You probably know that a home alarm system is an effective way to stop thieves and burglars in their tracks. But if you’re new to the world of home security, it can be overwhelming learning about how these systems work and what to look for when buying one.
For instance, should you go with a wireless DIY setup, or a hardwired system that’s professionally installed? Which components should you purchase, and why? Will you need indoor or outdoor security cameras? And contracts! Do you have to sign? (Spoiler alert: you don’t have to sign).
Not to worry — we’ve broken it down and cut the fluff. You’re going to learn exactly what you need to know about home alarm systems so that you can make a smart decision for your lifestyle and budget. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but by the end of this in-depth guide you’ll feel more confident in choosing a system to protect your home and family. So let’s dive right in!
Did You Know: Hanging an American flag on your front porch can help deter burglars. We recently sat down with our expert advisor and retired burglary detective Travis Goodreau, and he told us that criminals can be deterred by the American flag, as it’s often a sign of patriotism and gun ownership. Of course, a flag is no replacement for a home alarm, but we thought this was a neat factoid!
What is a Home Alarm System?
A home alarm system consists of entryway sensors (door and window sensors), and some type of central hub or control panel with a built-in siren. When the alarm is set and someone attempts to break in, the sensors will trip and signal the hub to sound the siren. Most alarm systems we’ve used emit a 100-110 dB siren throughout the home, which is plenty loud enough to scare away intruders.1
But what happens if the intruder sticks around to help themself to your belongings, or worse, tries to get physical? Thankfully, security systems typically offer 24/7 professional monitoring, so when your home alarm is triggered, an automatic signal will be sent to a central monitoring station, and emergency response agents will dispatch police to your home if necessary.
Of course, this is a home alarm system at its most basic use. There are other things to consider, like security cameras and nifty smart home automations, too. But we’ll get to those in the course of this guide.
The Main Components of a Home Alarm System
Most home security companies offer packaged systems that fit a certain size home. For instance, Ring Alarm offers 5-piece, 10-piece, and 14-piece kits. The bigger the bundle, the bigger the home. We usually recommend buying the basics and upgrading a-la-carte style. This way, you won’t end up paying for any unnecessary equipment (we still have range extenders randomly lying around our home).
The basic components of a home alarm system include:
- Control Panel — This component, sometimes called a “Hub,” is the brains of the system. It’s how your alarm communicates with the monitoring center, and it will have a built-in speaker for the siren. We’re big fans of touchscreen control panels, which allow you to customize your system and easily watch your live camera footage. So keep an eye out for those!
- Door/Window Sensors — Door/window sensors, often called entry sensors, are the backbone of any home alarm system. They mount to your entry points using a peel-and-stick adhesive. When your door or window opens, the magnets separate and trigger the alarm to sound. We suggest mounting a sensor at every entry point that’s accessible. Have a big home? Not to worry, these are pretty cheap at about $15-$25 each.
- Motion Sensors — Burglars can be pretty crafty, but they can’t outsmart a motion sensor. If someone does get into your home, their movement will trigger the system to alarm. And if you have a furry friend, you can usually fine-tune the sensitivity settings so you don’t get false alarms.
FYI: Some brands make door/window sensors that are really quite discrete. For instance, Abode’s DIY kits come with tiny entry sensors that are about half the size of a Tic-Tac box.
Other optional home alarm components include:
- Glass-break Sensors — For about $40-$50, you can mount these sensors near glass windows, and if a burglar smashes your window, your alarm will sound. With a built-in mic, glass break sensors pick up the high-frequency noise of glass breaking. But beware… dishes breaking and yappy dogs can also set them off!
- Home Security Cameras — We say these aren’t necessary, but in many ways they are. You can find 1080p HD security cameras (for inside and outside) for under $100 these days. But if you want an outdoor camera with top features, get ready to spend between $150-$250. Note that most alarm systems come with an app, allowing you to view live and recorded video from your smartphone.
- Video Doorbells — For another layer of protection, we think adding a video doorbell (also called a doorbell camera) makes a lot of sense. Starting at $99, these come equipped with ultra-sharp resolution, night vision, two-way talk, and smartphone controls. It’s worth it, especially around the holidays when packages start hitting your doorstep at record frequency. Doorbell cameras make porch pirates think twice!
