Reporting from Washington —
In a ritual that takes place at the end of every summer — and at the close of every winter — millions of people will lock up their second homes for another year and head back to their principal residences.
But how secure are the houses they leave behind?
Often not very, especially in largely seasonal locations where the majority of the houses and apartments are vacant for extended periods and practically no one is around.
There were 7.9 million seasonal properties in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. That's an awful lot of television sets, appliances and personal items that are left up for grabs, at least potentially.
The good news is that although more remote destinations such as Sandpoint, Idaho, or Eagles Mere, Pa., seem like great feeding grounds for thieves, these seasonal ghost towns rarely attract criminals because they're just too far away. There's simply too much travel time involved.
"Robbers are a lazy bunch," said Christine Karpinski, a vacation-home-rental author and blogger in Austin, Texas. "They tend to go for the low-hanging fruit."
The typical thief also tends to stick out from the locals who hang around during the off-season, said Marc MacYoung, a former Los Angeles street tough who now makes a living lecturing and consulting on personal safety and self-defense.
"They're too conspicuous," said MacYoung, whose street name was Animal when he was a gang member in his former life. "In their own areas, they can blend into the scenery and they have bolt holes to hide in. Too far out of their normal range and they stand out like a sore thumb."
Although scavengers usually feed close to home, if one does strike, the odds are it will be a big hit. If the pros know the area is abandoned, they'll show up dressed like movers or repairmen in a "company" van and clean out an entire house while no one is any the wiser.
Other than turning their beach houses or ski chalets into fortresses, there's little that vacation homeowners can do to stop a serious burglar, said MacYoung, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo. "If someone wants to get in, they will get in," he said.
But you can make your place more difficult to get into than your neighbor's. And often that's all the prevention you need.
"A deterrent doesn't stop crime; that's impossible," said MacYoung, who has worked as a bodyguard, bouncer and security guard. "It just prevents it from happening to you."
It goes without saying that you should lock all locks, secure all access to your property through gates and windows, and install — and use — an alarm system.
But we're talking well beyond the usual steps most homeowners take when they go on vacation. Stopping the newspaper, putting your mail on hold and asking the neighbors to keep an eye on your place only goes so far when you are gone for two or three weeks.
Apart from those obvious precautions, a number of steps can burglarproof your property when you won't return for six or seven months.
For starters, consider hiring a caretaker to occupy your place while you are away, or join up with other owners in your community to pay someone to watch over all your houses. And be sure to give year-round neighbors your home phone number and alert them if you are having work done on your place.
That way, if someone official-looking does show up, the neighbors can call you and, if necessary, contact the local authorities.
Take the time to make the property look lived in. Start by putting several of your interior lamps on timers. Use the kind that can be programmed to go on and off at various times, and equip lamps in two or three rooms so they are lit at different times.
To avoid disruptions to your well-planned timing mechanisms caused by power outages, opt for sunlight-activated timers.
Another tip: Leave the light above the range on at all times. "The kitchen is one room that tends to have lights on the most," MacYoung said.
You also may want to "seriously secure" all entry doors but one. If you use something like a foot lock to jam two of your three doors, you've cut down the chances that someone can get in by two-thirds.
Outside, make sure that exterior lights are on motion sensors or even timers, and that they are mounted high enough so they can't be reached without a ladder. A thief usually won't put up a ladder because it is too conspicuous.
Consider putting your TV set on a timer so it goes on and off in the afternoon and again in the evening. But even if you decide against that, it is a good idea to at least leave a radio on — to a talk station as opposed to music. The broken pattern of human speech is more consistent with someone being home.
Turn down your phone so a long series of unanswered rings doesn't alert someone to the fact that you're not there. Or better yet, keep the answering machine on, with a message that says, "We can't get to the phone right now" rather than you are not home. And check the machine occasionally so it doesn't become full.
Should you close the drapes? Some say closing them is a sure sign that no one's home, but others argue that open drapes allow someone to peer inside. So how about a compromise? Leave the first-floor drapes closed, but open those on the second floor.
If some of your neighbors are year-round residents, ask them to check on your place occasionally so they can pick up packages, door tags, phone books and whatever else that might be left at the door. And be sure that someone watching the place can contact you.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.