The term “burglar” tends to conjure up images of ski-masked men creeping around in the dead of night with nefarious intent, but, legally speaking, “burglary” is a pretty well-defined term.

In order to understand it, there are three key terms we first need to define:

  • Theft
  • Robbery
  • Burglary

What Is Theft?

Out of the three terms, theft is the most general term. Its legal definition varies from state to state, but theft generally occurs when someone intentionally takes, uses, transfers, conceals, or otherwise retains possession of movable property without the owner’s consent. The intent of theft is to deprive the owner permanently of their property.

More simply, theft is when someone takes something that isn’t theirs. That something could be the funds in your bank account, the contents of your safe, or your brand-new bicycle. If someone unlawfully deprives you of something you own, then it’s likely you’ve been a victim of theft.

Pro Tip: Thieves aren’t interested only in your possessions; they may also be interested in your identity. Make sure you’re protecting yourself by reading our identity theft protection buyers’ guide.

Now let’s talk about two specific types of thieves, the terms for which are often used interchangeably — and incorrectly.

Stolen Electronics

What Is the Difference Between a Burglar and a Robber?

The difference between these two terms, generally speaking, is what occurs leading up to the theft. A burglar is someone who enters a place without the consent of the owner with the intent to steal. A robber is someone who uses force or intimidation to take property.

FYI: According to the FBI, a burglary occurs once every 30 seconds in the U.S. They’re most likely to occur between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when most homeowners are at work.

If you’re walking home from the store and someone pulls out a gun and demands your wallet, then that someone is a robber. If you get home and find that your door has been kicked in and your laptop is gone, then you’ve been the victim of a burglar. If both of those things happen back to back, we’d consider it a very bad day.

Now that you’ve zeroed in on what makes a burglar different from another type of thief, let’s take a look at the different types of burglary.

Types of Burglary

There are nuances from state to state, but burglary generally is broken up into four “degrees.” These may be numerical (first, second, third) or lettered (class A, class B, class C), but for the most part the differences are the same.

First-Degree Burglary

This is the most serious of the four degrees, and it carries the stiffest penalties. First-degree burglary occurs when an armed person enters a building with the intent to commit a crime against a person or property within. A person can also be charged with first-degree burglary if they assault someone during the commission of the crime.

Second-Degree Burglary

Second-degree burglary differs from first-degree only in that a weapon is not present during the crime and no one is harmed. Penalties for second-degree burglary are generally lighter than for first-degree, but they can depend on prior convictions, the extent of the evidence presented, and the crime itself.

Third-Degree Burglary

This one is a little tricky, but a person is usually charged with third-degree burglary if they break into a building with the intent to steal something but are caught before committing the theft. It may also occur when theft was not the intent, such as in domestic cases. Penalties for third-degree burglary depend on the crime that was about to take place.

Fourth-Degree Burglary

Fourth-degree burglary is usually the charge when the theft occurs from an area connected to a home, business, or fenced-in area. If someone breaks the padlock on your shed and steals your leaf blower, then that person will likely be charged with fourth-degree burglary.

Now that we’ve learned about the types of burglary, let’s take a look at the consequences.

FYI: A great way to prevent any of these types of burglary from happening to you is through technology. Read our home security system buyers guide to get a sense of how you can protect yourself.

Is Burglary a Felony?

What classifies as a felony — and the definition of the term — varies from state to state, but not by a whole lot. A felony generally is anything that can land a person in jail for more than a year, and burglaries almost always fit the felony bill.

To convict a person of burglary, a prosecutor must demonstrate that they entered the home or building with the intent to commit a crime. In some states, the prosecutor must show the defendant intended to commit theft.

Typically, the more violent and severe a crime, the more likely it will result in a felony conviction. If someone kicks in the back door of a home and holds a family hostage while cleaning them out, then that burglar will be charged with felony burglary — and likely a long list of other felonies. If a burglar walks into a gas station through a door an attendant forgot to lock and takes some chips and a soda, they may be charged with a misdemeanor.

With the legal classifications understood, let’s talk about what happens after conviction.

Home insurance can help to cover theft

Burglary Sentence

The penalties for burglary vary dramatically from state to state, and a myriad of factors are taken into account to determine the appropriate sentence, including how the burglar entered the property, the use of force, what was stolen, and other unique circumstances of the case.

A felony burglary charge generally will land the perpetrator in prison for at least a year, and, depending on the severity and location of the case, they may never see the light of day again. States where burglars can be sentenced to life in prison include:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Any way you slice it, burglary is a serious charge, and those convicted will face extremely serious consequences. You may now be wondering how to never have to use the knowledge you just gained. First, you need to know how a burglar’s mind works.

How Do Burglars Select Homes?

Burglars tend to seek homes that will be worth their effort. They are usually going through a pretty simple risk/reward calculation in their mind when selecting a property to victimize, with factors that include:

  • Hours when the home appears vacant
  • Perceived wealth of the homeowners
  • Value of the home
  • Existence of a fence
  • Presence of a dog
  • Foliage to conceal movement
  • Expensive vehicles
  • Presence of a security system

If your home appears too risky, then it’s unlikely the burglar will pick it. That’s what we mean when we say you don’t want to be low-hanging fruit. Even if you take small steps to make your home less attractive to burglars, the payoff can be invaluable.

How Can I Protect Myself From Burglary?

Reolink Cameras

The best way to protect yourself from burglary is to deter would-be burglars from breaking into your home. That can be as simple as putting a “beware of dog” sign on your gate — regardless of whether Fido is real — or as complex as installing a state-of-the-art security system. If you’re interested in the latter, then check out our roundup of the best home security systems of 2023.

The second best way is to have equipment in place that will help police investigate once a crime has occurred. The long and short of it? Invest in some solid security cameras. For more information on that, read our guide to the best security cameras of 2023. Keep in mind, though, that you want your security cameras to capture as much detail as possible, so investing in cameras with good night vision and high resolution is a must.

Final Thoughts on Burglary

Burglary is a serious crime — one that you should do everything you can to prevent becoming the victim of. Not only do burglary victims suffer material losses, but the violation of having a stranger break into their home is also difficult to recover from.

Pro Tip: Not to scare you, but there are tons of threats homeowners face beyond burglaries. For a comprehensive list of organizations looking to help out, check out our safety and security resource guide.

To keep yourself from falling victim, it’s important to give careful consideration to how a burglar may view your property. Are you a soft target? Low-hanging fruit? Do you have enough deterrents in place, or are you rolling out the welcome mat for burglars?

Burglary FAQs

How often do burglaries occur?

According to the FBI, a burglary occurs once every 30 seconds in the U.S. On average, over 1 million burglaries occur in the U.S. each year.

What do burglars look for?

Burglars look for high-value targets where entry and exit into the home appear easy. Most of all, they look for properties that appear to be vacant most of the time.

When do burglaries occur?

Most burglars are deterred by the presence of people in a home. They choose to strike between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., since that’s the time most folks are at work.

How can I protect myself from burglaries?

A home security system is a great way to keep burglars from becoming interested in your home. Keeping your yard maintained, lights on, and mail from accumulating can also indicate that a homeowner is often present.

Are most burglars professionals?

Contrary to depictions in movies and media, 85 percent of break-ins are conducted by amateurs and performed out of desperation. That means they may be more easily deterred, but it can also make them more dangerous than career criminals.