There are so many wonderful things about living alone. You can decorate your space any way you want. You don’t have to put up with dirty socks or underwear on the floor. (Unless that’s your thing, and then by all means, go nuts.) You can watch whatever chick-flick you want without suffering the eye rolls of a significant other. Sole-ownership of the remote control…ahhh….bliss.
But for me, none of that matters if I don’t feel safe. In order for me to relax and enjoy anything, I must know I’m safe – both physically and emotionally. Emotional safety is a subject we’ll save for another article (or my therapist). For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on physical safety. After years of living alone, I have developed an arsenal of safety habits that I employ, no matter where I call home. This article deals exclusively with safety at home. I’ll write other articles about being safe while on the town and while traveling. But for now, let’s focus on our homes.
While writing this article, I conferred with my friend Dave Mather, who has 28 years experience in law enforcement, both in uniform as a police lieutenant and now as an international law enforcement leadership consultant. Here are my top 10 tips, combined with Dave’s advice, for safely living alone.
- Leave your porch light on from dusk ‘til dawn. Would-be intruders prefer to work in secret, so if your home is lit up like the Vegas strip, an intruder is less likely to want to perform in a spotlight. Of course, if you’re the type to forget to turn it on (like me), you can keep it on all the time. I use an LED bulb so it doesn’t cost me a fortune to keep it lit. And if you have a back door be sure that is well lit as well. I will often keep one downstairs light on all the time, too, even while I sleep. An intruder doesn’t need to know if I’m actually awake or not.
Dave’s Tip: Alternatively (and more energy efficient) would be to put a simple motion sensor on the light so that it turns on when people enter the sensor’s field of view. There are a variety of installation options that range from simply screwing it into the light socket and then putting the bulb in to hard wired options requiring an electrician.
- Put your lights on a timer. During winter months it is often dark outside before my day’s work is done. It’s very scary, and potentially dangerous, to come home to a dark house. Having a programmable timer solves that problem. A programmable timer can turn the lights on for you at a set time when you’re not at home. No more coming home to a dark house! These are also great for vacations. If I’m going to be gone for more than a day, I put my lights and TV on a timer. Having lights, and even sounds, coming on and off at various times every day gives the appearance that the home is inhabited, and not sitting empty just waiting to be robbed. I like the 3-prong kind that can handle several on/off times per day, and can be programmed for a different schedule each day. This one is a great one, because it can accommodate two appliances. Randomness is key in creating a realistic illusion.
Dave’s Tip: There are already some great options on the market (although fairly new ones) that use geo-fencing techniques on your smartphone to know when you’re getting close to home and to turn the thermostat up (or down in summer) and the lights on. Also, to echo the recommendation of randomness of a timer – the more random the times and locations are, the more it looks like someone is home.
- Get a dog. There are so many benefits of having a pet, especially for the single girl. (Keep an eye out for Part 3 of this series to read more on this topic.) But one big benefit of dog ownership is that dogs reduce your risk of burglary. Large dogs, of course, are intimidating. But small dogs are also effective. Their warning barks are often enough to scare off someone with villainous intentions. Now, here is where I need to make an obvious warning statement. DO NOT get a dog just as a home security device. Dogs should be part of your family. And if you do not plan on treating them as such, and giving them the love and attention they require, (and frankly deserve), bypass this step and go on to #4.
Dave’s Tip: Jack MacLean (Secrets of a Superthief) surveyed 300+ convicted and imprisoned property criminals and asked three questions:
Would a dog scare you away? (65% said a dog of good size and unpleasant disposition would.)
What kinds of dogs scare you? (35% Dobermans, 30% Pit Bull Breeds, 10% German Shepherds, 25% any dog.) In the follow up interviews, he believes that more like 95% (instead of 65%) would be afraid of a big dog that sounds scary.
What would scare you away more than anything? (59% people in the house, 32% almost any dog, 9% [the night burglars] deterred by spot lights that light up the areas of ingress/egress.)
