Make the neighbors your friends, and you’ll have taken the single best step you can toward protecting a vacant property.
It’s never a good thing to drop by a vacant rental property and discover a wide open door. Unfortunately, vacant rental properties pose a target of opportunity for would-be thieves, as even simple copper wiring and plumbing has extraordinary street value in today’s economy — and the AC, furnace, and hot water tank are worth quite a bit in scrap metal as well. That’s a huge investment down the drain — and if you have an empty property in Detroit city limits, it’s not a question of if it’ll get stripped, but when.
So how do you keep these vandals and prowlers off of your vacant property?
Ask the Neighbors for Help
Your best resource is the neighbors — if you explain that you have a vacant rental next door, you can often get the neighbors to keep a casual eye on it, particularly in areas that have a Neighborhood Watch organization. Ask them to contact you if they see strangers poking around or hear any suspicious noises. If they’re interested, offer to let them keep any periodicals or newspapers that are delivered to the home in exchange for the service of picking them up each day. The neighbors most motivated to help are the ones who own their homes and pay attention to maintenance — they’re the ones who benefit by keeping property values high.
You can also offer the neighbors a reward: if they save you $1000 in damages, giving them back $25 is a no-brainer. Don’t just tell them your phone number — give them your business card and/or get their permission to text them your number. “Call me regarding suspicious activity at 123 Main St. for a possible reward.” You can also have magnets developed that they can stick to their refrigerator to remind them to keep in touch with you. “Neighborhood Watch and Reward Program” does wonders. Offer to let them park an extra car in your driveway — some neighbors will do this anyway, and if they do, you should thank them.
Maintain Signs of Activity
Keep the lawn mowed, the leaves raked, and the garden weeded (this will help the place rent more quickly, so you should be doing it regardless.) Put lights on timers in the building — preferably in a cycle that looks like real people are moving from kitchen to dining room to bedroom each night. (Don’t think that this will help every time, though, because some of the less scrupulous neighbors will see the pattern and take advantage.) If you can find a radio or TV that will come on when it’s plugged in (as opposed to needing to be turned on after it’s plugged in), putting one or two of those on a timer helps a lot as well. If you have a car that you can keep in the driveway, that will do a lot for you as well.
Visit Often and Irregularly
Don’t visit every Saturday morning — vary your routine so that you’re not dropping by at the same time. But visit at least once a week, or get someone you trust to do it for you. On each visit, look for signs of forced entry, broken windows, and so on — and scan about the inside of the structure, too. In particular, look for window latches, door latches, and other locking mechanisms that may be unlocked; they can cost you thousands if the wrong person discovers them.
Point Lights Outward
Motion-sensor security lights should be standard procedure for any rental, but for a vacant one, there’s a simple extra step you can take: nudge those lights so that they’re clearly visible from a neighbor’s house. That way, a prowler will alert someone even though there’s no one home to alert.
Make Occasional Changes
If your rental is unoccupied for more than a couple of months, change something small but clearly visible about the place. You don’t have to repaint, but do something like hang up a wind chime, put a pink flamingo up, or hang something big and blatant in a window.
More Aggressive Strategies
If your property is in the city of Detroit proper, you’ll need to go the extra mile. Get a double-keyed deadbolt on the door so that the classic ‘break the window and unbolt the door from the outside’ routine doesn’t work. Board up the windows with steel bars (at minimum) so that people can’t break them to get in. In the extreme, you may even consider hiring a security guard to sit in your driveway — or even in the home itself — though it can be hard to make an investment like that cost-effective, even if you get a deal at $20 per night.
Of course, the best deterrent is making sure that the property is occupied — so putting some extra money into advertising and getting someone in there might actually be the best strategy.