Thief picking a lock.

Is Theft and Vandalism at Vacant Properties Inevitable?

Tips for banishing burglars from your life

By BreAnn Stephenson

One of the most common challenges for landlords and rehabbers is the constant effort to keep vandals, thieves and other “uninvited guests” out of their vacant properties.

At some point in a property’s life cycle, it will be vacant for a period of time. But just because vacancy is inevitable it doesn’t mean that you will inevitably experience a theft or vandalism at your properties during your investing career.

Theft and vandalism are actually two of the most preventable types of losses. Through reviewing over a decade’s worth of claims data, we can see that often the most common targets of break-ins are units with absentee owners. Simply put, the property has been abandoned for weeks, months or even a year or more, making it an easy target.

While there are areas of the country where security is more of a challenge, many instances of theft and vandalism could have been deterred by simple solutions.

Top 3 magnets for bad guys … and how to beat them


UNKEMPT LAWNS | Overgrown lawns create spaces for intruders to hide.

How to beat them:

  • Increase visibility by trimming all bushes and hedges to 3 feet or shorter.
  • Planting low, thorny bushes beneath windows may help deter vandals. Avoid tall or thick shrubs around your windows and doors as they make it easier for someone to hide.
  • Prune lower branches of trees near your property to keep a burglar from gaining access to a second-story window.

UNSECURED DOORS AND WINDOWS | Most intruders enter a property through the front and back doors and first-floor windows.

How to beat them:

  • During a vacancy, make sure all windows and doors are locked. It’s a simple step, but a crucial part of your security checklist.
  • Secure your exterior doors by installing good-quality deadbolt door locks, doorjamb reinforcement and security- type door strikes with extra-long, 3-inch screws for added protection against force.
  • Use ANSI or BHMA Grade 1 locks—look for the designation on the packaging. To research locks, visit the ANSI or BHMA websites, and see how your chosen lock stacks up to its competitors.

INADEQUATE LIGHTING | Properties that aren’t well-lit give thieves more time to break in before being discovered.

How to beat them:

  • Install motion-sensor lighting outdoors. It should be bright, cover a large area and switch on when triggered.
  • Be sure any outdoor lighting is installed high enough that a ladder must be used to replace bulbs. Otherwise, a thief could simply unscrew or break the bulbs. Also, be sure the light fixture has two bulbs in case one burns out.
  • All outdoor lighting should be mounted in a weatherproof box so it is unaffected by rain, sleet, snow or other harsh weather conditions.
  • Indoor security lighting kits can be placed next to windows, doors or walk areas and will light up when triggered by motion.
  • Also, set up other indoor lights to go on or off using a lamp or appliance timer outlet.
  • Turn lights on in such a way that it actually looks like someone is home. Thinking about what rooms are lit at night in your own home can help you develop a lighting plan.
  • Leave lights on in rooms that face the street, but close the blinds.

Additional techniques for protecting vacant properties

Make your property a less appealing target by taking simple steps to beef up your security:

  • Keep garage doors closed and locked. Add a padlock (or two) if necessary.
  • Put the mail on hold. Keep that mailbox free of overflowing mail.
  • Change locks when necessary—if a key is lost or after a tenant moves out.
  • Keep “For Sale” or “For Rent” signage off the property—it may be good advertising for potential buyers or tenants, but it’s also good advertising for thieves and vandals, too.
  • If you use the Internet to advertise, be wise and don’t show pictures that include new appliances, water heaters or anything else of value.
  • Monitor the news about local burglaries. Know what’s going on in your neighborhoods.
  • Permit the neighbors to park in your driveway. Neighborhood watches can help you monitor your property between visits.
  • “Beware of Dog” signs and alarm-company signs can be quite effective.
  • Use proper board-up techniques, with long screws, and install according to municipal guidelines.

Useful tools + products

In addition to the above techniques, there are various systems and products available to add to your security arsenal.

Property assessment

One of the best things you can do is be selective of the areas in which you invest. RentFax is a tool that gathers all kinds of demographic data to help you select safer areas to buy. It offers an address search that will pull crime statistics, population density, educational and income statistics and more.

Board-up alternatives

Boarding up a property has become more sophisticated than simply bolting plywood over the windows and doors. Several companies such as Set-Products, D.A.W.G.S. and SecureView offer alternative boarding solutions made out of steel and clear polycarbonate materials.

Alarm systems

Though there are many alarm products on the market, not many offer portable systems specifically tailored for the real estate investor. Tattletale Alarms has a portable system with different components so you can assemble your “dream system.”

How do you protect your vacant properties? Have you ever had a break-in? Share any lessons learned in the comments below!

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