The pros and cons of installing burglar bars

Deterrent measures can often be the most effective way to keep burglars from targeting your home. Signs warning of an alarm system, security cameras, or a lack of shrubs or other cover near ground level windows can all make a criminal think twice about a break-in.

Bars on a window can have a particularly strong deterrent effect. Larry Erickson, writing for the National Association of Realtors' home improvement site HouseLogic, says burglars typically steal from homes that can be easily and unobtrusively entered. Bars over the windows can't be removed without plenty of noisy effort, so a burglar is unlikely to even try.

If you're worried about crime in your neighborhood or feel that your home could easily be broken into, "burglar bars" may be a wise investment. However, you shouldn't install them unless you're sure that they won't present a deadly hazard in an emergency.

Burglar bars set several stout metal rods in a metal framework which is fitted over the window. The bars are secured to the home's structural frame with screws or bolts, ensuring that they can't be easily pried off. To avoid the impression that you're converting your home into a jail, many bars come with decorative motifs.

In addition to serving as a crime deterrent and offering an increased sense of security, burglar bars can benefit you in other ways. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors says the barrier can prevent children from falling out a window. You may also be able to lower your homeowners insurance rate due to the reduced likelihood of a break-in.

But while burglar bars can hinder any attempt to get into your home, they can also trap you inside during an emergency. There have been several fatal house fires where bars over the windows or doors prevented occupants from escaping or hampered attempts to rescue them.

A 2002 report by the U.S. Fire Administration says there are several ways to remove window bars to access a home, but that all will result in significant delays to rescue efforts. Firefighters may use axes or other tools to destroy the bolts holding the bars in place, or they may cut through the bars with saws or torches. In extreme circumstances, the report says firefighters can attach a chain to the bars and use a fire engine or other fire apparatus to tear them off the building.

Since a barrier over the window can increase the risk of injury or death, it is essential to make sure the burglar bars have a quick release mechanism before installing them. This release, operated from within the home, causes the bars to swing or slide away so occupants can escape.

Avoid any mechanisms that need a key, special tool, combination, or other extra effort to operate. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors says it can be difficult to find a key or tool during a fire, and panic and disorientation may affect your ability to open the burglar bars. The mechanism should not require too much physical effort to open, since it should be operable by children and elderly residents.

A less pressing concern, but one that still bears consideration, is property values. Burglar bars can be seen as a clear sign that your neighborhood is unsafe, helping to reduce interest among buyers.

You may consider installing burglar bars in select locations only. Erickson says they can be useful on basement windows and other points which are not easily visible.

Before putting up burglar bars, decide if other home security measures would be a better place to start. These efforts may include improved motion-activated lighting or an alarm system.

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