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So if you're not yet dismayed by the drop in your home's equity and the sagging real estate market overall, brace for this:

Any vacant houses on your street that can't find a buyer? People may not be ready to live there until the economy comes back. But there's a good chance some creatures are setting up homes on those properties.

Some public-health professionals are concerned that the increase in vacant structures as more homes go unsold for longer periods could give a boost to the populations of rats and mice. They build safe homes in the overgrown shrubbery or inside an attic or basement and then spread out from there to neighboring properties in search of food.

"It's a mistake to think that mice and rats are only found in low-income neighborhoods," says Jonathan Fielding, M.D., director of the

L.A. County Department of Public Health

. "They're wherever people live, no matter what the property value."

If you've never seen a rat in your neighborhood it doesn't mean they're not there, it just means they're doing their job. Rats and mice are naturally nocturnal. They hide in their burrows during daylight hours, then at twilight they'll come out to look for garbage and leftover pet food.

If you should spot a rat racing across the street at midday or poking around a cat dish in the morning, that's usually an indication that you're seeing brain-addled individual or a population explosion that's causing them to take chances to survive.

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The first step to keeping vermin off your property is to do a check of your perimeter. Look for the obvious nesting places: overgrown groundcover and shrubs. "Ivy and dense shrubs, where it's difficult for a predator to find them, are where they love to nest," says Todd Veden of

Terminix Pest Control


Firewood piles are another favorite home, and logs should be stacked about a foot off the ground to prevent easy access. Leaky hoses or an ill-fitting pool or spa cover could make your back yard a local watering hole for the undesirables.

Pet food bowls should be emptied nightly if they're kept outdoors and make sure your garbage and recycling are well sealed. Most city-provided receptacles are designed to stay closed and will keep out curious critters, but over time their plastic can crack, providing rats and mice with a seam to enter and exit.

If you have fruit trees make sure dropped fruit is picked up regularly, and keep in good communication with your gardener since he is likely to hear about neighborhood rat and mice problems more than anyone. Keeping the local snail population at bay is also a proactive method to shutting down their food source.

Of course, even though you may be extra vigilant about keeping rats and mice out of your yards, they may find a way into your home. In most cases, they enter through a conduit where a pipe or wire leads into the house, or through a cracked window or vent. Since rats can squeeze through holes just 1/2-inch wide and mice can zip through spots even tighter, you'll want to check that insulation around vents all around the house is secure.

The nightmare scenario of waking up to a rat gnawing on the ceiling above you trying to get in isn't likely; they're more interested in what's in your kitchen. If a rat or mouse is in the house, you probably won't see them, but you will see what they've left behind. If you're finding what look like cylindrical droppings that are 1/2-inch long or smaller in pantries, closets and cupboards, you've got a problem and it's time to call in an exterminator.

"Besides removing the pests and blocking your home's entry points, a good exterminator will show you what to do to keep them off your property," Veden says. "If they can't find food, water or safety at your place, they'll go elsewhere."