Copper Theft: How to Protect Your Property from Vandalism

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Vandalism and copper theft have become huge problems for owners of vacant properties. Copper thieves and vandals prey on vacant houses because they are easy targets, and cause huge amounts of damage to the average property for a relatively small payoff.

Why Do People Steal Copper?

Thieves love it because the value of copper has risen so much.  It is estimated to bring an average of about $3.30 per pound and is a $1 billion dollar problem according to the US Department of Energy.

The other reason copper theft is such a problem is that it is a component in so many building materials. Copper tubing can be found in the pipes in many homes. It is also used in heating and air conditioning units, wiring and electrical components, and a whole host of other things.

More often than not, the damage done by these thieves obtaining the copper far exceeds the value of the copper itself. Vandals may do thousands of dollars in damage to a property for no more than $25 or $30.00 worth of copper. They will tear up walls, ceilings, cabinets and anything else that gets in the way of ripping out the copper.

The biggest targets for these thefts are construction sites, vacant buildings, and commercial heating and air conditioning units.  That said, there are some steps that real estate investors can take to prevent your property from becoming the latest victim of these unscrupulous people.

Make Residential Property Look Lived In

If possible, take some steps to make the property look like it is occupied. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Put up inexpensive mini blinds and keep them closed.
  • Have several lights on a timer that will come on at different times in the evening.
  • Pick up any junk mail left at the house several times a week.
  • Be sure that no trash accumulates on the property.
  • Don’t leave trash cans sitting at the street for extended periods of time.
  • Make sure the lawn is mowed on a regular basis.
  • Ask a neighbor to park in the driveway several times a week.

If your property is in the process of being rehabbed here are a few tips:

  • Get rid of the dumpster as quickly as possible.
  • Make sure building materials and trash aren’t left where people can see them.
  • Don’t leave tools and other valuables where they can be seen through doors and windows.
  • Enlist the help of the neighbors. Give them your business card and ask them to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Don’t forget to reward these folks for their help when the job is finished with a gift certificate for dinner, a free car wash or something similar.

In both of the situations above, you can also install one of those portable alarm systems in the property. These are great because they can be moved from property to property.

Commercial Property Owners

These types of properties are especially popular because thieves can generally count on the business being closed at specific times.  There are some steps that you can take but all in all, these thieves are hard to deter when it comes to commercial property.

  • Some property owners have been known to paint visible copper components black to appear like regular plastic tubing.
  • When a tenant moves out, immediately check to be sure the property is secure.
  • You can fence areas that contain commercial air conditioning units by using tall chain link fencing with razor wire at the top. In certain instances you may have to use privacy fencing. Putting these units on the roof top won’t necessarily stop a thief from taking on this challenge but may help in some instances.
  • There are portable alarm systems that can be used on air conditioning units that seem to work pretty well.

Out Smarting the Copper Thieves

It’s pretty hard to outsmart these people, but if you take precautions you at least have a fighting chance of staying one step ahead of them.

One last thing to consider, is whether you want to put a “for rent sign” out in risky areas. With the internet, you can still get the word out that the property is available without alerting the vandals and copper thieves.

Photo: Ryan McFarland

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About Author

Sharon has been investing in real estate since 1998. She owned and operated a successful home inspection company for 17 years. In January of 2008 she took the leap of closing her business to become a full time real estate investor.

21 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Ahhh, copper thieves. I know this one all too well as of late. Part of the problem was that the property was vacant for too long. I think we were in escrow for three months (appraisal/lending challenges). The neighbors actually may have been part of the problem. They seemed to know the thieves who stole the AC and came back to break in for the interior copper. Perhaps we won’t put a sign up at the next vacant property. The AC was behind a fence, but it was unlocked. I’ve never heard of portable alarm systems or AC alarms. My concern with an alarm is that agents showing the property would inadvertently set it off and the cops would fine us. But, that might still be a better risk (financially and otherwise) than the repair costs we incurred. What portable systems do you like?

  2. Ironic you posted about Copper Theft today! I just noticed this last weekend that some copper piping was removed from the exterior of my rental. It was there the last time I checked, and it was used for an old AC unit that had been removed before we purchased the property. Now, only a small stub of copper remains jutting out of the house. They must have taken about 5-10 lbs. of copper pipe. Granted, the pipe wasn’t being used for anything, but it’s the principle behind the matter. People should keep their hands off other people’s property.

    • At least in Florida, they’ve added some limitations when scrapping copper because it had become so rampant. We see most theft in commercial locations and they are even getting package units off roof-tops. I agree with the other comment that it could be employees of an air conditioning contractor. They appear to have some knowledge of the systems. Some condensing units have aluminum coils and interestingly enough, these don’t get stolen but the copper coil condensing units right next to them did.

      • Gustavo –

        What you are saying makes perfect sense. My daughter manages property and some of those are commercial properties. They actually come in with extension ladders, get on the roof and they are in and out quickly. It sounds like pro’s doesn’t it?

        Since they are in trucks they really go unnoticed. I have heard that the scrap yards here have put limits on the amount of copper that can be sold. Thanks for your comments.

        Sharon

  3. Another way copper thieves can get access is by being contractors hired to work on the property. They have ample time to check out exactly where the copper and other metals are and may even start unhooking them while working. Then they can come back in the middle of the night and be in and out quick.

    It really pays to know your contractors and also know if they have long term employees and what their screening process is to hire. I don’t use contractors with a constant stream of different day laborers. They are cheaper but more expensive in the long run.

