The Vacationers’ Guide to Protecting a Home From Disasters, Bandits, and Other Costly Calamities

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The front of a house, with a brown door at the center and two windows on the side.

Home ownership can be a nightmare factory that compounds when you’re away on a nice “relaxing” vacation. On the one hand there’s the fear of visits from petty thieves, robbers, vandals, and other boogeymen. And on the other is the paranoia of hidden leaks, crossed wires, frozen pipes, not to mention weather-borne havoc wrought by Mother Nature.

I have since found salvation in a potent collection of smart-home gear. Some devices, like a smart water valve, directly protects our home, while others like smart smoke alarms and a few outdoor cameras act as always-alert sentries that quickly notify me directly if problems crop out. From just about anywhere in the world I can use an app to instantly connect to my team of smart devices and ensure all is well—and take action if those devices show something has gone hinky.

Here are several effective and easy to install devices that will enable you to keep tabs on your home whenever you’re away. Pick and choose the ones that solve the problems that matter most to you, and enjoy the ensuing peace of mind.

Quick non-technical fixes before you get started

There are a few time-tested and commonsensical habits to embrace that everyone should adopt when leaving home for more than a couple days. The big picture concept is to eliminate the clues that a potential burglar would use when deciding what home to prey upon.

  1. Beg, bribe or coerce a trusted neighbor or gullible friend to make regular visits, and make them random if possible. Ensure they have an extra set of house keys (or know the door code).
  2. If you’ve left a car behind, have them move it periodically. If your driveway is empty, have a neighbor park a vehicle there.
  3. Don’t let mail and newspapers pile up. Instead stop your mail or get someone to pick it up. And don’t leave a note on the door for deliveries. Instead set up an account with the delivery services like FedEx and UPS and also Amazon and have deliveries rerouted to a pickup location.
  4. If your drapes or shades aren’t normally closed, keep them open while you’re away.
  5. For stretches longer than a week, hire someone to mow the yard and put out and collect your garbage cans on schedule.

These steps are simple but can go a long way to masking your absence. Another useful pro tip: If you have someone coming by to care for pets, enlist them to water your houseplants and garden as well.

Camouflage your absence

Most burglaries are crimes of opportunity, and a thief looking to not get caught will usually be attracted to homes that seem empty. Smart devices provide a number of ways to make it look like someone is in your house, and setting them up is as easy as using a smartphone app.

TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Slim (EP25)

Smart plug

Connect a lamp to the plug and then use an app to create a simple or sophisticated on/off schedule.

Smart plugs are just on/off switches that you plug other devices into (you can read more about them in our guide to plug-in smart switches). But they also let you easily create timer-style Schedules using an app, and also can be set up to turn on or off if another smart device is triggered—like a motion or window sensor. The TP-Link Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug Slim (EP25) has an especially easy-to-use app which features an Away mode that tells it to turn on and off randomly, simulating how a person might move around a house. I like that it’s especially small and so fits behind furniture and its low cost (it comes in a 3-pack) means you can put a few around the house.

Wyze Bulb Color

Smart LED light bulb

It doesn’t offer special effects, but it does provide excellent colors and reliable basic features, including remote control, scheduling, and timers.

The Wyze Bulb Color is inexpensive and yet with an output of 1,100 lumens is among the brightest bulbs we’ve tested. Like a smart plug, smart bulbs can be set up to turn on and off on a custom Schedule, and so are a great option for light fixtures, including enclosed outdoor ones. They can also be set up to be triggered by a motion sensor or another smart device such as a lock—an additional burglar-busting feature.

IKEA Fyrtur

A smart shade

While pricier models are customizable, these fixed-size models are affordable, work well and have decently long-lived rechargeable batteries.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $150.

