How to Choose the Right Security System for Your Home

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The prospect of a break-in can keep homeowners and renters awake at night. The FBI reports there were more than 1.7 million burglaries across the U.S. in 2014, and victims suffered an estimated almost $4 billion in property losses.

However, sometimes the idea of paying for a system and setting up tricky technology can also be a little scary.

But rest assured. Research suggests that when a potential burglar believes a home has a security system, they are much less likely to target that home. And if the burglar breaks into the home and an alarm sounds, security system insiders say that criminal will leave more quickly and steal fewer items. And, there are home security systems to match just about any budget.

Here’s what you need to know:

What statistics and convicts say

It’s hard to prove deterrence, but criminology research indicates security systems can make a big difference.

An increase in home security alarms in Newark, New Jersey, between 2001 and 2005 correlated with a steady decrease in burglaries, according to a study at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, which controlled for other variables that might affect crime rates. Another study out of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte involving interviews with more than 400 convicted burglars in prison supports the same conclusion. Eighty percent of those interviewed said they would try to figure out if an alarm was present before trying to break into a home, and 60 percent said they would look for another target if there was an alarm at the home, according to research by Joseph Kuhns of the UNC Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Costs and benefits

Typically, it is concern over cost that prevents many homeowners from investing in a system, says Clair Jones, director of community outreach with SafeWise, a Utah-based company that ranks and sells home security systems.

“The biggest inhibitor is cost,” says Jones, but she notes: “With some of the new, self-installed systems, (though) that price has dropped considerably.”

(We’ll get into the price range on various types of systems below.)

And Jones notes there are payoffs that balance the investment.

“It improves the safety of the home and value, gives them peace of mind,” she said.

Moreover, some insurance companies will offer a discount on your homeowners premium if you install a burglar alarm that notifies police, fire departments or other monitoring stations, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

How security systems work

A wide array of features can be included in home security systems. They may sound alarms when windows and doors are open or broken or in some cases when body heat is detected. Some systems have security cameras to record in case of a home invasion or intruders on your property and sensors to detect movement and temperature changes in homes.

With professionally monitored systems, the alarms contact a monitoring service and the homeowner gets a phone call checking on whether someone in the home set it off accidentally. If it is a true break-in, the police are called. In some cases, you can request that police are contacted first before the service calls you.

The costs depend on the size of your home, what features you choose, and whether it’s set up through your cellphone, a land line or the internet.

There are three broad categories:

Professionally installed with professional monitoring: You’re probably familiar with the signs for some of the top companies in this category. SafeWise rates ADT as the best home security system of all types for the quality of its products and its features. Vivint made number two on SafeWise’s list.

Benefits are a professional will install the system and a monitoring service will be alerted immediately if the alarm is triggered.

A drawback is the cost. Typically it costs anywhere from $100 to $6,000 to have the system professionally installed. The monitoring costs can range from around $15 to $150 a month.

Do-it-yourself installation with professional monitoring: You buy and set up the system yourself. If you have problems, you can call the company for help. So, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, the obvious advantage of these is that they are less inexpensive, Jones notes.

A Secure Life, another Utah-based company that reviews home security systems, ranks Frontpoint as the best home security system in this category, and Protect America in second place.

Website manager for ASecureLife.com, David DeMille, says Frontpoint offers great technology and excellent customer service.

Jones says the equipment for these systems generally costs from nothing to $100. The ones that provide equipment for free have slightly higher monthly fees. Monitoring service charges for these systems range from $15 to $50 a month.Do-it-yourself installation and do-it-yourself monitoring:

The big benefit of these systems is that they are much cheaper.

A drawback is if the alarm goes off, it’s not monitored by a company or police. Security cameras can reveal shady activity, but someone needs to monitor them.

Amazon.com sells several do-it-yourself systems including the GE Personal Security Alarm Kit for $20.30 and a Fortress Security Store (TM) S02-C Wireless Home Security Alarm System for $199.99.

Get an idea of your options and their costs by using the SafeWise comparison tool.

Shopping tips and warnings

Once you have decided on your general approach, follow these tips to get the best deal that meets your needs:

Know the limits of your local authorities: Security companies can’t promise how quickly police will come to a home when an alarm goes off. In large cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago, police might take 30 to 45 minutes to respond when an alarm goes off, Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, told The New York Times. He said that in smaller towns, homeowners could hope for a best response time of six to eight minutes.
Find out about potential fines: To deal with false alarms, many police departments around the country charge homeowners after the first or second false alarm. A San Antonio man told Angie’s List that he was fined more than $100 by the city for false alarms because a security company wouldn’t fix a malfunctioning motion detector battery.
Research companies: Some security companies will offer high costs upfront, but better monthly deals. Check out customers’ reviews online and see if the Better Business Bureau in your area has recorded any complaints against a company. Also visit Angie’s List for comparisons.
Beware a contract’s fine print: Early termination charges can leave you liable for up to 80 percent of the contract’s term, even if you move. according to Consumer Reports article on alarm system “gotchas. Study the details, including how long the contract lasts and whether you can move the system if you relocate. Some companies require no contract.
Think through the options: Do you want to control lights from your smartphone or have other specific features? Figure out how many sensors you need by studying how many doors and windows you have. Do you really need sensors on the second floor? Decide if you want a system that will contact the monitoring center through a landline phone, cellphone or broadband connection. Beware of added costs as you add features, and consider what you can cut without sacrificing safety. (For a list of security system features and definitions, check out this handy guide from A Secure Life.)
Beware of scams: The security packages offered by door-to-door salespeople may be bogus. Red flags are deals that seem too good to be true and a salesperson trying to scare you by saying crime is up in your neighborhood. Some scammers will spot homes with security signs and lie, saying the system is out-of-date and they want to upgrade it. Always ask the person for their name, company and licensing number. And never feel pressured to sign anything on the spot.

What is your approach to securing your home? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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