  4. Real big issue where we are as well. We had copper stolen from a basement of a house we were doing as they accessed it through a bulkhead that was unlocked. Police told us they hit 3 dozen units that same night includinga a local motel all accessing the basement only. For us, bout $1000 in damage but they were so stupid they didnt take 2 copper traps that would have probably gotten them over $250 according to my plumber! Insurance of course does cover but we didnt file because if a $1000 deductible why bother? Good locks on basements is now the standard for us as well and we use PEX tubing for most new dlips so its less of an issue on total rehabs. Good tips here – painting the copper black is ingenious.

    • Mike – I think this is a huge problem in every city now. If you take proper precautions like having good locks on your property, it will at least make it harder for the thieves to get in and damage the property.

  5. An REO I bought recently had the outdoor copper stolen, along with the A-Coil. When I got a new system put in, I had an AC cage installed around it, deterring theft. I also bought ADT stickers off of ebay and put them all over my rental. Hopefully, most thieves will move on to the next house. I didn’t place a for-rent sign on that house, for sure.

    Thanks for the post, Sharon!

    • Adam – I think a lot more people are getting proactive these days. I believe most thieves are looking for easy access, so all of the steps you have taken should help.

  6. Chuck Burke on

    Hey Sharon… howdy neighbor!

    Security is a big concern with my section 8 rentals. Here are a few of the things I do, whenever possible:

    If there’s a fenced yard, I chain and lock the fence when vacant. I’ve been known to complete chain link fencing that was partially there or entirely fence a yard that was in a highly prone area.

    I cage my AC units (custom fabricated 2-inch square tube, not the thin stuff), typically anchored through the wall or foundation so they can be unscrewed only from the inside.

    I put a lock on the AC circuit breaker / fuse box.

    I put alarm stickers on all windows and doors and special alarm stickers for AC’s and “equipment” (available on Amazon) on outdoor units and the circuit boxes. (The good looking ones with working phone numbers, not the obviously bogus ones.)

    Anytime I’m having plumbing work done, I’ll replace any copper with PEX. (I love pex!) I’ve even replaced short, exposed runs if a wall is open to hide the fact that there is copper in the walls.

    Lamps on inexpensive timers allow for the property to look occupied at night.

    I also put up at least one and sometimes two motion detector lights during renovation, always over the AC units or back yard. TIP: Don’t use that cheap ones from big box retailers, there’s a brand available online called STANGEL(sp?) (at least, I believe that’s it) and their outdoor units last a LONG time, not two to four years like the junk at Home Depot and Lowes). Tenants love these as well and it’s a nice feature for them.

    Never, ever leave tools on a work-site. Or at the very least, hide them in a far corner of the attic or crawl space if you must.

    I introduce myself to all the neighbors and leave cards with them, ask them to keep an eye on the place, let them know the place is alarmed, etc. I also try to find the most upstanding neighbor and use them for yardwork or light maintenance as they will frequently keep an extra set of eyes on the property.

    And most recently, I’ve started installing hard-wired alarms with smoke detectors. They’re not monitored, but for ~$800 I can have a very nice system installed that is loud as heck. One indoor speaker and one outdoor speaker makes sure that EVERYONE knows there’s a problem if it goes off. I’m pitching these to tenants as an amenity and the better tenants frequently appreciate having this in their house as it can be set for STAY (turns off motion detectors) or AWAY (everything is armed).

    Good luck!

    Best,
    – C

  7. Hi Chuck –

    More great ideas. I think the security systems really help. I know someone that uses a loud alarm system that is actually portable. I think it costs around 350-$400.00. You can move it from rehab to rehab. I know that he makes “friends” of the neighbors and he lets all of them know that the house has an alarm.

    The motion detector lights are always a good touch. I will have to look into that brand.

  8. Pingback: How to Protect YOUR Property from Thieves! | MA & RI Real Estate

  9. Excellent article, Sharon. Unfortunately, we experienced a copper theft right before we sold a rehab (we had no issues at all during our months of rehab). The thieves did a lot of damage to our (NEW) back door and only got a little bit of copper from the small house. At least the thieves were helpful enough to shut off the water first! We replaced it all with PEX, so the new homeowner got brand new plumbing everywhere!

    A few other things we do to secure properties – install a “fake” security camera in all doorways to let them think you’ve got CCTV (or use real cameras, if you like), we put “no copper” sign on the back door and we used a door stop brace behind the back door doorknob which actually prevented the door from being kicked in a second time.

    Happy New Year!
    Steph

  10. Those are all great ideas Steph. I’m sorry you are a victim of those lazy people. They need a real job. That is a terrible way to start off the year.

    Happy New Year to you Steph.

  11. The landowners aren’t slumlords, the tenants and the robbers are the people who destroy a good building for no reason. I own 20 buildings and people these days are dirty plus the robbers are rampant. I can’t believe how society degenerated so fast. Just 6 or so years ago people in my area were clean friendly and we had few robbers. This dead economy is the problem and It’s the fault of the Private Federal Reserve; they are worse than these thieves. I had 5 of my buildings vandalized in GOOD neighborhoods. Even the nice neighbor across the street can’t be trusted anymore.

    • John –

      I am hearing this from folks all over the country. A lot of landlords pull the AC units and change all the locks for extra security before even putting a for rent sign out if they put one out at all. In some areas, folks aren’t putting signs out at all.

      It’s rough being a landlord today. Thanks for telling us about your experiences.

      Sharon

  12. Copper thieves can not operate without someone to buy it from them.
    Work with your local governments to require scrap dealers to document anyone who wants to sell them some copper plumbing.
    The dealers will squawk, but it will just about eliminate copper theft.

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