Everyone wants to feel like their home, their valuables, and their family is safe from potential home invaders. Perhaps you invest in a home security system, have a big guard dog, or participate in your neighborhood watch. But how do you make your home an unattractive target to would-be thieves?
How do burglars choose a house to rob? Burglars are interested in homes that they can quickly identify as low risk, high reward. Low-risk homes are likely to not have anybody home and are difficult to see from the street. High reward homes have a good chance of having lightweight valuables that the thieves can steal. To ward off burglars, you want your home to appear to be higher risk or lower reward.
In the following sections, we’ll get into how burglars break into homes, how they select the homes they rob, and what you can do to prevent a theft from happening to you.
How Burglars Choose the Right House
Low Visibility from the Street
Contrary to what many people believe, most burglaries do not happen at night. Most burglars prefer between noon and 3 pm because these are the hours when people are least likely to be home.
If they wear normal street clothes, they are unlikely to be noticed by neighbors. If they were to be caught slinking around people’s houses in the middle of the night, they would immediately cause concern and might have the police called on them much more quickly.
Essentially, the criminal wants to avoid arousing suspicion and then get in and out of an empty house as quickly as possible.
To this end, the burglar wants to stay out of sight for as much of the break-in as possible. The first thing thieves look for is visibility from the street. Criminals look for unkept hedges, privacy walls, or enclosed porches—anything to make it more difficult for neighbors to see what’s going on at the house being burglarized.
Tall privacy fences in the backyard make it easy for the criminal to quickly make their way to the back of the house and then carry out the theft perfectly safe from wandering eyes.
Anything you can do to keep the view to your front door more open will make your house a less attractive target to thieves. Trimming your hedges regularly may be the single easiest thing you can do to ward off home invaders. You may want to do this anyway, as it will make your home look nicer and could even add to the property value.
Signs No One is Home
Home burglars want to avoid confrontation at all costs. Why would a thief risk getting caught in the act by a home owner when there are empty, unguarded homes ripe for the picking? The Department of Justice estimates that 72.4% of home invasions occur when the home is unoccupied. Burglars get very good at picking out which homes are unoccupied because these homes are significantly more appealing. Most burglars won’t even consider trying to break in if they believe someone is home.
Your job is to cause a would-be thief to suspect that someone is home when in fact no one is. This may be harder than you suspect. Many of the things that homeowners think scare off thieves have no effect whatsoever.
Leaving the lights on is a common tactic for attempting to convince thieves that someone is home. Nearly all former home burglars say that leaving lights on does nothing to scare them away from targeting your house. Leaving a TV or radio on may be slightly more effective but still won’t spook braver criminals.
Burglars are likely to check for cars in the driveway and mail in the mailbox. If you can leave a car at home during the day, you may just convince criminals to look elsewhere for an easy score. Be sure to have someone grab your mail if you’re going to be out of town for a few days as this is a dead ringer for home intruders that no one is going to be around any time soon.
Knock on the Door
Once burglars have selected a house to rob, they’ll nearly always go up and knock on the door or ring the bell. Knocking on the door gives them a chance to get a final confirmation that nobody is home. If somebody does answer the door, they’ll give a preplanned excuse like looking for a lost dog, realizing they’re at the wrong house, or administering a survey to quickly and inconspicuously excuse themselves. Thieves will sometimes even get away when caught inside a house by apologizing, explaining that they must be in the wrong house, and then quickly exiting.
If nobody answers the door, the burglar is in business and can begin breaking into the house. Like every other part of the thief’s process, they’re looking for the path of least resistance. Intruders will look for open or unlocked doors and windows. Bathroom windows are particularly likely to be open or unlocked and the thief can use these to gain entry to the house.
Burglars look for older, single-pane glass windows near the front of the house as these are easier to break and gain access to the house without making a lot of noise. Newer, double-pane windows are much more difficult to break.
Many people will leave the door to their garage open and only lock the door leading to the house. A burglar can easily let themselves into the garage and there find themselves out of sight with all the tools they need to forcibly gain entry to the house.
Window-mounted AC units are less expensive than central cooling, but they provide a weak spot in your home defenses. These can be easily kicked in and allow entry for a thief. Even if the burglar is unable to find any valuables, they know they can sell a busted AC unit for scrap metal. Doors can be just as easily kicked in by a competent thief.
There are patches for all of these weak spots—doors and windows can be locked, windows can be replaced, central cooling can be installed, longer screws and deadbolts can be used on doors. But making your home an impenetrable fortress may not be practical or even possible. Ultimately, your goal is to convince would-be burglars to not even try. Keeping someone at home during the day or at least a car in the driveway can go a long way toward getting people who are up to no good on their way. If neither of these is an option, a video doorbell may allow you to answer the door, even when you aren’t home which could make the difference.
Signs of Valuables
If a burglar has reason to suspect that a house has more valuable items, they’ll be more incentivized to try to get inside. Nicer houses with expensive cars in the driveway are obvious indicators of wealth, but sometimes the very things that homeowners are trying to do to dissuade burglars actually convince criminals that they’ve got something worth stealing
That sign in your yard announcing to the world that you’re protected by ADT, SimpliSafe, or Vivint may not be as intimidating as you’d hope. Most former burglars say that they aren’t scared off by yard signs. Lots of people have the yard signs without actually having the service and even if an alarm is triggered, most home burglaries are completed within ten minutes of the criminal gaining entry to the home.
On the other hand, many former burglars do say that they give it up or rush the theft when they hear an audible alarm. If you’ve got a security system, make sure that it makes some noise. At best, this will scare off the intruder before they’ve had a chance to steal anything. At worst, you’ll rush their process, potentially causing them to miss valuables they otherwise would’ve snuck away with. Plainly visible cameras may also cause invaders to decide it isn’t worth the risk of being identified.
Many gun owners proudly declare NRA membership on bumper stickers or window stickers thinking that it will frighten would-be thieves. The reality is that guns are valuable, relatively lightweight, and easy to fence. If a thief is convinced that you aren’t home and know that you have a trove of weapons, they won’t hesitate to take them off your hands.
Most thieves, upon entering a home, will first make their way to the master bedroom. This is where valuables including jewelry, electronics, and firearms are most likely to be stored. An easy way to foil an intruder is to store valuables someplace else. Remember, the criminal wants to spend as little time in your home as possible. These are thefts of opportunity. If you make the valuables more difficult to find by storing them someplace unexpected, you may make it more effort than it’s worth for the thief.
Essentially, don’t give a criminal reason to believe you’ve got valuables. Leave your expensive sports car locked away, out of sight in the garage. Don’t advertise gun ownership. Leave laptops, big screen TVs and other expensive electronics out of view of windows. Keeping these things out of sight may prevent your home from catching an invader’s eye.
Burglars look for houses that appear to be low risk and high reward. We’ve covered steps to make your home seem like a riskier target and to prevent would-be intruders from suspecting a big payout.
If you’re looking for more information, much of the information from this article was pulled from a survey of 86 former burglars asking how they operated. Other helpful sources include this report from the Department of Justice and this guide from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. These resources go into far greater detail about how these crimes occur and things you and your family can do to prevent them from happening to you.
The good news from these reports is that home intrusions only rarely end in serious violence. But, there’s always something more you can do to decrease your home’s appeal to criminals. By understanding how burglars choose their targets and applying some of these tips, you may be able to convince them to choose someplace else to rob.