Look after your home while away

Second home-owners should think about the best ways to protect their homes. We look at burglary prevention methods

1 April 2010

Helen and Richard Lotte’s Norman holiday home was burgled just before Christmas.

“They basically went shopping in our house,” says Mrs Lotte.

“They took a whole raft of things – computer equipment, all our coats, ornaments, and even the throws off the sofas and the curtain tiebacks.

“It was naive of us, I suppose, but until it happened, we really didn’t realise that people even knew we were there.”

In retrospect, she realises it was obvious whenever they came and went.

“You could see us lit up from the village, and when we weren’t there, the house was in total blackness,” she says.

Their UK-based insurers paid what she describes as a ‘derisory’ sum, and the couple decide to switch to a French insurer. “But that raised another issue.

“With the British insurer, window locks and deadbolts were enough – and the burglars actually smashed a window to get in, which didn’t invalidate anything – but the French insurer demanded that the house have shutters installed, because it was quite a distance from any other housing.”

However, the couple were able to opt instead for security double glazing, which they installed throughout the ground floor.

“It was expensive, at £7,000,” says Mrs Lotte, “but it has also made the place much warmer.

“Our chief worry before the burglary had been fire,” she said, “so we had always switched off the power, but after we were burgled, security was uppermost in our minds.”

So, the couple also had a motion-sensor burglar alarm installed, which meant they had to leave the electricity on at all times.

They also took other measures, installing powerful motion-sensor outside lighting, and lights in the house that went on and off on timers, to make the place look occupied. They also brought over a spare car and parked it outside, asking a friend to move it around the garden from time to time.

“All in all, I suppose those measures cost us nearly £10,000,” Mrs Lotte says, “but the burglars had taken £20,000 of goods, so it was worth it for our peace of mind.”

Bernard Jaquier, chief of the gendarmerie at Domfront in the Orne, says British maisons secondaires have burgeoned in his area, but people should be realistic – holiday homes are not generally a good target for house-breakers

“They are not usually as well furnished as main residences, and offer less rich pickings, so they are less attractive.”

When burglars rob a holiday home, he says, they normally take electrical goods, while when raiding a principal residence they go after money and jewellery.

“Burglary of all kinds generally comes in waves. You get a wave of holiday homes, or barns, or equipment suppliers. At the moment, it’s cultivators that are being stolen.”

For obvious reasons, he says, isolated holiday homes are burgled more often than houses in towns or villages, but his advice for owners is succinct: “Lock up everything – house, barns, the lot. With a key.”

Shutters, too, are a great deterrent: “They are a great dissuader. But if people feel they will be targeted because their house looks empty, then an alarm system is a must.”

Above all, tell your neighbours: “Get them to patrol your place; drive round the courtyard; empty the letterbox – and if you can keep the grass cut and the house looking occupied, it’s an advantage.

“But it’s not as good as locking everything up tight.”

Like most other police districts, Domfront operates Opération Tranquillité Vacances in the holidays – this incudes July, August, Tous saint (November 1) and Christmas.

Lots of French take up the offer to have police keep an eye on their property while away, and the British are now joining in – although mostly those married to French people, or permanent residents.

There are many other anti-burglar measures owners can take: planting thorny bushes under windows, which makes access difficult, and making sure the perimeter is secured with a metal gate and fencing.

Garden maintenance is important if you are away for long stretches, as nothing signals “empty” quicker than an unkempt garden, and if you can also arrange for someone to enter the property and open and close curtains, etc, so much the better.

Some people leave children’s toys scattered in the garden – young families tend to have irregular hours, which means a burglar has to watch his step. Barns and outbuildings should also all be locked, with insurance-approved locks.
In winter, thieves will raid a woodpile, so this too should be locked away, and ladders and tools should be secured out of sight.

Shutters are often required by insurers, and many British residents opt for the pull-down metal version, which cannot be cut with a chainsaw like wooden ‘Z’ shutters.

However, if shutters are installed, you must use them, or your insurance will be invalidated.

However, shutting up like Fort Knox is not to everyone’s taste. Pat Brown has been burgled several times but she takes a sanguine approach.

“Both times they’ve come in through double-glazed windows in the kitchen, which is hidden from the road. But securing the place would be prohibitively expensive.”

Pat says she didn’t feel violated and the burglars didn’t vandalise her property, but the first time it happened was after she had recently been widowed and that helped her to put things into perspective.

“Let’s get real; I’m alive and in good health, so someone breaking in and taking some things pales into insignificance. I’ll continue to use my home in France without having nightmares.”

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