Hollywood often portrays a burglar as a stealthy, acrobatic professional who overcomes the most technologically advanced security systems. In truth, most burglars aren’t nearly that sophisticated. Property theft is usually a crime of opportunity. Is your house easy pickings for someone plotting to break in and score valuables — or worse?

A burglary happens every 14.6 seconds in the United States, according to national crime data provided by the FBI. While most thieves force their way into homes through locked doors and windows, about one in three enter homes simply by opening an unlocked door.

“When you think about it, a home is a box and the main entryways into that box are your doors and windows, “ says Chris E. McGoey, an author and international crime and security expert who has conducted more than 7,000 risk-assessment surveys. “Burglars are going to come through one of those entry points. Most often they will likely come through the front door.”

Professional burglars are harder to foil (and likely to hit highly lucrative targets). But the greatest threat facing the average homeowner or renter is from local, amateur thieves trying to score a quick hit — thieves spend an average of just 8 to 12 minutes inside a home. Many break-ins occur when a home is occupied. According to a September 2010 FBI report, of the 3.7 million burglaries that typically occur each year, someone was home during almost a third of them. In 7 percent of those cases, a household member became a victim of violence.

To protect your home and yourself, experts advise “hard targeting” your home, or making it uninviting to a thief. Here's how.

Install an alarm system. An alarm system is a major deterrent to a criminal. “Deterrents are effective — it alerts the potential burglar that this home has an alarm system, that it might be turned on and if I break in it may be armed ... and I may be arrested,” says McGoey. “You’re likely to have the burglar pick another house.”

The next best thing to an alarm system is a sign that says you have one. Less experienced thieves will most likely be scared off by the sign alone.

Investigate a community before you buy or rent. “Research what cities or neighborhoods are safest. Doing a little reconnaissance up front will lesson your risks substantially,” says McGoey. The FBI has community crime data available.

Invest in quality doors, locks and installation. Buying solid doors, windows and lock sets and using a professional to install them makes a burglar’s job harder. Many doors are overcome by a good hard kick. Using a heavy-duty deadbolt lock with a one-inch throw bolt and a four-screw high-security strike plate can make it very tough to break into a home, according to McGoey. Also, keep those second- and third-floor windows and balcony doors locked.

Get a dog. Canines may be man’s best friend but they’re a nightmare for would-be thieves. Dogs bite, bark and will alert neighbors that someone is on the property who shouldn’t be. A “Beware of Dog” sign may also send a burglar packing.

Check your curb appeal. “Maintain your property,” says McGoey. “You don’t want to look like the most vulnerable house on the block.” Your house should look lived in but well maintained. Long grass, piles of old newspapers and empty trash barrels on the street signal thieves that someone may not be home. Overgrown trees and shrubs also make it easier for a burglar to spy through windows and case their target.

Light things up. Although most burglaries occur in the daytime, good lighting can discourage thieves who prefer working at night. Scheduling timer lights and installing motion-activated flood lights can keep burglars at bay.

Make security part of your vacation plans. If you’re leaving your house unattended for several days, don’t advertise it. If you can’t get a house sitter, ask neighbors you trust to watch the house and report suspicious people lurking about. Suspend newspaper and mail deliveries. In some communities, you can ask your police department to keep an eye on the house.

Watch your trash. If you buy expensive electronics, don’t leave the original box sitting outside. It can alert a potential burglar that there’s something expensive inside the home. Break down those boxes before you leave them for the recycling crew.

Distrust visitors at your front door. Be wary of people who knock on your door. Once you open it, someone can easily force their way in. Most utility companies or government employees carry official identification. If you’re not sure they’re legitimate, leave the door locked and ask them to please wait, then contact their company or agency to confirm they are who they say they are.

Know where to store valuables. If you have expensive jewelry and other small valuables, consider hiding them in areas that thieves typically pass by. According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, some great hiding places include hollowed-out books and in the freezer wrapped in aluminum foil. Obviously a heavy, secured safe is your best option.

Take a home inventory. You should have a detailed list of all your belongings. Your insurance company will need proof the stolen property existed so include a photo of the item, a receipt, model and serial numbers, purchase price, purchase locations and date of purchase. It’s best to store this on a secure cloud-based system so you’ll have access to your list from any location (and if your computer gets stolen). 

Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com.