there are some inner city areas which seem to get burgled regularly.
Wherever you live and whatever the future holds, burglary is not a problem that is likely to go away and anyone considering building a new house would be foolish not to consider the matter very carefully. 

The burglar
As you might suspect, the typical burglar is a young male but you might be surprised to learn that he is not part of a well-organised gang but usually a lone wolf whose break-in is often done on the spur-of-the-moment, when he sees the opportunity arise. There is really no reason to adopt a fatalistic attitude because, although it’s entirely true that if someone really wants to get into a house they can, most of the time they won’t bother if you go to the trouble of making life difficult for them. 
Our young burglar’s main concern is not to get caught in the act and to this end he values being able to get in, and out, quickly and preferably unseen. Another surprising statistic thrown up is that as many as 40% of burglaries take place while the home is occupied. You’d think this would be amazingly risky for our burglar but it only takes a few seconds to come in through an open door and walk out again with something and you may not even realise that you’ve been burgled. If you are worried about this sort of thing happening, get a dog.
With regard to new housebuilding, current thinking focuses on the following areas:
• Site layout
• Preventing access to the rear of the house
• Decent locks fitted to ground floor windows and doors
• Burglar alarms where risk is high
• Security lighting.

Site layout
Although this area has more relevance to estates than to single dwellings, it’s worth mentioning what they are on about. Dark corners and unlit alleyways should be avoided and houses should be sited where their neighbours can see who is coming and going. There is often little the individual housebuilder can do about this, though it is possible that consideration can be given to the issue when there are two or more houses to be sited near each other.
One obvious point that the professionals have tended to overlook is to locate the most widely used room in the house – usually the kitchen – at the front, so that the occupants can see who is coming and going out on the street. However, this arrangement remains an extremely unpopular layout in this country; we still prefer our kitchens to be by the back door.

Restricting access 
The rear of the house is the preferred area of entry for burglars. This is largely because the back of the house is almost always more private and is often screened from neighbours. A burglary often starts with a casual casing of the front of the house; if it looks as though there is no one at home, the second stage will be to go round the back and take a closer look. Only when they’re convinced the coast is clear will the break-in proceed. If access to the back of the house is impeded, then the would-be burglar may abort the job at this early stage in the hope of there being easier pickings further up the road. 
A 2 m fence and a stout gate – even without a bolt – will provide a considerable measure of defence against unwanted prowling. A tip from my 2010 Milton Keynes benchmark house is to use a 2 m fence but to have the top 300 mm made up of a see-through trellis which is just as difficult to get over but allows you to see who is walking along behind it. Back gardens can be protected, to a lesser extent, by walling or hedging them in. Plan in any obstructions that will at least slow down the progress of a potential burglar. However, bear in mind that a fully enclosed garden, once breached, makes an ideal spot for our burglar to force an unseen rear entry so if your garden is going to be enclosed for security reasons, you need to do it well.
Robust locks 
It is an NHBC standard to have five-lever locks on all external doors and to have window locks as well. The relevant standard here for door locks is BS 3621: you may even get a small discount from your insurers if your locks meet this standard. At least one exit – usually the front door – must be protected by a night latch (Yale-type locks), which can be opened from the inside without a key; this is to aid escape in case of fire. The idea is to lock the door on the night latch when the house is occupied and to use the five-lever mortise lock when the house is empty. Window locks used to be fitted as standard on volume joinery, but a change to the fire regs in 2002, calling for all first floor windows to be openable internally, has thrown this all into a state of confusion. Ideally, you want downstairs windows to be key-lockable and upstairs windows to be openable easily without having to find a key, but the chances of your joinery supplier getting all right are not high! 