- Invest in signage. Believe it or not, most criminals can read. So having signage in front of your home can be an effective deterrent. It doesn’t matter if the signs are true or not. A would-be intruder isn’t going to stop and do a detailed analysis of whether your signs might be a ruse. They’ll likely move on to the next unlit, dog-free house without signage. Signs can be “Beware of Dog,” or “Smile, you’re on camera!” or even a “Home Security” sign. ( Again – it doesn’t matter if you actually have these things (although having them would be good). The signs themselves are a deterrent. But don’t go overboard and get all three. That will start to look fishy. Get one, or two at tops. Realism and believability are important here.
Dave’s Tip: Signs have become so ubiquitous the common ones may be ignored. The same concept with a new and humorous twist may be more effective. Here are some examples:
Beware of dog = Our Great Dane welcomes you as his meal.
We (picture of dog) can make it to the fence in three seconds – can you?
We might not be home but our dog is.
Attention Thieves: Please carry ID so we can notify next of kin.
- You might have a house alarm after all. Most cars today have remote keyless entries, and those remote keyless entries often come with a car alarm. Granted, most of the time they are “nuisance alarms” because they activate when we accidentally sit on the key fob, or hit the wrong button when our hands are full. But in the case of someone trying to break into your home, they may be helpful. If your car is parked close enough to be activated by your remote, activating the alarm will cause unwanted attention which might be enough to scare away a bad guy.
Dave’s Tip: There are some new home security systems that connect to your wifi and send notifications to your smartphone that include live video and pictures. Those systems are in the $200-400 range and there are many great stories about people using the pictures to assist law enforcement with catching the people responsible. They may not prevent the actual break in, but may help ID and catch the criminal (which does have the advantage of making the neighborhood a bit safer).
- Know the location of your closest police station. I try to be constantly aware of my surroundings, even when driving. If I feel like I’m being followed home, the last thing I want to do is lead the stalker to my front door. Instead, I’ll play follow-the-leader straight to the police station. Most of the time, the follower will turn off well before I reach the station. But on the off chance that the follower was a true stalker with ill-intent, the extra few minutes’ detour would have been worthwhile. And, while we’re on the subject of going home, sometimes the most dangerous walk for a single girl can be the walk from her car to her front door. So take steps to look like a formidable opponent, a non-victim. Have your house key out and ready to go so you’re not fumbling at the front door. Don’t be distracted by texting or juggling packages. Walk tall, quickly, and confidently. Predators prey on the weak, so do your best to not look like prey.
Dave’s Tip: Not all stations are accessible 24 hours a day. It’s important to know whether your local station is open. If you are really concerned, call 911 and let the dispatcher direct you where they need you to be. Most cellular phones (even ones without a plan) will connect with any open network for 911 calls. So even if you no longer can afford cell service, the phone should be able to dial 911 and get you connected.
- Create the illusion that you don’t live alone. I am lucky enough to have two vehicles, one of which is a truck. I purposely did not girlify my truck because I want people to think a man drives it. I love having two cars, because even when I’m not home, one of my vehicles is, so it always looks like someone’s home. And, when both vehicles are home, it looks like a man lives there. But if you don’t have the luxury of having two vehicles, there are other ways to create the illusion. Buy a pair of extra-large men’s boots from a local thrift store (the dirtier the better) and place them outside your front door, as if your big, burly husband/boyfriend/roommate took them off before entering his home. Be sure to move them occasionally, so they look freshly placed.
- Get to know your neighbors even before you move in. Before signing on the dotted line of a new home or apartment, check Megan’s Law, and other crime websites to see who’s living around you. Realtors can’t say a lot about neighborhood demographics and crime stats, but every police officer I’ve talked to is more than happy to share how high/low incidents of crime are in my area. I usually ask them something like this, “If your daughter were considering moving into this neighborhood, what would you advise her?” The answers are very telling when you make it personal.
Dave’s Tip: I second the recommendation of talking with the local officers. In addition, many agencies use online crime reporting software that helps you see what is going on in your neighborhood. Check websites like: crimereports.com or www.mylocalcrime.com or www.crimemapping.com. The best way is to ask the local agency if their online data is available.
