Sarah Malouf lost her wallet to a thief on a train a few years ago, but aside from that incident, the Chicago-area native has lived a life blessedly free from crime. She isn't taking any chances, though.
When she purchased a two-bedroom two-bath condominium in the South Loop last spring, she chose a high-rise building with a 24-hour doorman and security cameras.
"I wanted to make sure I felt safe walking home at night from public transportation," said Malouf, who often works late as part of her job with Loyola University Chicago's alumni association. "The South Loop was somewhat unfamiliar to me at the time, so it made me more comfortable to be in a high-rise building with a doorman."
The 24-hour doorman, more than just a friendly greeter, is considered by many to be the pinnacle of condo security, filtering out those who don't belong in a building and providing an added layer of protection against vandalism, intruders and theft. But that peace of mind usually comes with added cost.
Maureen Nesbitt, assisting managing broker for OwnACondo.com, said condo assessments for the clients she serves typically range from $200 to $450, but can soar to $700 or more in buildings with amenities such as a doorman.
For those who can't afford to or don't want to live in such a building, which is typically a high rise, checking out front door locks and security cameras along with kitchens and bathrooms still makes sense. Condo living means shared expenses and maintenance, but can also mean shared risks, said California-based security consultant Chris McGoey.
Visitors, service contractors and residents often come and go at all hours in larger buildings, making it tough to sort out who belongs and who doesn't, he said. Condo buildings also tend to attract people who live alone, further increasing their appeal to crooks.
"Generally speaking, condos are rented by younger, professional and often transient people who make less of an investment in the unit and are uninvolved in the building or neighborhood," McGoey said.
A basic level of condo security includes controlled access to all exterior doors and common areas, adequate lighting and landscape maintenance, a well thought-out disaster plan, and appropriate door and window locks in the unit for purchase.
Those who have more money to spend or a special concern for security might consider buildings with trained security guards and pre-wired burglar alarms to monitor common areas, as well as an on-site building manager to track security issues and ensure timely repairs to building systems.
Cmdr. Tom Guenther, public information officer for the Evanston Police Department, added that owner names should not be associated with a unit number on mailboxes or in entryways. He also suggests seeking out buildings where intercoms are inside a secured door, forcing guests to use their cell phones to contact friends upon arrival and discouraging a practice he calls "robobuzzing," in which crooks place random calls to condo or apartment dwellers until someone lets them in.
Garages present another area for examination, Guenther said. Burglars often wait by pressure-activated garage doors in alleys, looking for an opportunity to enter as someone exits. Doors that close promptly after one car exits, have surveillance cameras or are staffed by an attendant can help deter crime.
In addition to recording devices and alarms, technology continues to provide new tools to keep residents safe, said Dan Schermerhorn, of Evanston-based Schermerhorn & Co., which manages condo associations, commercial and rental properties from Lincoln Park to Highland Park and in the northwest suburbs.
At some of the buildings it manages, residents tune into a special cable TV channel that broadcasts shots of the front door or entryway, allowing them to confirm that the delivery person is dressed in a brown uniform and toting packages or the visitor who is buzzing has a familiar face.
But Schermerhorn points out residents bear part of the burden for their safety, too. "All the security in the world won't work if people don't use it correctly," he said.
That's an attitude that resonates with staff at Chicago's 281-unit The Lofts and The Fairbanks at CityFront Plaza condominiums. The building uses an electronic keycard reader that allows staff to track who enters and leaves the building through each door, as well as limit access for contractors and other service people. And in case of fire or other emergency, the staff maintains a list of residents with physical limitations so they can help them exit the building.
But more importantly, said property manager Margaret Shamberger, many residents forge relationships with their neighbors that boost safety for all. "People who live here take the time to get to know their neighbors," Shamberger said. "If they don't see them for a few days, they become concerned."
While hospital personnel and others who come and go late at night often show concern about building safety, security is not foremost on the mind of the average condo buyer said Realtor Nicholas Apostal, of the Apostal Group, a Coldwell Banker affiliate in Chicago. Checking out safety systems takes some work, but is well worth it in the end, Apostal said: "Everyone wants to feel safe in their home."
Apostal suggested buyers begin by investigating condo boards in prospective buildings to see how they handle security issues.
"A proactive board can be the difference between an association that is safe and one that is not," he said. An effective board establishes security and disaster plans and works quickly to fix broken systems. A weak board won't have the power or resources to prioritize safety.
And if something should happen, a board needs to communicate quickly and effectively with residents so all can work together, Guenther said: "You want a condo association where information flows freely. When you are in a communal living situation, everyone is responsible for the safety of themselves and their neighbors."