French and patio doors
It is marginally easier to force a door inwards than to prise it out but it is likely to be rather noisy. Most front doors open inwards. However, note that double-doors (French doors) are particularly easy to force in or prise outwards; most French doors open outwards and if you fit them be sure to fit decent sliding bolts to the top and bottom of both doors. For extra security, make these lockable bolts. Sliding patio doors are generally a much more secure (and draughtproof) alternative (though not half as elegant); however, many break-ins have occurred where the patio door frame has been levered out of its seating, having only ever been held in by six short screws or, sometimes, nothing more than mastic sealant.
The current building regulations will ensure that you have to fit double-glazed sealed units, and the safety standards on glazing insist that safety glass is fitted to all doors, windows next to doors and all glazing less than 800 mm above the internal floor level. Safety glass is expensive, costing nearly twice as much as ordinary float glass. It comes in two varieties, toughened or laminated, and they perform slightly differently. 
Toughened is harder to break but when it breaks it collapses into small nodules, whereas laminated glass has a sheet of plastic sandwiched between two layers of ordinary glass; this makes it harder to break through (from the burglar’s point of view) and is therefore slightly more secure. The police are big fans of laminated glass, and suggest that it should be fitted wherever there is glass next to an accessible lock, but as this includes virtually every ground floor opening window it would be an expensive option.

New security standards
Factory-glazed windows are available which meet a new British security standard, BS 7950, also known as Secured by Design. Rather than just testing the individual locks or the glass, BS 7950 tests the whole window assembly in situ. Typically such a window will have laminated glass on the external face and shootbolt espagnolette locking mechanisms. To get windows to this standard, they really need to have been factory glazed but this doesn’t mean they have to be plastic – most of the big timber joinery manufacturers now produce BS 7950 windows. 

Burglar alarms
There is a huge variety of different alarm systems out there and it’s not easy deciding what to fit. It is usually cheaper to install a wired system, which is particularly well suited to new housing as the wiring can be concealed during first-fix stage. Installation quotes for a four-bedroom house are likely to vary from £500 for a basic system based on a mixture of internal infrared detectors and contact points to over £1,000 for external vibration detectors which are triggered by interference with doors and windows. Should you not want to go to the expense of installing an alarm, as an alternative, the wiring can be first-fixed in a day for between £100 and £200, so that the intruder detectors can be fitted at a later date without disruption to the decorations. Burglar alarms are eligible for zero-rating of VAT when building a new home. 
Fixing a burglar alarm should not be beyond the capabilities of a competent DIYer and there are a number of systems designed for just this. DIY alarms usually consist of a control panel, the detectors and an external siren. The wired systems are the most reliable and are probably best suited to new builds. However, wireless alarms have their advocates and are easily fitted as an afterthought. The standard wireless systems still need mains connections for both the control panel and the siren but the latest generation work entirely on radio signalling: the siren and the control panels are solar powered and you activate the alarm by using a remote control.  
More features tend to add to the cost but it is still possible to get a well-featured wireless system for under £200. Zones are the areas covered by individual detectors and most burglar alarms allow you to arm or disarm any of your zones individually. This is useful if you have pets or if you want only the downstairs armed when you are upstairs at night. Better systems have a capability of checking that all component parts are working – a feature sometimes referred to as a 24 hour zone.

The detectors on which burglar alarms are based come in a number of guises. The two commonest are the passive infrared (PIR) detector, which is triggered by movement across its path, and the door or window-opening detector that is set off when a magnetic contact is broken. You can also get detectors based on pressure pads – typically these would be under a doormat and would be triggered when someone unexpected treads on it. You can give great thought to just which detector to put where and still get it all wrong. 
Many a break-in now occurs via an upstairs window: the thieves never go downstairs because they reckon it will be alarmed, so they just ransack the bedrooms before leaving the same way they came in. So maybe it pays to have lots of detection zones but possibly only if you are very confident in your ability to operate the system.
If you’ve never lived with a burglar alarm, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are the last word in home security. However, the consequences of fitting an alarm can be fairly tortuous for the householder and their neighbours. All systems are set to make a loud noise for a few minutes; false alarms will make you very unpopular and false alarms do happen, so a burglar alarm is not without its problems. A recent police estimate reckoned that no less than nine out of ten ringing alarms are actually false alarms and the police now have a policy, in effect in most areas from 2006, of withdrawing their response after more than three false alarms. 

