Personal Finance

Keep your home off burglars' radar this summer

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If you're heading out on vacation this summer, here's another item to add to your pre-trip to-do list: Make sure your home isn't a target for burglars.

Theft is the fourth-most-common homeowners insurance claim, affecting roughly one in 215 insured households per year, according to 2010-2014 data from ISO, a division of insurance risk assessment firm Verisk Analytics. It's also the fifth-most-expensive claim, with homeowners reporting theft losses averaging $3,786.

Claims peak during the summer months. August has 13 percent more theft-related claims compared to other months, and July, 12 percent more, according to new data from Travelers.

"There's probably a correlation to the fact that people are traveling more," said Scott Humphrey, second vice president of risk control for Travelers.

Here's how to protect yourself:

Make it seem like you're home

"Once someone gets into your house, they're going to find whatever is in your house," said Todd Morris, founder and chief executive of BrickHouse Security, a company that sells security, technology and surveillance solutions. "I would spend more time thinking of keeping them out of your house."

The best defense is low tech, Morris said: Don't give strangers reason to suspect you're not home. Have your mail and newspapers held, and ask a trusted friend or neighbor to keep up with regular chores like mowing the lawn and putting the trash cans out and in. If you're leaving the car at home, keep it where you normally would — whether that's in the driveway or the garage, he said.

Consider an inexpensive automatic timer to turn lights off and on, which makes the home look lived in, said Humphrey. There are even "fake TV" lights that mimic a flickering screen.

Assess your insurance

You might not have enough coverage for your valuables. Many of the items burglars target — cash, electronics and jewelry — are those that have sublimits in the typical homeowners insurance policy, said Loretta Worters, a vice president for the Insurance Information Institute.

Jewelry, for example, is often capped at $1,000 (total, not per piece). That's not much, when you consider that a burglar is likely to sweep up your entire jewelry box, she said.

Talk to your insurance agent about policy limits, and then assess whether it makes sense to add a rider or endorsement to increase coverage on any expensive items or categories. (You might also look into underwriters who specialize in insuring particular categories, such as photography equipment or jewelry.)

Check in periodically to make sure you still have adequate coverage for any items appreciating in value, said Humphrey. Add coverage as needed when you acquire new items.

If you're taking precautions to protect your home, let your insurer know, Worters said. Many offer discounts for home alarm systems, home safes and even for keeping some valuables in an off-site safety deposit box.

Enlist watchful eyes

"Tell your neighbors — the ones you trust, obviously — that you're away, so that you can get their cooperation," Morris said.

That might be scooping up an errant Amazon package that arrives while you're away, serving as a backup contact for the alarm company or just being on alert for anything odd happening on your property, he said.

Create a home inventory

Have good record of items in your home. That helps you figure out what's missing if there's a break-in and provides extra documentation for the claim, said Humphrey.

An inventory could be simply a list, or use pictures or video. There are a number of apps and sites to help with cataloging, too, including Sortly and the Insurance Information Institute's Know Your Stuff.

Limit access

If you have a pet-sitter, housekeeper, neighbor or others accessing your home while you're away, consider upgrading to a keypad lock and assigning each individual a unique code, said Morris. That helps you track who entered the house, when, and also eliminates the risk of a burglar gaining access through a not-so-cleverly concealed spare key.

Warn your teens that it's not OK for them to allow friends to "borrow" the house for a party or date while the family is away.

"I can't tell you how many times we've heard that story from families," he said.

Secure valuables

There's no point in giving burglars easy pickings. Vacation isn't the time to leave your laptop on your desk or the filing cabinet with your tax returns unlocked.

"Don't leave your valuables out," said Humphrey.

Don't put too much stock in locks and hiding places, though.

A smart thief will sweep popular stash spots like the freezer or your sock drawer, and even a safe may not be all that safe, said Morris. Burglars may attempt to crack it or, if it's not secured, simply take it with them.