Keeping your home safe and secure whether you’re there or not

stories by Marc Huminilowycz & Janet Lees


Perhaps your full-time home is elsewhere and you have a second home in Southern Georgian Bay. Maybe your permanent home is in the region but you travel frequently, you’re a snowbird who prefers to winter in warmer climes, or you have a vacation home that you rent out seasonally to earn a little extra income. If you fall into any of these categories, you would probably feel more secure knowing that your home is protected from fire, flood, theft, vandalism or other costly mishaps when you’re not there.

Fortunately, our region is a relatively safe haven from serious property crime, fire and catastrophic weather damage. According to the Collingwood and The Blue Mountains division of the Ontario Provincial Police, there have only been 10 incidents of home break-ins since the beginning of this year. And the Collingwood Fire Department reports an average of eight major home fires (with losses over $100,000) per year.

This is not to say that any homeowner, whether seasonal or permanent, should be complacent about home safety. Certainly the days of leaving your front door unlocked are long gone, and rushing out of a weekend home to get back to the city without securing the premises first is not a good idea.

When it comes to home security, there are many options to consider, from alarm systems and hi-tech home monitoring systems to services that check your home while you’re away. But there are also some common-sense, do-it-yourself precautions that fire and police departments recommend you take before leaving your home for a prolonged period of time.

Ross Parr, fire chief of the Collingwood Fire Department, advises weekenders and snowbirds to treat secondary homes the same as they would their primary residences. “It all comes down to proper home maintenance,” says Parr. “Make sure there are no obstacles (especially combustibles) around gas-fired appliances, and keep the area around the furnace especially clean. Have your fireplace chimney regularly cleaned, preferably in the warm months. In the winter, when you’re leaving after the weekend, properly dispose of your fireplace ashes in a metal container – away from flammables and not inside the building. It’s amazing how many people dump their ashes into a cardboard box and place it in the garage, resulting in their garages burning down.”

As with any home, Parr stresses the importance of ensuring that all smoke detectors and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in a weekend or part-time residence are in working order and that dryer vents are cleaned of excessive lint. “We experience only a few major home fires in a year, but smaller fires involving appliances – clothes dryers, kitchen stoves, barbecues and microwave ovens – are numerous,’” he adds, suggesting that property owners should make a checklist of appliances, fireplaces and flammables to turn off, and complete the list twice before leaving the premises.

For weekenders and snowbirds who are away for long periods, Parr strongly recommends arranging for someone to check the home regularly, especially in the winter. “You never know when a furnace will malfunction, which can result in a fire or cause plumbing pipes to freeze,” he says. “And make sure you have your driveway and front entranceway cleared of snow and ice, so that emergency vehicles can get in if needed.”

From a theft and vandalism prevention perspective, Martin Hachey of the Collingwood and The Blue Mountains OPP recommends taking several simple, common-sense precautionary measures for homes that are left unoccupied for periods of time.

“Make sure that all of your lockable entry points are locked,” Hachey advises. “Install strong dead bolts on all doors and possibly secondary locking mechanisms on windows and patio doors, such as a length of wood to prevent the opening of sliding windows and doors.”

He also stresses importance of creating the appearance that someone is living in the home by setting timers to turn on and off several interior and exterior lights. “Having good lighting around the house is a great way of preventing any break and enter or mischief to property,” says Hachey, who also suggests closing all window coverings to prevent potential intruders from having a view of the home’s interior, and having someone regularly pick up flyers from the driveway and front entrance.

For snowbirds or seasonal homeowners who are away from their homes for several months in the winter, Hachey recommends the following additional precautions:

  • pack up all food and alcohol;
  • don’t leave firearms in the home;
  • winterize, secure and immobilize any vehicles left on the property;
  • have a key holder contact person;
  • avoid leaving any valuables on the premises (if you must, record their serial numbers or have them engraved with a unique identifier).

He encourages homeowners to visit www.opp.ca and search Safeguard Ontario for more tips on preventing property crime.

In addition to taking these practical steps for preventing fire and theft, another option for snowbirds and seasonal renters is to hire one of the region’s property management services. Christina Schaden Herauf, founder of Properties by Her, says home monitoring services like hers offer snowbirds and landlords peace of mind when they are away.

