Safe House

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// by Tracy Jones

As the weather begins to warm and the end of school nears, more and more people are planning their vacations away from home.

But the upcoming travel season also means that the houses left behind will be vulnerable to intruders and break-ins while homeowners are away.

Research over the years has shown that with the uptick in heat comes an increase in crime. A decades-old study by Ellen Cohn, a criminology professor at Florida International University, found that there is a relationship between crime and the weather, and that the warmer months typically bring higher crime rates and break-ins.

In Jacksonville, crime, especially robberies and burglaries, hasn't slowed. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in 2013, there were approximately 7,500 burglaries in Duval County alone.

Michael McCalley is the owner of Mr. Handyman, a home repair service that serves the Greater Jacksonville area. He says he replaces a kicked-in door nearly every other week, oftentimes as the result of a home intruder.

“The most important thing as a homeowner is to have a neighbor keep an eye on things,” says McCalley. “If that neighbor can bring in the mail, bring in the newspaper, then it doesn't look like an unkept house.”

Robbers look for giveaways like empty driveways, or house lights that are all turned on or off—all of which are cues that a home is unattended. McCalley advises homeowners to avoid using social media to say where and when they are going on vacation. One never knows who is watching.

“The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office provides tips for homeowners on how to prevent break-ins,” says Christian Hancock, public information officer for the department. These include ensuring every external lock has a deadbolt, securing sliding glass doors with a broomstick or wooden dowel and placing bolts on double-hung windows. Joining a neighborhood watch group can also provide safety with the help of the entire surrounding community. JSO also suggests taking inventory of high-priced items in the home in the case of a break-in.

Gerri Boyce, spokeswoman for JEA, recommends homeowners stick to simple switches to help protect a home while away. She says to turn off water heaters, irrigation water and regular water to the house and unplug the garage door opener and all expensive electronic devices. Boyce also says to set the thermostat between 80 to 85 degrees in the summer and 60 degrees in the winter and to turn off all ceiling fans.

“Surge suppression on all electronic devices must be plugged in while you're gone,” Boyce says. She also suggests installing outside lights with sensors, which will turn on automatically when someone approaches and may deter an intruder unfamiliar to the area.

Homeowners can also opt for a home automation service, which can provide additional protection, says Cindy Arco, Comcast public relations manager. “Home automation in general has a lot of benefits,” she says. “It's very popular, and there are a lot of different offerings.”

Through an app on a smartphone, home owners can control the lights, temperature and activate a professionally monitored security system. Many systems also have an option that places cameras in the home so owners can see inside their home while they're away. This is particularly helpful when owners expect a pet sitter or housekeeper while away, Arco says.

Some home automation systems also have water sensors, so if there is an area in the home prone to a leak, like a toilet that floods frequently, the sensor alerts the owner's phone when the leak happens. This is particularly useful up North, for homes in areas that can succumb to freezing pipes.

When it comes to home safety, one of the most important pieces of advice from experts is to never leave a problem in your home unresolved—like a roof leak or an old washing machine hose. “They never break when you're at home on a Saturday,” McCalley chuckles.

Nope, sometimes misfortune occurs when least expected. The question is, are you prepared?