Smart blinds and shades are the coup de grace of pretending-to-be-home smart tech. They are battery operated and typically have a remote control but can also be app-controlled and put on a Schedule similar to the way smart bulbs and plugs work. One hitch is that they tend to be prohibitively expensive to the tune of a few hundred bucks, and require custom-sizing and in some cases install. Ikea’s Furtur line of smart shades are the exception. They come in one blackout fabric option and a set range of standard sizes, but are a fraction of the price so if they fit your windows they’re a great, handy option. In my home we have them set up on a sunset/sunrise schedule to close and open in conjunction with smart lighting in the same rooms—the effect is impressive!

Fortify your castle

As with football and arguing with a child, the best offense is a good defense. Smart devices are especially good at bolstering home security with minimum fuss, but also ensuring you—and in some cases the authorities—are instantly notified should someone or something attempt to break in. This collection of devices is all DIY-friendly, and while some may offer or require a subscription they can be set up and canceled as needed without penalty.

Ultraloq U-Bolt Pro WiFi

Smart lock

A compact, versatile, and quiet smart lock with a fast fingerprint reader, and rubber number keys that will please most anyone.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $170.

I installed the Wirecutter top-pick smart lock, the Ultraloq U-Bolt Pro Wi-Fi, because it eliminates the need to copy physical keys and keep track of them. I use an app to create a code anytime for anyone who needs to come by—the house sitter, visiting family, the flooring person—and get a notification when they come and go. I can disable access for each person when I get home without needing to collect keys. I can also set it to auto-lock if someone forgets. It’s low-profile and I think reasonably attractive, unlike many keypad locks.

Arlo Essential Video Doorbell Wired

Smart doorbell camera

This compact, versatile, and quiet smart lock’s top feature is a fast (though sometimes faulty) fingerprint reader, and its rubber number keys will please most anyone.

My phone is pinged whenever someone rings the doorbell or even just visits my front step, which is great since I can speak to them in real time as if I were home—or ignore them, as the case may be. While the model I use is discontinued, the Arlo Essential Video Doorbell Wired is our top pick of smart doorbells and it’s an even better device. It captures crisp video and has an extra-wide 180 degree viewing angle so anyone or anything lurking nearby is recorded. It also can distinguish between people, animals, vehicles and packages which can help cut down on nuisance alerts. I like being able to consult video if something bad actually does happen, or if I just need to catch the jerk who keeps letting his dog poop on my sidewalk.

Ring Alarm Pro

DIY security system

A system with a built-in Wi-Fi 6 router, wide support for accessories, and option to add internet backup and up to 24 hours of backup power in case of an outage.

As an alternative to a whole-home, professionally installed security system, DIY versions such as those by SimpliSafe, Abode, Ring, and Wyze let you mix and match compatible security sensors—motion, door/window, water—with popular smart devices—and without an onerous service contract (to learn more, see Wirecutter’s guide to security systems). While you aren’t required to pay for professional monitoring, we recommend it so that when you aren’t home you get a smartphone notification and a phone call if your alarm is tripped, letting you decide what if any action to take. The Ring Alarm Pro is a standout for its wide range of accessories and package deals, plus the ability to add fail-safe measures like backup power and even internet service if your electricity goes out.

Wyze Cam v3

Outdoor security camera

The Wyze Cam v3 delivers impressive 1080p video, bright color night vision, and several video-storage options—at about a sixth of the price of the Arlo.

The Wyze Cam v3 is not the most versatile or powerful outdoor camera, but by gum it’s reliable, easy to setup and use and it just works. I’ve had one stuck to the side of a metal mailbox to cover the area where I park bicycles and they’ve been safe while a neighbor had his bike swiped (sorry guy). If you don’t need remote access to footage you can simply pop an SD memory card in it and it will record motion-triggered events or can be set to record 24/7. Add in a Cam Plus subscription for $3 per month per camera (or $20 per year), and you’ll get remotely accessible cloud storage and alerts that can distinguish between motion, people, vehicles, pets, and packages.

Eufy Solo IndoorCam C24

Indoor security camera

This camera offers a sharp image, four choices for video storage, and a continuous recording option, and it can distinguish between different motions and sounds. It also costs less than many others with similar features.

