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When your home is alone

The holidays are upon us. All across America, people are about to go — or are already on — vacation. That, of course, leaves houses behind. Is your home safe when you're not around?
Christmas Decorations Displayed in Berkshire
A house illuminated with holiday decorations on Dec. 14, 2005 near Reading, England.Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images file
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The holidays are upon us. All across America, people are about to go — or are already on — vacation. That, of course, leaves houses behind. Is your home safe when you're not around?

Several years ago, after returning home from a two-week cruise, I was awakened at 3 a.m. by the frantic ringing of my doorbell. At first, I thought something was very wrong — perhaps a fire, or someone in distress. Then I thought it might be some teenagers playing a joke. It wasn’t a joke. After turning the lights on, I discovered someone had tried to break into my house.

Scared, I immediately called the police. The officers discovered fresh tracks in the grass around the house’s perimeter, particularly around the basement windows. There was evidence someone had tried to force one of the windows open. After I told the officers I had just returned home from a cruise, they surmised that someone had been casing my house while I was away. This was the night they decided to break in. To make sure no one was home, they rang the doorbell first. When the lights went on, they ran.

I was baffled.

“Why would anyone break into a house with monitored security?” I asked.

“Smash and grab,” one officer said, explaining that thieves can take off with thousands of dollars worth of items in just seconds. He pointed to the laptop computer on the kitchen table and the dining room silver on display. Both were in full view from the windows.

This got me thinking about home security while I’m away on a trip. When I’m busy packing for a cruise, I don’t give much thought to protecting the house. Sure, I arrange for things to be taken care of while I am away. I put timers on lamps, and I have trusted neighbors feed the cat, bring in the newspapers and mail, water plants and cut the grass. But is that enough?

Not by a long shot.

Crime-stopper tactics
The FBI reports that a burglary occurs every eight seconds in the United States. According to the Insurance Information Institute, nine out of 10 of those burglaries are preventable. The institute offers the following tips for when you leave for vacation:

Leave blinds open in their usual position.

Have mail and packages picked up, forwarded or held by the post office.

Lower the volume of your telephone ringer and answering machine so they can’t be heard outside, and never leave an outgoing message saying you’re away.

Arrange to have your lawn mowed or your walk shoveled.

Stop newspaper deliveries, and ask a friend or neighbor to pick up “throwaway” newspapers and circulars.

Use automatic timers to turn lights on and off in your living room and bedrooms at appropriate times. Also consider connecting a radio to a timer.

And here are some other tips I’ve picked up over the years.

Ask neighbors to park their cars in your driveway and to check your doorstep for unexpected deliveries.

Be sure someone puts out your trash on the appointed day.

Clear any incoming messages from your answering machine so you don’t run out of storage space.

And for heaven sake, double-check every door and window before you leave the house (It’s easy to leave in a rush).

One other thing to consider: Whenever you park your car in a parking lot, be sure to remove the garage door opener from plain view. Many burglaries have resulted from people stealing garage door openers and using them to get into the house.

It’s also a good idea to tell police and dependable neighbors when you plan to be away, and to join with your neighbors to keep a close watch on what’s happening in your area. Working closely with them is a good way to prevent crime whether you are home or away.

Damage control
Theft isn’t the only worry when your home is alone. In fact, accidents can be worse. Most people worry about fire, and they take all the necessary precautions. But water can do just as much damage. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute reports billions of dollars in insured losses last winter due to burst pipes, frozen gutters, leaking toilets and other water disasters.

I can believe it. I recently had a leaky valve in an upstairs toilet that required the attention of an insurance adjuster. The adjuster told me that I was lucky to have been home for the leak. He went on to tell me the horrifying tale of a family that went on vacation for three weeks, only to come home to a flooded house. A seal in an upstairs toilet had broken, causing water to pour into the house for several weeks. The damage was substantial — well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Could the accident have been prevented? Yes. Just turn off the water coming into the home before you leave on any extended trip. If turning off the water to your entire house isn’t possible, shut off the water to the toilets and washing machine — the two biggest culprits for inside flood damage.

Another thing to consider: If you live where it’s cold, keep the heat on so the pipes don’t freeze. If they do, they’re liable to crack or burst. The recommended temperature setting is at least 65 degrees because temperatures inside walls (where the pipes are located) are substantially lower than inside the house, especially if the pipes are located in an outside wall.

So be careful when you leave your home alone. Think ahead. Take precautions. Treat it well. That way when you return from a long, wonderful trip, you won’t be met by two cops and a plumber.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." or visit her Web site .