Standing outside my Edwardian terrace at 11.15am on a sunny morning in west London, I'm watching a cat burglar scale my house via a drainpipe as he heads for the first-floor sill of the main bedroom bay window. Thankfully, the bloke in Caterpillar boots is only illustrating the point that this part of my home is vulnerable to break-ins.
© Craig Hibbert
Summer is the "season of plenty" for opportunistic sneak-thieves, and I am told that my front garden jasmine hedge could shelter a rugby team of assailants, while the cherry tree offers perfect protection to a burglar willing to shimmy up to a first-floor entry point.
These are just two of 12 significant "vulnerable" features spotted and put in a report compiled by a team of former Special Forces soldiers from Safer Home Surveys. These features earmark my property as a more likely target than others in my area.
"Burglars survey 'target' properties, and wait to strike at a later date," says Roman Buczynski, who explains that to protect yourself, you have to understand how a burglar thinks.
In London we tend to live in houses, or flats within conversions, not built or extended with security in mind. Our red-brick terrace house has an early rear extension, and later roof and cellar conversions. It's a rambling array of rooms off half-staircases and landings, in fact a typical residence found anywhere from Fulham to Battersea, Maida Vale to Walthamstow, Shepherd's Bush to Putney.
Most urban areas are a mix of "gentrified" streets which alternate with edgier ones. If I am woken by a rustle in the garden, my imagination runs wild as I recall the old lady round the corner who was targeted by a drug addict, or the man who was murdered just a 10-minute walk away when he confronted a burglar in his house.
Metropolitan Police figures on residential burglaries reported by the beginning of August last year were six per cent higher than the number reported by February the same year.
"When the sun shines, people leave back doors and garden sheds open," says Beverley Kassem, of the Metropolitan Police Safer Neighbourhoods Unit. "Our teams put cards through letter boxes when they spot open windows or back gates."
A crime reduction officer sent by a Safer Neighbourhood Team will give a free inspection and advice. A private locksmith will install intruder alarms, fit alarm response services, CCTV systems and clad a house in unsightly grilles and shutters.
However, most of us need something in between - expert advice and a bespoke service at a realistic, affordable level. For £350, Safer Home Surveys gives a thorough appraisal and report, with appropriate web links to recommended security products and modestly priced (often DIY) solutions. I intend to trim the jasmine, apply anti-climb paint on all holds on the front of the house and cover the basement window well with a metal grate.
I might not prioritise fixing brush stops to the letter box, but I will put Readyroll Static Cling Window Privacy Film over the glass panels on the front door. Only £10.98 from B&Q, this will give the impression of thicker frosted glass and make the panes harder to smash. Upstairs, I will install the recommended Chubb sash window locks (£50 for two, plus keys), so at night I can leave bedroom windows open.
The verdict on the rear of the house presented the most surprises. The likely entry point for a burglar was a window I would never have considered - a unopenable kitchen window in the corner where rear extension meets original building. Unwittingly, I have provided extra cover in the shape of a large plant and even a leg-up in the form of a mini shed. This is the only window Safer Home Surveys would bar.
A rear living-room window is often left ajar with sash window locks, but it was pointed out that even with locks, a thief could put an arm through the gap and grab the laptop. The solution? Attach laptop to the radiator with a Kensington MicroSaver Security Cable Lock (£12.75 from amazon.co.uk). The most innovative recommendation was to turn an area into a safe room.
"It offers a retreat, escape and means of communication from an intruder or in the event of fire, but it's not a visibly fortified room," said Buczynski. Our bathroom, off a teenager's bedroom on the second floor, was chosen for its mid-house position and access (via portable fire escape ladder) into the backyard. Our local handyman needs to fit an external standard door to replace the existing bathroom door, three long-screw hinges and British Standard rim and mortice locks. With a Pay As You Go phone topped up and charged, and a portable fire escape ladder stowed under the window, we have a room that offers ultimate peace of mind in an emergency.
"The safe room recommendation was brilliant for me," says Jo Chambers, who lives at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. "I had an attempted break-in while I was in the house alone and my panic was, where can I barricade myself in safely? Not many people have elaborate locks on their bedroom doors - I sleep well at night now."