Many of the most effective home-security strategies cost nothing or very little, reports Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook.

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CONSUMERS’ CHECKBOOK

Before shelling out big bucks for a home alarm system, first take basic measures to improve your home’s security. Many of the most effective home-security strategies cost nothing or very little.

Most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows — or pushing and kicking locked ones until they open. So start by making your doors and windows as difficult to penetrate as possible. Although intruders prefer unlocked doors and windows, many can quickly and almost silently pry open locked ones. Some break a pane of glass so they can reach in and unlock the window or door. Only a few really determined burglars break out enough glass to walk or crawl through, or bash in a well-secured door, and they seldom try to pick locks.

Here are some tips for securing your home. For detailed advice, including ratings of home-security system installers and locksmiths, visit www.checkbook.org/seattletimes/homesecurity.

• Get a security audit. Most police departments provide such services, which will help you identify vulnerabilities.

• Lose lousy locks. Key-in-the knob locks are inadequate. Install good deadbolt locks on all your exterior doors.

• Secure sliding glass doors. The locks on sliding glass doors are notoriously flimsy — many doors can be lifted right off their tracks. Numerous how-to videos on the web can show you how to make yours more secure, or you can pay a locksmith to install reinforcements.

• Replace weak doors. Solid-wood doors are much sturdier than hollow ones.

• Secure your windows. Depending on the type of window, you can take various steps to make it more resistant to a prying attack. Double-hung windows, for example, can be secured by screwing together the two frames. Most intruders are not keen on breaking glass, but it still happens often enough to justify concern. For the highest level of protection, the window should have unbreakable glazing or steel bars across it.

• Hide valuables. You probably open your front door to many strangers and near-strangers — the pizza-delivery guy, the sketchy home-improvement salesman whose people are “doing work in the neighborhood,” among others. Place articles of ostensible value out of the view of anyone at your front door or anyone looking through your front windows from the street.

• ID your stuff. Many experts recommend participating in Operation Identification, which involves engraving an ID number on your valuables and putting a decal in your window.

• Rent a safe deposit box. A box may be inconvenient, but it provides a level of security against theft and fire.

• Keep your landscaping in check. Doors and windows hidden by garages, bushes, fences and trees are attractive targets for intruders who prefer to invade unseen.

• Light it up. Many burglars will flee if they activate an outdoor light connected to a motion detector.

• Get a dog.

• Lock up guns. Burglaries are major sources of guns for criminals.

In addition to improving your home’s physical security, adopt secure strategies.

• Get insurance. Consider adding replacement-cost coverage to your homeowners insurance policy for your personal property. If burglars clean out your home, this optional coverage could save you thousands of dollars compared to standard coverage. If you possess expensive jewelry and other items covered at low limits under standard policies, consider taking out additional policies for them.

• Get to know your neighbors. Neighborhood watch groups are one of the most effective ways to protect all the homes in your neighborhood. At the very least, get to know your neighbors and share information on your not-at-home schedules and vacation plans, so everyone can look out for suspicious activities.

• Keep up appearances. Because most burglars strike when no one is home, make sure your house always appears occupied. Leaving lights and a TV on helps. If you go on vacation, work with neighbors or friends to prevent mail and packages from piling up and to keep your lawn mowed.

For millions of American households, a home security plan is one component of an alarm system, and there is much evidence that these systems do make a difference in deterring burglaries. In addition, alarm systems can help prevent fire damage, and some alert you (or a central monitoring agency) about power outages, water leaks and other problems.

We at Consumers’ Checkbook recommend that homeowners first improve physical barriers to intrusion (some of which are discussed above) before considering alarm systems. Alarms can add protection against intrusions, but they also involve a significant expense and have some drawbacks.

Basic alarm protection should cover all exterior doors (including sliding glass doors) and any windows easily reached by intruders. The system should also activate a siren and/or notify a central monitoring station. Professional installation of a system meeting these criteria usually costs $1,000 to $2,000. Some companies offer steep discounts to customers who sign long-term monitoring contracts. With these companies, you can get a basic system for less than $500 if you sign a three-year monitoring deal.

Moderately heavy alarm protection covers other points of potential entry, including second-story windows, attic doors and skylights. It will also use motion detectors, pressure pads and sensors on cabinets and bureaus to detect intrusions past the perimeter when the family is asleep or away. Such systems usually cost from $1,500 to more than $3,000.

Even if you purchase a home security system with all the bells and whistles, it might not do you any good if it’s designed poorly or installed sloppily. The ratings and reviews submitted to us at Consumers’ Checkbook, plus reports from our undercover shoppers, indicate that the expertise of home-security representatives varies greatly. Some appear to know little about actual alarm installation, spend minimal time inspecting homes, and have no clear idea of how their installation crews will complete the work. Many representatives seem more interested in explaining their home-security products and systems than figuring out how to give customers what they request. And with some salespersons it takes considerable time and energy to get an explicit price for your job.

On the other hand, some companies’ representatives are true experts. Many salespersons have personally performed installation work in the past, and some install the alarm systems they plan themselves.

You’ll also find huge company-to-company price differences. When Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected proposals from companies for specific alarm systems and three years of monitoring services for four different homes, they were quoted prices ranging from $1,847 to $4,420 for one of the homes and $1,839 to $3,552 for the other home.

Check the company’s monitoring agreement for any provisions that require auto-renewal of its monitoring service. Some companies will automatically renew their monitoring service for a year or more. Because some companies routinely increase their monthly monitoring charges, strict auto-renewing agreements can be bad deals for you.