The flat economy might be leaving your home vulnerable -- and not just because you're struggling with paying your mortgage. Despite a slight decline in home break-ins from 2009 to 2010, home burglary remains an ever-present concern.
"People are desperate, and that desperation has those who might not ordinarily take to a life of crime committing break-ins and stealing cars to put food on the table," security expert Robert Siciliano says.
Those break-ins could lead to home insurance hassles and even higher premiums.
Farmers Insurance notes that most home break-ins happen during the day while the residents are at work. Burglars are particularly drawn to empty homes with easily accessible windows or unlocked doors.
Here are 10 tips for preventing your home from being a burglary target:
1. Lock all outside doors and windows before you leave the house or go to bed, the Memphis (Tenn.) Police Department says. In more than one-third of home burglaries, there was no forcible entry -- someone simply forgot to lock the doors, according to the Austin (Texas) Police Department. Nearly one-fifth of Americans polled by MetLife Auto & Home said they wouldn't lock all doors and windows before hitting the road during the 2011-12 holiday season.
2. Equip your home with strong doors and locks. Exterior doors should be made of steel, other metals or solid wood, which are able to withstand more of an impact than hollow-core doors, according to electronic security services company ADT. Deadbolt locks offer the best protection.
3. Siciliano recommends installing an inexpensive "nanny cam" surveillance system to monitor your property and "put thieves on notice that you're going to capture them -- and their antics -- on film. The threat of knowing they're being recorded -- and that the videotape could end up in the hands of the police -- usually scares away most criminals."
4. If you don't install a security camera, Siciliano suggests making thieves think you have one. He recommends posting "property under surveillance" stickers on the windows of your home.
5. Trim trees and shrubs so can't be used as hiding places for burglars, the Memphis Police Department says.
6. Be careful with your house keys. "Whatever you do, don't hide a spare key under a mat, rock or flower pot," Siciliano says. "Those obvious hiding spots are the first places thieves check."
7. Keep thieves guessing, Siciliano suggests. "Make them think you're home or at least wonder if you might be home," he says. Put interior house lights on timers, and don't be predictable with your schedule.
8. "Always park your car in the garage and keep the garage door shut, even if you're planning on running out again soon," says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. That way, potential burglars who've been keeping an eye on your house will realize that a closed garage door and no cars in the driveway don't necessarily mean that no one's home.
9. Install plenty of lighting around the outside of your house. If you don't want your house lit up all night, install the type of lights that go on only when triggered by motion, the Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department says. Motion-sensitive lights easily startle burglars.
10. Get a watchdog. Burglars generally will avoid a house with a dog, according to the Sacramento Police Department. But dogs aren't foolproof; most pooches tend to be too friendly.
The costs of break-ins
In 2010, more than 1.4 million home burglaries occurred in the United States, according to the FBI. The average value of goods stolen from homes was more than $2,100. The bulk of items stolen were TVs, radios, computers, video game systems and other electronic gadgets.
In the aftermath of a burglary, additional costs add salt to the wound for homeowners who have insurance. First, they must pay deductibles of hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars before their coverage kicks in. And once the insurance company pays its share, homeowners might see premium spikes that often occur after you file a claim.
Home burglaries steal time from homeowners as well. You'll have to determine what was stolen, what it was worth and how you'll replace it.
"When our garage was broken into, it took almost a week to figure out what was missing," says Beth Neumann, who lives in Huntington, N.Y. "We were compiling lists and trying to go from memory to determine what tools, sports equipment and more was stolen from the garage and the cars parked in it."
While financial motives are almost always a factor in home break-ins, there are other causes as well, says Burke, the criminal justice professor.
"Peer pressure, boredom and thrill-seeking are common reasons that groups of young adults or teens drive through neighborhoods stealing items off of decks or patios, breaking into unlocked cars and accessible garages, and even trying to get into homes," says Burke, who's a former police officer.