- Smart Locks — Smart locks keep the bad guys out and let the good guys in. That is, these electronic deadbolts not only secure your front door, but they can let in your friends and family members via digital access code. With some smart locks, you can even lock and unlock your door remotely using an app. Expect to pay around $150 for a decent smart lock. Want to learn more? Check out our guide to the best smart locks available.
Installation Types: DIY or Professional Installation
Do you rent an apartment or condo? Or do you own your own home? Either way, there are plenty of systems for both living situations. However, you’ll want to consider your space and your lifestyle before choosing a home alarm system, as the installation can vary.
For instance, if you rent your home, we recommend choosing a DIY-install home alarm that’s easy to set up without lots of drilling or wiring. Here are the best options for renters. But if you own your home and plan to stay there for a few years, you might consider a hardwired home alarm system with professional installation. If that’s you, check out our top-10 list of alarms for homeowners. Both options have their strengths and weaknesses, but we typically prefer DIY installation.
Most DIY alarm kits can be installed in under 30 minutes and require no tools at all. They also tend to be much cheaper than professionally-installed systems. With that said, it’s nice to have an expert’s advice and handy skills working for you — so professional installation shouldn’t be overlooked as an option.
Pro Tip: Wireless vs. Hardwired, which should you choose? We generally recommend wireless home alarm systems across the board. But hardwired systems make sense in some cases, like for homeowners who plan on staying put for several years, and who are running a network of security cameras.
Two of our highest-rated DIY alarm systems are SimpliSafe and Frontpoint Security. While testing SimpliSafe, it only took us 20 minutes to install it ourselves (easy peasy). And in our Frontpoint Security review, we found that system to be almost as easy to get up-and-running. You can’t go wrong with either, really.
For professionally installed alarm systems, we’re big fans of Vivint and ADT. We recently had Vivint come to our home to install a full security system with entry sensors, motion sensors, glass break sensors, indoor and outdoor security cameras, a doorbell camera, and even a garage door controller. You can read more about it in our hands-on Vivint review, but we have to say, the end-to-end service is worth its weight in gold.
So if DIY doesn’t sound fun to you, and you have a decent budget to work with, we recommend Vivint for professional installation (it’s also one of the smartest home alarm systems money can buy). But keep in mind that ADT offers similar professional installation, and ADT has the most generous money-back guarantee we’ve seen in the industry. You’ll have 6-months to return the product and cancel your agreement. Not bad!
Home Alarm Features & Technology
Once you choose the components you want, and decide on the installation type you’re comfortable with, you’ll also want to consider the features and technology. To do so, we recommend writing down a quick list of needs vs wants. Do you need intrusion protection? Yes! But do you need Alexa compatibility? Maybe not.
Some of the more affordable home security systems — like Ring and SimpliSafe — will help protect your home with intrusion sensors, but they don’t really offer cutting-edge features. Other systems, like Deep Sentinel, come stacked with AI and other advanced features. If you’re into the hottest technology (and don’t mind paying for it!), we recommend checking out our full Deep Sentinel review.
With that said, below is a running list of the features and tech you should look for in a home alarm system. These aren’t in any particular order, but the first three features are must-have in our book.
24/7 Professional Monitoring
All of our top-rated home alarm systems offer 24/7 professional monitoring. This keeps your unit connected to a monitoring center via cellular network or Wi-Fi. When your alarm is triggered, a signal is sent to the monitoring center, and a response agent will contact you to see if help is needed (note that the industry average response time is about 30 seconds). If the monitoring center can’t reach you, or if you are in distress, they will immediately dispatch police to your home. Professional monitoring costs anywhere between $10 to $60 monthly, but the peace of mind is priceless.
Pro Tip: Don’t confuse “advanced” with “complicated.” The most advanced options available are also among the most user-friendly and intuitive systems we’ve used!
Keep in mind that many DIY home alarm systems (we reviewed the best ones here) also offer something called “self-monitoring.” With a self-monitored system, you will usually get an instant mobile notification when your alarm sounds, but the unit will not send a signal to a monitoring center. It is up to you to contact the police. Although self-monitoring saves you a monthly fee, we typically don’t recommend it, especially considering how affordable 24/7 professional monitoring is these days.
