Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How Does Your House Look Through the Eyes of a Burglar?

Is your home a more inviting target than you think?

Source: Shutterstock

No one wants to believe that his or her house makes an inviting target for a burglary, and many of us think that we have done all the right things to make sure that it will never happen.

Maybe we should think again.

What Do Inviting Targets Look Like?

Environmental psychologists Barbara Brown and Irwin Altman analyzed the architectural characteristics of 306 homes in the Salt Lake City area that had been burglarized and compared them to a comparable group of houses in that city that had not been burglarized.

They found that a clear marking of the home’s territory was more likely in non-burglarized homes than in ones that had been robbed. For example, houses that were not robbed were more likely to have actual and symbolic boundaries such as fences, walls, and cameras or alarm systems. A visible street number accompanied by the homeowner’s name seemed to be an effective deterrent, as was any evidence of the homeowner’s presence such as parked cars, toys in the yard, or lawn sprinklers operating. Non-burglarized homes were also more visible from neighboring houses, especially those that were immediately nearby.

In contrast, burglarized houses were more likely to resemble public property, with a lack of clearly defined boundaries between the home and the surrounding area. City-owned objects such as traffic signs and fire hydrants frequently infringed on these properties and they often showed little trace of human presence. They were also more likely to be visually secluded than were untargeted homes. Police departments confirm that bad habits such as leaving garage doors wide open or leaving empty boxes from new purchases at the curb also invite trouble.

What Advice Do Actual Burglars Have for Us?

Perhaps the most direct way to learn about what makes a home vulnerable to invasion is to ask the people who do the invading.

Researchers in one study asked 43 convicted burglars to evaluate photographs of 50 single-family dwellings as potential targets for a burglary. The burglars confirmed that houses easily observed were the least vulnerable targets, and that visibility from the road was especially important. The burglars seemed to be especially fond of dense shrubbery and other vegetation around the house that offered the opportunity to slink around the perimeter and look in windows without being seen. Burglars often visit a home ahead of time as a handyman, carpet cleaner, or some other service worker. This allows them to scope out potential targets without looking suspicious.

The crooks were divided about the effectiveness of alarm systems and other symbolic barriers. On the one hand, these create more risk and hassle for would-be burglars, but it also led them to believe that a house protected in this way may possess more expensive and attractive items to steal, making for a more lucrative target.

KGW News in Portland, Oregon asked 86 burglars how they broke into homes and discovered some disturbing things. First, most break-ins aren’t “break-ins” at all: The burglar simply enters through an unlocked door or window, with kitchen windows over a sink a common point of entry. In fact, many of them knock on the door first to make sure that no one is home, with a lame but believable cover story ready if someone answers the door.

Perhaps surprisingly, early morning or afternoon was the most popular time for breaking into a home. One burglar identified the sweet spot as being between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. In his own words, “Anyone that was home for lunch should be gone by then and most kids should all still be in school.”

Most burglars reported that they begin their search for valuables in the master bedroom and then fan out to other parts of the house. Jewelry, electronics, and cash are the most desirable items, and several burglars commented that they look for NRA (National Rifle Association) stickers or signs on cars or properties, because this may mean that there are a lot of guns available to steal.

The interviewed burglars offered a number of helpful tips for people trying to deter burglars: Get a dog, keep a car parked in the driveway, leave a TV or a radio on, and get a security camera and make it very visible. Don’t allow alarm companies to install the control pad in a place where it is visible through a window or door, and ask your neighbors to trudge around in your yard and on your sidewalks in the winter when you are away: A lack of footprints in the virgin snow is a dead giveaway that the homeowners may be away in a sunnier location.

Source: Shutterstock

Why Being Burgled Is Extremely Upsetting

The emotional impact of a home burglary goes far beyond the monetary loss the homeowner experiences. Most burglary victims express deep feelings of shock, victimization, and defilement; many compare it to being raped. These negative reactions become even more extreme when property damage and ransacking accompany the burglary, or when goods high in sentimental as well as monetary value are taken. Ransacking and the loss of very personal objects underscore the victim’s complete lack of control in a place where they once felt secure, making the experience even more unsettling.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today