- Make sure doors and windows are locked and secure. When you move into a new home, the first thing you should do is change the locks. I’ll never forget the terrifying night in my new home when some drunken friends of the previous owners decided to pay a visit. Of course I refused to open the door, but if they had a spare key, I may have been in serious trouble. If you live in an apartment, the apartment manager should be able to have the locks changed, or re-keyed. If you own your own home, make sure your doors are secured with deadbolt locks. Also, make sure windows have working locks. I go one step further and place dowels in the tracks of my windows and sliding doors. Of course, an intruder who really wants to get in could just break the glass. But breaking glass makes a very distinctive sound, and most intruders don’t want to attract that kind of attention.
Dave’s Tip: A good deadbolt is important in securing the main doors. Main doors should be solid wood or metal (not hollow). Additional locking security screen doors add extra layers someone has to get through (and additional time for someone to respond) if someone is trying to get in.
This is also a good place to talk about CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design). The tenants of CPTED are too lengthy to discuss in-depth here, but a quick Google search will yield a wealth of information. Here’s the quick take: 1) Improve outdoor lighting so you can see and be seen. 2) Create layers of access control, such as fences and thorny shrubs. But make sure none of those things creating hiding places for lurkers to hide. 3) Keep your home maintained. Poorly maintained properties and neighborhoods are a breeding ground for criminal activity.
- Take self-defense classes. I don’t suggest trying to take on an intruder as a first resort. Prevention and avoidance are my preferred options. But if you are put in the position of having to physically defend yourself, it’s good to know (and have practiced!) some kick-ass moves to get you out of a tight squeeze. At the best you’ll be able to incapacitate your intruder. At the least you might able to break their hold long enough to get away and run. Not only are classes good for self-defense, but a bonus side effect might be losing a little weight and getting into shape. That’s a win-win in my book!
I think now is the time to address the elephant in the room: the subject of having weapons for self-defense. Let me start by saying that this article is in no way intended to be a gun control debate, and any comments as such will be deleted. Personally I am not opposed to having weapons for self-defense. There have been many times I wish I would have had one when prowlers decided to inspect my backyard at 2am. But I currently do not have a gun, or other similar weapon, in my home and here’s why.
- I know myself well enough to know that in a panicked, stressful situation, I am all thumbs. I can barely dial a phone, let alone try to manage a gun. So, while I am not opposed to having a gun for self-defense, I refuse to even entertain the idea of getting one until I have gone through intense training on how to use it, load it, AND am able to remove it from its locked case and load it in complete darkness under a super-stressful situation.
- Same goes for pepper spray. I know I will somehow manage to point the spray at me instead of the intruder. And where would that get me?
- In regards to clubs or bats or other blunt force weapons, you have to be strong enough to wield said weapon with enough force to make it count. I know I’m not strong enough to do any real damage, and the likelihood of the intruder taking the weapon from me and using it against me is greater than me hurting him.
Dave’s Tip: if someone chooses to get a gun for the purpose of protecting themselves they need to know how and when it is appropriate to use it. They also need to check with their local law enforcement agency on what laws are in effect for that area BEFORE getting the gun. And worth mentioning – a real gun should not be purchased with the idea that merely showing it to someone would be a deterrent. If you aren’t willing to use the gun, you’ve introduced the gun into a situation where there wasn’t one before…and many hardened criminals are not as afraid of guns as you’d think.
Final thoughts from Dave: Professional criminals dislike: 1) time, 2) noise, 3) light. TIME: Most thieves like to be into a house in less than 15 seconds; if a criminal needs more than that he probably won’t break into your house. This tells us that good quality, re-enforced doors and windows with heavy duty locks are an answer. LIGHT: if you keep the area around your house lighted (sensor lights are good and inexpensive, too) this will help greatly. NOISE: Even a small, alert dog, while not intimidating to most people, is a problem to a burglar – he does not want to hear that barking!
This article is not meant to scare anyone, or place you in a constant state of intruder paranoia. Quite the opposite, actually. This article is intended to give you freedom from fear so you can enjoy all the benefits of living alone. The autonomy of solo domesticity is empowering, and a few simple preventative steps can keep you safe and give you peace of mind. Dave even says that MOST people are good people. Unfortunately, you sometimes can’t tell which ones are which. There’s no need to be paranoid – just cautious and confident that you’ve taken steps to insure your own safety.
So go out there, single girl – take this life and make it your own! And start with your own home-safe-home.