“We come in regularly, do a complete interior and exterior check – things like water leakage, temperature setting, lights and appliances, windows, sump pumps, insect build-up, toilets and furnace air intakes, which can be blocked by snow and ice build-up, shutting off the heat,” say Herauf. “If something is wrong, we can notify either the owner or a person they trust, then coordinate a repair ourselves or with a preferred contractor. Things like contact protocols, preferred home temperature and remediation steps are exactly tailored to our clients’ needs.”

Herauf also recommends that snowbirds and landlords be aware of the stipulations of their insurance policy with respect to the frequency of home monitoring. “For example, ‘recreational/seasonal’ may not require as many home checks as a permanent residence left vacant for long periods of time,” she says. On the other hand, snowbirds who leave their primary residence for long periods may be required to have someone physically check the home every 72 hours while they are away. “It’s a good idea to check with your insurance advisor,” says Herauf.

Shelley Vermeersch, managing director of Howard Noble Insurance in Collingwood, agrees that insurance coverage for seasonal or weekend homeowners, snowbirds and landlords varies in terms of frequency and type of home monitoring required.

“Policies can be tailored to specific situations,” Vermeersch advises, adding that advances in technology mean that state-of-the-art security systems can sometimes mitigate the need for physical monitoring. Insurance, like today’s security systems, is customizable. “It used to be that coverage and premiums were set according to region and postal code,” says Vermeersch. “Now everything has gone individualized. It’s important to go through all the data bits with your insurance provider.”

Despite the relatively low incidence of home fires and home-related crimes in our region, weekenders, renters and snowbirds should also consider an alarm system tied to 24-hour monitoring and response as part of their home safety strategy. In addition to benefiting from insurance discounts with such a system, property owners can enjoy peace of mind knowing that their homes are protected while they are away.

Rob Thorburn, Jr., president and CEO of Huronia Alarm and Fire Security, classes Huronia’s home safety products and services under three main categories: life safety, environmental and burglary.

“Our life safety products and services cover the detection of smoke, carbon monoxide and gas leaks,” says Thorburn, whose family has been in the business for almost 20 years. “Environmental includes the monitoring of sump pump well water level, water pipe bursting, low temperature (house and hot tub), high sewage, well water and cistern depth. For burglary, we have sensors that monitor motion, door and window contacts, and glass breakage.”

Burglary systems are designed to first deter intruders from coming into the home. “Even the presence of a security system sign on your lawn can discourage thieves,” notes Thorburn. “If burglars do break in, these systems minimize the response time to your home, thereby minimizing the damage resulting from doors or windows left open to the elements, which can often be greater than the loss from the intrusion itself.”

As for the available security products, Thorburn says technology is continually evolving. “Today’s ‘smart home’ technology offers the homeowner complete interactive monitoring from anywhere via their smart phone,” he explains. “There are some very powerful systems available, offering real-time alerts on your mobile for what’s going on in your home.”

As a licensed North American dealer and central monitoring station for alarm.com, Huronia offers this service to homes with a wired smart home infrastructure. By simply installing an app on their smart phone and logging on to the alarm.com web page, homeowners can monitor important activity on their property any time – not just when there is an emergency – with customizable text, push notifications and email alerts.

With the alarm.com and similar apps, homeowners can not only switch lights on and off to give the impression that there are occupants in the home, but can also turn outside lights on and off, unlock the door for certain people, adjust heat settings to ensure the home’s temperature doesn’t fall too low, and even heat or cool the house to the perfect temperature before they arrive. According to the company’s website, the system uses real-time data from security sensors and connected devices in the home to understand the activity patterns of occupants, learn when they are coming and going, and “take smart actions on your behalf.”

Home security systems have greatly evolved and expanded just in the past 10 years, notes Doug Johnston, a former engineer with Honeywell who has operated Red Brick Group in Thornbury with his wife, Carla Nicolson, since 2006.

“It used to be just very basic home intrusion systems,” says Johnston, “but now more and more people are asking for – or their insurance companies are asking for – sump pump sensors, standing water sensors, temperature sensors. We even do temperature and humidity sensors in wine rooms. Houses are getting bigger, so the systems are getting more advanced.”