Mobile App & Smartphone Controls
This is the bees-knees, plain and simple. Most home alarms include a mobile app with their monitoring package, allowing you to remotely arm and disarm your home using your smartphone. Depending on the system you purchase, you may also have the ability to set custom automations, view your activity log, and even stream live security camera footage — all from the convenience of your smartphone. For us, we love being able to arm our system from our couch, without getting up (especially if we’re binging on the latest Netflix series du jour!).
Here’s another feature on the must-have list. Instant notifications will be sent directly to your smartphone any time your alarm goes off. With some systems, you can set notifications to alert you when your cameras detect motion, when someone opens/closes a door (smart if you have little ones at home!), and when your devices run low on battery. You can usually set these alerts to be sent via push notification, or even by SMS text or email. We prefer push notifications.
A handful of our top-rated systems — like Vivint, Frontpoint, and Cove — allow you to set up custom automations. These are sometimes referred to as custom actions or rules. So let’s say you want to set your alarm to automatically arm every night at 10 pm, and automatically disarm at 7 am, this feature allows you to do it with ease. You can get much more granular, too. For instance, with some systems, you can set your cameras to automatically record when your front door is open, but only between sunrise and sunset. Pretty neat, right?
FYI: While custom automations aren’t a necessary feature, we like the ability to automate our home security system to do our bidding. And typically, it’s a one-time, set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. Once you’re dialed in with custom actions, your system will continue to obey the “rule” until you change it in the app.
Smart Home Integrations
We could write a whole guide on smart home automation — actually, we did! Check out our Home Automation Buyer’s Guide to really dig into this neat technology. For now, we’ll just say that many systems work with Alexa and Google Home for hands-free voice control. And other more advanced systems will integrate with third-party devices so that you can set up smart lighting, smart thermostats, electronic door locks, you name it. We’re big fans of smart home automation, and thankfully, the best home alarm systems are also ultra-smart!
Some home security systems also come with environmental monitoring capabilities. You usually have to pay a little extra per month, but you’ll rest easier knowing that environmental hazards are being monitored, too. So anytime a fire breaks out, or you spring a potentially deadly carbon monoxide leak, or if your washing machine starts flooding the house, you’ll be alerted of the danger via instant notification. We always say that environmental monitoring isn’t necessary… until it is. It’s also wise for vacation homeowners or second-home owners to set this up to monitor while the home sits vacant.
Security Cameras & Doorbell Cameras
Home security cameras and doorbell cameras are a great addition to a home alarm system. If you want to explore our favorite options in each category, we recommend taking a peek at our in-depth guide on the best security cameras, and the top doorbell cameras on the market today. But here’s a basic rundown of what to look for in these devices.
What to Look for in a Home Security Camera
Security cameras are made for indoor use, outdoor use, or both indoors/outdoors. Some are hardwired and require professional installation, but the majority of security cameras are wireless and offer easy DIY installation. You’ll want something that has at least 1080p HD image quality, which is pretty much the gold standard for resolution. But if you can find something in 2K or 4K that works in your budget (they aren’t cheap), then all the better! But remember, the purpose of having a camera in place is to capture and record suspicious or criminal activity in as much detail as your pocketbook or purse allows.
Security Camera Features & Tech:
- Infrared night vision
- Two-way talk
- HD image quality
- Active deterrents (lights, siren)
- Motion-triggered recording
- Smartphone controls
- Instant notifications
- Local or cloud video storage
Expect to pay between $50-$100 for a high-quality indoor camera, and somewhere in the ballpark of $150-$250 (or more!) for a high-performance outdoor camera.
Our top-rated security camera companies are Ring, Lorex, and Nest. If you’re looking for an affordable device that offers plenty of features and simple installation, then have a look at our latest Ring Camera review here.
What to Look for in a Doorbell Camera
Now, as far as doorbell cameras go, we definitely recommend installing one to fend off porch pirates and looky-loos. Also called video doorbells, these often integrate right into the alarm system with very little effort.
