Safe and Insecure

A while back, co-inspector Rick and I inspected a house way out in the country. As soon as we walked in, the woman of the house asked if we wanted her to demonstrate the security system.

"No ma'am," I said. "We don't even look at security systems. Each one's a little different, and frankly, we don't want the liability headache that would come with learning all the security features in every house we inspect. Sooner or later, some house will get burgled, and somebody will say, 'Those home inspectors were fooling around with the security system just the other day.' Then we'll get accused of either messing up the security system or sneaking back and doing the actual burglary. We don't even want to talk about the security system."

But that didn't stop her. My best guess was that she'd spent some serious money on her security gadgets, and she was itching for a chance to show them off to somebody. She walked over to the fancy control panel and started pushing buttons. Nothing happened.

Rick and I kept moving and went to look at the things we were hired to look at. The woman kept working at the control panel, all the while talking to herself.

Three hours later, Rick and I finished up the job. As we were getting into our station wagon and starting down the driveway, we heard a robot voice come out of a speaker on the side of the house: "Fire! Fire! Leave immediately!"

"Well," Rick said, "Looks like she finally got the thing working." We stayed in the driveway for a little while, to make sure no people came running out of the house and no smoke came billowing out. Of course, there were no fleeing homeowners, and there was no smoke. There was just the irritable robot voice warning of the non-fire. To this day, when one of us feels the need to crack the other one up, we do our best imitation of the rural robot alarm voice.

I've got to tell you: That homeowner/robot-voice comedy act is pretty much typical of what I've seen with home security systems. I'm sure some security systems have saved some people from a terrible fate. But from everything I can tell, most security systems either don't work right, or the people who own them just don't know how to work them. I've heard neighbors' alarms go off day and night for years now. Not one alarm was triggered by an actual intruder or fire. Each and every one was triggered by the people who live in the house, or by one of their pets.

I'm on a few neighbors' security call lists. That is, if their alarm goes off, their security company calls and tells me. I go park in front of the shrieking house and wait for the police to arrive. (Walter's rule of watching over the neighbors' houses: Never go into a house when you know the cops are coming, looking for a burglar.) So far, every house has been fine.

As unreliable as some security systems are, the home-security "tips" I hear all the time are even worse. For instance: Plant prickly bushes under all the windows, so burglars can't hide, and so they'll get stickers if they try to open your window.

Security-conscious homeowners, listen to me: Don't go planting prickly things around the house. Sooner or later, the house will need painting, or the brick will need re-mortaring, or the outside of the windows will need cleaning. Your anti-burglar bushes will get all in the way of honest tradespeople. You think you're going to get a decent day's work out of a guy standing in the middle of a holly bush or, worse, a mahonia?

And whatever you do, do not get-or train-a bad-ass dog. Dogs are the worst false-alarmers of all. Dogs bark at birds, squirrels, and their very own tails. Shoot, dogs bark at oxygen. When I hear a wound-out barking dog, I don't think, "Possible burglary at the neighbors' house." I think, "If I take a couple of boards out of the fence, maybe that dog'll get out and run away."

Personally, I support the notion of nosy neighbors and motion lights. Just a few weeks ago, a neighbor scared some ne'er-do-well, backsliding reprobates away from my car. They had the doors open, and they were getting ready to steal something, if only they could've found their way through the empty soda bottles and loose softballs.

I believe lights of all kinds are pretty good reprobate deterrents, and motion lights are the best of all. For just a few bucks, you can buy an exterior light that will come on anytime something near it moves. Your average criminal-who's usually not the sharpest tool in the shed anyhow-will think the quick illumination means he's been discovered. I predict that somebody will make a fortune off a motion detector that not only lights up an area, but also broadcasts the digitally recorded sound of a pump-action shotgun being made ready to fire.

Finally, for really cheap security, you can buy a fake security camera, which is nothing more than an empty plastic box with a little red blinky light on it. Unless I climb up a ladder and examine these things from six inches away, I can't tell 'em from the real thing.