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Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon more than a year ago, home-security firms nationwide have been reporting a surge in interest in alarm systems.

However, interest in residential security systems tends to increase, in times of economic downturns, when break-ins and thefts tend to rise.

During the booming 1990s, lower crime rates helped draw more people downtown in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other places. Since real estate sales have not slowed in most places, the downtown trend continues.

But unlike the 1990s, more city home buyers these days are looking into alarm systems.

Among suburban buyers, whether to install security seems to depend on the price range of the house, builders say. At the higher end, optional security systems are usually purchased. At the lower end, the answer is no.

In both new and older houses, prices of security systems can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Although state-of-the-art systems can be costly, many homeowners are willing to pay the price, even if the expense is not justified by crime statistics.

According to federal crime data:

  • Thirty-eight percent of assaults occur during a burglary.
  • Houses on corner lots are more likely to be burglarized.

    If your home has had a burglary, the odds of it being burglarized again increase dramatically. The stolen items have been replaced with new items.

    Fear of murder and mayhem, whether real or imagined, is often strong enough to overcome concerns about cost, maintenance or monitoring fees.

    Some crime-prevention experts believe that by simply altering one's surroundings, a homeowner or a neighborhood can reduce crime. Such remedies can be as simple as cutting overgrown foliage away from the front of a house or as complex as rearranging streetlights to reduce shadows in which criminals can lurk.

    The basic philosophy centers on the commonsense use of the physical environment to reduce the opportunities for crime.

    There are three main strategies:

  • Using physical-design elements such as fences and street closures to limit access to an area to those who live there.
  • Using windows, lighting and landscaping to help homeowners see intruders as well as keep an eye on their neighbors' houses.
  • Making public property easily distinguishable from private property, using landscaping and porches.

    Some house designs, while charming and attractive, can encourage criminal activity. Recessed doorways and alcoves can become hiding places. Walls and fences with crosspieces can be used as ladder rungs.

    The insurance industry provides a major incentive for installing home-security equipment. Companies that underwrite homeowners' policies usually offer a discount of up to 20 percent on annual premiums for houses with security systems, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

    The size of the discount is typically determined by the sophistication of the equipment, regardless of whether it is connected to a central monitoring system at the burglar-alarm company, and the distance from the house to the nearest police or fire station.

    The reason for such discounts is obvious. In the next 20 years, three out of four homes in the United States will be burglarized, according to FBI statistics. The average property loss in a burglary exceeds $1,000, not to mention the damage from entry, according to the FBI.

    From all the available evidence, reliable home security should be a blend of technology and common sense. For example, although the dog's eagerness to check out the neighbor pooch's activities tripped the burglar alarm accidentally, a barking canine inside a house can make a burglar think twice about breaking in.

    Before determining the precautions you should take and the equipment you should buy, you should know something about burglars.

    There are three types: the professional, the semiprofessional and the amateur. Most homeowners, according to the Burglary Prevention Council in Chicago, have to be concerned with the latter two.

    Residential burglars often are teenage boys who live near your home. They are opportunists looking for easy targets. If the risk of detection is too high, the typical burglar will not attempt to enter your home.

    Both amateurs and semi-pros will spend a few hours to a week scouting the neighborhood and its homes. After determining the target, a typical burglar spends only a few minutes burglarizing it.

    When your house is unoccupied -- whether for a few minutes or a few weeks -- it is vulnerable. Keep that in mind when determining the precautions you'll need to take to increase security, or call in a professional to do it.

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