Home Security Systems: Make the Smart Choice

Understand the pros and cons of home security systems and choose the system that protects your property, safeguards your family, and fits your budget.

An intruder is less likely to enter your home if he can see signs in your front yard signaling there's a security system in place. Image: ADT

A house is burgled every 15 seconds in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, costing homeowners an average of $1,900 in personal goods and possessions with each break-in.

Home security systems can provide a powerful deterrent. They send the message that yours isn’t the weakest house on the block and give crooks a strong incentive to target another place.

You’ll pay about $35 to $75 a month in monitoring fees for that peace of mind, but home security systems also save you money: Insurers will shave 5% to 20% off your premiums every year you own your home. With an average national premium of $800, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, that means a basic security system can pay for itself in as little as three years.

Before you call a pro

Sign me up, you say. Not so fast. Before you call an installer, take the time to give your doors, windows, and other entry points a thorough once-over. It doesn’t pay to install new security equipment if you need to upgrade your doors and locks. Once you’ve completed your security audit and addressed the places where your house is most vulnerable, it’s time to get estimates from security companies.

Security system basics

Home security systems typically consist of a keypad mounted in the entryway that communicates with smaller contact sensors and motion detectors attached to doors and windows around the house. The brains of the system—the control panel—is installed in the attic or utility room.

If an intruder breaks a window or kicks in a door, the sensor sends signals to the control panel, which in turn uses your phone line to contact an off-site monitoring station staffed by security personnel. (It also sets off an ear-splitting siren.) Staffers ring the house right away and prompt you or your family members to provide a password. If there’s no response, or if the person who picks up the phone gives the incorrect password, they’ll notify local law enforcement.

System setup and monitoring costs

Equipment costs vary widely, from around $250 to as much as $700, depending on the options you choose. Some security companies may offer a basic package at a deep discount, or even for free, just to get your business.

After all, they make their real money on the monthly monitoring fee, which ensures that someone is keeping an eye on your home 24/7, even when you’re not around or out of town.

Choosing an installer

You may have a choice between hiring a national firm or a local company. Do you want the monitoring center to be in an entirely different state or just around the corner? The national firms boast that their call centers are fully redundant, which means if a center in OshKosh loses power, the center in Vancouver can pick up the slack.

Nevertheless, some home-security pros, like Chris McGoey, of Los Angeles-based McGoey Security Consulting, think it’s better to go with local installers, who may have more experience with the equipment than a representative of a large national firm.

“Choose someone in your area who’s been in the business at least 10 years,” he says. If you go local, however, it’s smart to quiz your provider about what provisions it has made in case, say, a blizzard shuts down power or a bug going around your local schools sidelines half their staff.

Wired or wireless?

Installing a basic system usually takes a pro about three hours. If you’re building a new house or an addition, you have the luxury of running the wires through open walls. Retrofitting an older home takes more time, because the installer will have to snake wires for the keypad and control panel though existing walls. (Sensors can be wired or wireless.)

A typical approach is to run all wires into the attic or utility room, and tie them into the main electric box and the local phone company line. A battery backup is usually available in case you lose power.

Another option is to go completely wireless. In this case, every component of the system, including the keypad and control panel, houses its own AAA or lithium battery that provides just enough power to enable it to communicate with a remote cellular network. If you’re a mobile-only family without a hard-wired phone line, have a VOIP phone, or if you live in an older house, you might be a good candidate for a wireless system. You’ll need to check if this technology is available in your area. If it is, you may pay slightly more to install it.

A world of add-ons

Sensors or detectors can be added to the system to address just about any household danger, from fire to flood to carbon monoxide poisoning. Elderly homeowners can even get a wearable “panic button” that will communicate with the control panel in case they fall or need assistance.

“Consumers want these extras,” says Bob Tucker, a spokesman for ADT Security, an industry leader. Just bear in mind that each add-on will up the cost of the system and push your monthly monitoring fee toward the top end of the range.

The weakest link: You

Burglars don’t defeat security systems; homeowners do. If you view the system as a nuisance, or only use it when you’re away on vacation, you’re more likely to forget how to operate it and inadvertently trigger a false alarm. That can result in fines from your local law enforcement agency. Resolve to learn how to arm your system, use it daily, and teach your kids as well.

Report your new installation to your insurance company to claim your discounted premium. And don’t forget to affix stickers and signs broadcasting your new system in your windows and front yard. “That’s 90% of the deterrent right there,” says McGoey. “That sign in your yard tells an intruder that he could potentially set off an alarm.”