So advanced, in fact, that you can now have a system that turns your outdoor sprinklers on and off while leaving your water shut off inside the house, or turns the water on automatically when a cleaning person or contractor punches in their access code and then turns the water back off when they leave. There are sophisticated temperature controls, even sensing if the temperature of a particular pipe has dropped below a certain level. And everything can be set up to alert the homeowner via smart technology or allow the homeowner to monitor any aspect of their home’s system at any time, from any location.

Other newer trends include wireless systems, cameras, panic alarms and “asset tagging” – alarms on artwork and other valuables that trip when the object is moved beyond a specific radius of its original location.

In short, no matter what you want to secure, protect or monitor in your home, there is likely a home security system that will allow you do so. It’s just a matter of how much you have invested and how much you are willing to spend to protect that investment.

“The key place for someone to start is to talk to their insurance company and see what they require and if there is a discount on your insurance,” says Nicolson. “The rest is really what they feel comfortable with and what their budget is; a bigger budget home is likely going to need more complex systems and different levels of security.”

For budget-conscious homeowners wishing to purchase and install the latest in-home safety technology themselves, available DIY technology includes security lights that increase security inside and outside the home, discouraging would-be prowlers by mimicking your typical lighting habits when you are away – even if the power goes out. Smart doorbells, another home security trend, let users see who is at the door through their smart phone or computer, even allowing them to speak with the visitor or intruder without the other person knowing the homeowner is not physically present.

Other smart security devices bring safety and technology together, providing remotely viewable cameras accessible from anywhere via mobile phone or tablet. Many of these wireless systems are, relatively inexpensive and come with home automation integration to communicate with other devices on a list.

How smart are today’s systems, and are they too smart for their own good? While all of this home safety technology may be seductive, it does come with a couple of caveats. With these devices, it is possible to over-scrutinize your home while you’re away, resulting in false alarm incidents.

In fact, at least one municipality in our region, The Blue Mountains, has introduced a security alarm bylaw in response to an increase in the number of police responses to false calls including accidental alarm trips, alarm malfunctions and cancelled calls. The bylaw requires all alarm systems – residential and commercial – to be registered with the municipality, with a system of warnings, fees and possible suspension of police dispatch if there are too many false alarms.

There’s no question that securing your home from theft, fire, water damage and vandalism is a worthwhile investment no matter how much time you spend in the home or away. Today’s technology offers a range of options from simple, do-it-yourself motion sensors or smart doorbells to fully customizable home monitoring systems that get help on the way quickly in any eventuality.

Smart homeowners know that investing in home security can keep their home safe and secure, protecting their largest investment – their house and its contents – for years to come, regardless of the comings and goings of its occupants. ❧

Leaving Home

DOs

  1. Once everyone else is out of the house, double check that all doors and windows are locked, especially if you have children who may inadvertently leave a window or door unlatched.
  2. Turn main water valve off.
  3. Arrange to have a friend, neighbour, tradesperson or home monitoring service come in and check the house every 72 hours (frequency may vary; check with your insurance provider).
  4. Prepare a checklist for the person checking your house, and include contact info for tradespeople who can be called if needed to handle plumbing, electrical or structural problems (such as a tree falling through a window or intruders kicking down the front door or breaking a window). ‎Let your trades know you will be gone so they will be prepared if someone contacts them for emergency assistance.
  5. If you have a sump pump or sewage pump, have a monitoring system and install a separate battery back-up pump to go into action when hydro is off and water is coming in.
  6. In winter, make sure your driveway and walkway are shovelled after snowfall.
  7. Install a light switch that turns your lights on and off randomly or on a timer, or install a home automation system that turns your lights on and off in different parts of your home based on sunrise and sunset times.
  8. Have your mail and newspapers picked up regularly. Newspapers piled around your front door are a sure sign that you are gone.
  9. Let your neighbours know how long you will be gone and leave them a cell number if possible to reach you in case of emergency.
  10. If you have blinds, lower them a little. Home security systems can also include a timer that raises and lowers blinds at appropriate times to make it appear someone is home.

DON’Ts

  1. Never hide a key under a doormat or anywhere else outside your home. Any thief worth his salt will start by searching for a key. Instead, the experts we interviewed recommend leaving a key with a neighbor or using a keypad door lock.
  2. Never indicate on social media that you are away from home. It may be tempting to share those vacation photos on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but wait until you are safely back home so you don’t alert thieves to your absence.

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