Monitored alarms
If you have a very remote site or are not entirely happy about a 105-decibel alarm ringing when a mouse crosses the floor, the next step up the security ladder is to get a monitored alarm. These link your house via the phone lines either to the local police or to a security firm. If you want the police to monitor your alarm, then the system must be installed by a company approved by one of two bodies; NACOSS (National Approval Council of Security Systems) or SSAIB (Security Systems and Alarm Inspection Board). Needless to say NACOSS or SSAIB approved systems cost rather more than unapproved ones. Or as one wag put it to me, it’s daylight robbery what these guys get away with. Monitored systems also carry an annual charge which is likely to be in excess of £150; they are only available if two key holders besides the occupants live close by and are prepared to be called out in the middle of the night. 

Movement sensors
Alarm systems don’t have to just concern themselves with making loud noises or sending messages off to police stations. You can also rig up detector beams running across the front and the back of your house which set off a buzzer inside when they are crossed. They vary in sophistication from simple passive infrared beams like the ones used to trip lights, to multi-height beams running between two concealed posts which aim to be cat and fox proof. The well designed systems will give you fairly reliable intruder alerts: a poor system, tripping out every time a bird flies by, will just make you paranoid. 

Car parking
Both integral and detached garages can be included in whole house intruder alarm systems, but this tends to be very inconvenient; the car has to be left outside whilst the alarm is deactivated (usually inside the house). It rather defeats the purpose of these remote control devices for garage doors. 

Other measures
Door chains (from £3) and viewers (from £4) are becoming more common, and are recommended by the police. Surely the most cheeky is the fake ‘Protected by Burglar Alarm’ bell casing which you screw on to your outside wall. Available at around £8 from DIY sheds.

Security lighting
Passive Infrared (PIR) detectors, similar to the ones used on internal movement sensors in burglar alarms, are also used on external lighting. These can be very useful around dark entrances although the halogen bulbs (sometimes 500W) can be so bright that you dazzle passers-by and tend to make them think you live in a high-security prison.  There are some very cheap versions on the market (at around £10-£15) which are best avoided; at around £30 you start to get ones where it is possible to change the bulb. Better forms of external lighting exist that can be wired to PIR switches, as well as manual override switches, which give pleasant external illumination as well as some form of security .
There are also a number of products that can be used to give the effect of occupation when the house is empty. For around £20, you can buy a gizmo which fits in between a lightbulb and its lamp holder that acts as a light-sensitive switch, useful for simulating occupation when you are away. 

Shutter protection
To fit security roll-down shutters to every opening on a detached house would cost over £6,000 so no way is this a cheap and cheerful option. Indeed it looks pretty severe as well, but if you are away a lot and have particular reason to fear intruders, then shutters are very secure. They don’t work well with outward opening windows (think about it) and are best designed around either sliding sash style or tilt and turn windows. On the Continent, shutter protection is often taken as a given, but then on the Continent windows only ever seem to open inwards. Strange to reflect how different something as basic as a window can be.


Home safes are available from £150 for a wall fitting one and from £200 for one bolted to the floor. Placing a safe in an existing house can be awkward but in a new house it’s a doddle – if you’ve planned ahead for it.


  1. So the bottom line is : a professional will get in anyway, but only if you've enough stuff to make it worth the bother. Otherwise, either your opportunist thief is intimidated by the security gizmos you've installed, or you're hoping someone close by will take enough interest to spot anything unusual round your property. Will the police or your security firm happen to pass by at the right time? Will an alarm get them there before your thief has grabbed something? Neighbours who look out for each other are surely the only reliable security, neighbours who are around through day and night, and neighbours who aren't so afraid they won't challenge, photograph, call the police. Which isn't much help if you live alone down a country lane, or in a big house with neighbours more than shouting distance away. Hmm.

  2. I favour IP cameras. I get an email and image when motion is detected. So I could call 999 with a description of the burglar in theory. If you accept that you can't stop a burglar, I'm intent at least on trying to get them caught red-handed or at a later date.

    Also modern home automation (at a fairly low cost), allows you to do things like playing certain sounds, loud music, dogs barking etc. through Sonos speakers or a computer when motion is detected. I've set up a drive camera this way.

  3. LIDL currently selling a cheap LED device that simulates the flicker of a TV, to make em think you're in.