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How to keep your home safe while on vacation

That summer vacation you have been waiting for is finally here, and the last thing you need to be worrying about whilst away is how safe your home is. Here's our guide to keeping your home safe while on vacation with tips and advice to give you peace of mind.
Written by Lidia Davis, Contributing Writer

An empty home is a vulnerable home. In fact, most burglary-related crimes happen during the day when no one's home, and according to Johnathan Frisk, an officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, you're not the only one who doesn't want a confrontation. Frisk says intruders typically don't want resistance, either. Before leaving for an extended summer vacation -- or even a short weekend road trip -- you might want to try a few of the best practices and tips we've compiled based on our research and expert input because there's nothing worse than interrupting your trip to deal with an invasion or coming home after vacation to a burglarized home.

Simulating occupancy -- via security lighting, in particular, has been found to mitigate burglary potential. "The best plans that people can take when they are vacationing or leaving their homes for an extended period of time is to be careful to make sure they create an exterior view that the home is occupied," J. Matthew Ladd, president of The Protection Bureau, said. "Unoccupied homes become the highest risk."

Creating the visage that your home is still occupied, according to Ladd, can be as simple as making sure your lawn is maintained and cancelling your newspaper subscription, so you don't have piles of paper stacked on your porch.

"You can always tell that someone's not there because they've got newspapers in their driveway, packages on their front porch, and lights on in the middle of the day."

--J. Matthew Ladd, 
President, The Protection Bureau

Welcoming the internet of things into your home has its advantages. Home automation devices allow you to check the status of your home and control things like the temperature, lighting, and door locks remotely. A lot of these devices also come with scheduling features that allow you to, for example, never forget to turn the porch lights off before bed or grant the delivery person access into your home with Amazon Key (a smart door lock program that works with the Amazon Cloud Cam). The Schlage Encode locks work with Amazon Key and allow owners to create and manipulate up to 99 unique access codes. Meaning, you can give a family member or friend a code for the day just to check on the status of your home (and to clear up that incriminating newspaper pile) while you're away.

Smart light bulbs -- like Philips Hue -- can be commanded directly from your smartphone. Before you go on vacation, schedule when you want to control the lights depending on the time of day, use geofencing to automatically turn the lights on or off when you leave or use sunrise/sunset automations. Floodlights, or outdoor security lighting, might also prove beneficial, as many are motion-activated and will turn on when someone graces the sensor.

A UNC-Charlotte study revealed that some incarcerated burglars were less likely to enter alarms protected a home they saw. So, not only is it a generally good practice to let visitors and guests know they're being recorded (especially if audio is involved), doing so might also deter a potential burglar. (So, yes, those security system window decals might also come in handy.) Frisk told us that a security system won't necessarily prevent burglaries but that "it puts the intruder on a timer, so when they come in, they get a few items of interest and leave within a few minutes of alarm activation." Amazon Key comes with a robust lineup of security coverage, including intrusion sensors (for doors and windows), environmental (for carbon monoxide, fire, and flooding), surveillance, and safety (like panic buttons).

A do-it-yourself system puts the onus on you to keep tabs on your home and install your system. Typically, self-monitoring is the biggest difference between a purely DIY system and a traditional one, and the former typically lacks hefty fees and yearly contracts. On the other hand, professional or traditional systems come with central monitoring stations (that will call the police for you) and will send representatives who can evaluate your home's vulnerabilities, helping you decide where to best place all of your devices. However, you can have the best of both worlds, as some self-monitored companies offer both professional monitoring and the contract-free flexibility of a do-it-yourself system, like abode, Google Nest Secure, and Ring Alarm.

If you want to opt-in to professional monitoring penalty-free for the duration of your vacation, companies like Abode let you do so. Whereas traditional monitoring systems typically require professional monitoring, so choosing to opt-in or out at will (to save money) isn't necessarily available. But experts have told us that taking advantage of professional monitoring while on vacation or living elsewhere for half of the year is a good idea. "Part of the problem with the do-it-yourself systems is if you miss the notification, which might be a text message or an email…there's no reminder," Ladd said.

Some professional monitoring companies let you opt-in to their services penalty-free for the duration of your vacation, which is a huge benefit because it cuts down on the opportunity you might miss a text alert from your DIY security system.

Tech giants like Google Nest Secure and Ring Alarm are continuing to delve into the home automation and home security spaces, and industry experts have told us this is pretty indicative of today's overall demand. "There's sort of this idea of coopetition --  which is, we're all competing against each other in some regard, but we're all better positioned if we're working together, just to make sure users have the best experience possible," Daniel Roberts, CEO and founder of DIY security company Scout Alarm, told us. Roberts also told us Scout doesn't have a team of AI professionals, which is one of the reasons it chose to partner with companies like Nest.

So, if you're wondering how to start automating, see how many companies and devices your home security system plays well with. This includes checking voice assistant compatibility (so you can arm your system by telling Alexa or Google Assistant) and knowing which wireless standards your base station (or system) uses. Built-in Zigbee and Z-Wave radios allow your security system or other home automation devices to communicate with things like Smart light bulbs

study (conducted by YouGov PIc) found that over a third of respondents felt that video surveillance was the most important aspect of a home security system. It's true -- security cameras can provide both peace of mind and motion-activated in the event you need to catch a burglar or Amazon Key.

No internet-connected device is completely ironclad when it comes to potential hacking. We've found that reputable companies typically do a decent job of updating software and tending to your data's privacy and security, but even these companies aren't 100% consistent. "No matter what cam you buy, it's critically important for everyone in your family to protect your network and practice cyber-safety vigilantly," Monica Eaton-Cardone, owner, co-founder and COO of Chargebacks911, told us for our generally good practice. "Be careful where you place these cameras in your home, keep your passwords guarded and up-to-date, set a 'Google Alert' that warns you of security breaches, and explain to your children why they should never disclose personal or network information with anyone they meet online."

The majority of the security professionals we've talked to have agreed that it's best to keep your travel plans offline. Social media, according to Ladd, is a quick and easy way for people to know whether you're home or not and that you should save the pictures for when you return. And yes, that means no Instagram stories.

"No matter what cam you buy, it's critically important for everyone in your family to protect your network and practice cyber-safety vigilantly."

--Monica Eaton-Cardone
Owner, co-founder, and COO of Chargebacks911

Before you leave, you might want to check your alarm system and door/window sensitivity levels are in good shape and that your environmental sensors are working. You might also want to think about informing your security company of your travels and delegating tasks or check-ins to a trusted neighbor or family member. Making sure your water, heating/cooling systems are working properly and unplugging appliances before you leave will help reduce the risk of fire or leaks and help you save money on electricity. If you're concerned about leaks during your getaway, shut the water off (or maybe just the water hookup for the refrigerator).

Property damage, including theft, accounted for the majority of claims filed in 2017, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). Performing a home inventory prior to any losses or damage will help you not only keep tabs on what you lost and what it's worth but also make filing an insurance claim much easier. "If your home is broken into while you are on vacation or living away for a while, your insurance company will want this documentation when you file a claim to get properly reimbursed," John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, told us in a statement.

While it might be tough to prevent a home invasion, burglary, or disaster fully, there are still a few things you can do to reduce the risk or capture evidence in real-time potentially. And with technology today, it's easier than ever to monitor what's happening within and around your home while you're gone -- it just takes careful planning and a keen understanding of your home's needs.

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