Buying Options

You can install a low-cost motion-sensing camera like the top-pick Eufy Solo IndoorCam C24 from our guide to indoor security cameras inside your home and only turn it on when you aren’t home. It can be set up to notify you if there’s motion, so you can have a look in real time to see if it’s a welcome visitor—a house sitter, dog walker, repairperson—or not. It also lets you see live video and even communicate walkie-talkie–style, if need be.

Protect against the whims of nature (and chance)

Even if burglars ignore your home, there’s always the potential for damaging storms, flash floods and other piques of nature, but also inevitable pipe and wiring failures. Smart devices can be deployed around your home to notify you if something has gone amiss, and in some cases can even prevent damage from occurring.

D-Link DCH-S1621KT Whole Home Smart Wi-Fi Water Leak Sensor Kit

Smart water leak detector

This kit comes with a hub that can connect up to 16 sensors. In tests it responds quickly to moisture with both a loud (94 dB) siren and fast smartphone alerts.

Along with wind and hail, water is one of the most common sources of damage for homeowners. Tiny battery-powered moisture detectors such as D-Link DCH-S1621KT Whole Home Smart Wi-Fi Water Leak Sensor Kit (from our guide to smart leak detectors), placed near a water heater, clothes or dishwasher, sewer drain or other are prone to water flow, and then trips a siren and sends a smartphone alert if water is detected. The included hub connects the sensors wirelessly to the internet so you can be alerted even when you aren’t home.

The biggest purchase I made, and the one that has brought the greatest peace of mind, was a Phyn Plus smart water monitor and shut-off valve. This device (and there are a few others like it) attaches to your home’s main water supply and uses AI to detect when a plumbing fixture is stuck on, if there’s a small leak, or if a pipe has burst—or even if one is going to freeze It sends you a notification so you can act, but in the event of a catastrophic leak, it automatically shuts off your water (you can turn the water back on with the app or manually with a wrench).

Though the Phyn cost several hundred bucks plus the cost of a plumber, my homeowner’s insurance loves these devices and so provided a discount equal to the cost of the whole shebang. And it makes sense: The Insurance Institute says that 98% of annual claims are from property damage, and although fires account for the highest costs, one in 50 homes suffers water damage—with an average claim over $10,000. Check if your company offers a discount and if so, this one’s a no-brainer.

Google Nest Protect

Smart smoke alarm

Unlike a traditional detector, this one self-tests, and sends a smartphone notification that there’s a slow- or fast-burning fire at home.

A smoke alarm is useful only if someone is there to hear it. I installed our top-pick Nest Protect smoke alarm from our guide to smart smoke alarms. If either smoke or carbon monoxide is detected, I get an instant notification on my phone so I can check up on things or call in the cavalry. The Protect is pricey (Costco does sell steeply discounted pairs) but it wirelessly interconnects with other Protects, it is easy to mute using the app, and my favorite feature: it speaks a verbal warning that smoke is detected and an alarm is going to sound soon if you don’t mute it first. Plus, because it has a 10-year battery and self-tests automatically, I don’t have to worry about 3 am low-battery chirps ever again.

Ecobee Smart Thermostat Enhanced

Smart thermostat

Ensure your home stays in a safe temperature range without wasting energy and money.

There’s nothing like an unexpected cold snap or heat wave to trigger incurable bouts of hand wringing. To avoid frozen pipes in winter and scorched plants or pets in the summer, you’ll want to invest in a smart thermostat like the Ecobee Smart Thermostat Enhanced. Ecobee’s various models can all connect to remote temperature sensors that you can place in problem spots around your home. When you’re home they do a great job of optimizing your heat or AC so that your whole home is more balanced (rather than relying on a single temperature reading to decide the temperature of your entire home) while also making it more efficient. That also means you can rely on them to ensure no part of your home gets too cold or too hot at any time of the year, without wasting tons of energy the way you do when having a thermostat set to a fixed temperature for each season.

This article was edited by Grant Clauser and Annemarie Conte. 


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