Most of them are wireless (battery-powered) these days, but there are wired options to choose from, too. Similar to security cams, you’ll want to purchase a doorbell camera with at least 1080p HD resolution — and in our experience, two-way talk is a must-have feature as well. Here’s a handy buyer’s guide for doorbell cameras we put together.
Do they work? Well, they don’t guarantee that your home and packages will be safe, but having a doorbell camera in place certainly won’t hurt. And with nearly 2 million packages disappearing off people’s porches every single day,2 we think doorbell cameras offer peace of mind at a reasonable price.
Doorbell Camera Features & Tech:
- Wide viewing angle
- Two-way talk
- Night vision
- 1080p HD resolution
- Instant notifications
- Easy, DIY install
- No monthly fees
Of course, Ring blazed the trail as pioneer for doorbell cams, but you shouldn’t overlook other brands. In fact, you really can’t go wrong with the Google Nest Hello doorbell camera or Arlo’s video doorbell. And as far as affordability — you shouldn’t have a problem finding a great doorbell camera in the $100-$150 range. That said, some of the more advanced options — with AI facial recognition and active deterrent features — might run $250 or more.
Home Alarm Connection Type
Home alarms come in three different connection types: Landline, Wi-Fi, and Cellular. We typically don’t recommend landline alarms, unless you live in a rural area without Wi-Fi or cellular signals. We do think Wi-Fi connectivity is a better alternative, as you don’t need a landline for your system to function, and the professional monitoring is typically fast and reliable … though not always!
The best home security systems today now have cellular monitoring (ie. on the AT&T 4G LTE cellular network).3 This means that your system will stay “online” and connected to the monitoring center even if your power goes out or your Wi-Fi is bogged down and moving slow. But this also means you have to have a strong cellular signal in your area.
Did You Know: We’ve found that cellular home security systems provide the fastest and most reliable monitoring response. Here are the best cellular systems available today.
Note that you might pay an extra $10 or $15 per month for cellular monitoring, but we think the extra cost is worth it. We also see this becoming the future of home security, with Wi-Fi systems slowly fading out over time. But regardless of the connection type, you should always look for the TMA 5-Diamond designation for monitoring centers.4 You’re in good hands if your alarm system is backed by this network of emergency response agents.
Contracts: Do I Have to Sign on the Dotted Line?
Thankfully, about 75% of home security companies don’t require a long-term contract. So you’ll only have to pay month-to-month to protect your home and family. If you’re curious, we suggest exploring our highest-rated, no-contract alarm systems.
However, we actually recommend signing a contract in some situations. For instance, if you want the best of the best in home security, you’re looking at Vivint, which does require a 3- to 5-year contract if you don’t purchase the equipment upfront. The long-term contract in this case actually makes the premium home alarm equipment more affordable, spreading the payments over several years instead of having to fork out $600-$1,000 or more on day one. So just remember that contracts aren’t always a bad thing.
Counting the Costs: How Much is an Alarm System?
It completely depends. You can get set up with a basic DIY home security system for around $200 with no monthly payments. But you can also spend upwards of $1,000+ on equipment and have a $60 per month monitoring fee. Also note that most systems are expandable, allowing you to add components over time, which is typically a great way to soften the blow to the ol’ budget.
But we will say this: a security alarm is worth the price to help keep yourself, your belongings, and your precious family safe and sound. You really can’t put a price tag on these things — so if you can’t afford the latest and greatest, you should at least go for affordable intrusion protection. For $200-$250, you’ll be able to get a base station, a handful of entryway sensors, and a motion sensor.
That said, see below for a sampling of prices across a few of our favorite home alarm systems.
Home Alarm Prices
|Wireless or Wired||Wireless||Wireless||Wireless|
|Smart Home Integrations||Limited||Yes||Yes|
|Contracts||No||Up to 3-5 Years||No|
|Equipment Cost||Starting at $199||Starting at $599||Starting at $430|
|Monthly Monitoring Cost||$14.99 – $24.99||$29.99 – $49.99+||$44.99 – $49.99|
Also keep in mind that monitoring costs will fluctuate based on your equipment. For instance, if you’re just looking for basic intrusion monitoring, then you shouldn’t have to pay more than $29.99 per month. But if you want monitoring support for security cameras and smart home automations, then expect to pay upwards of $50-$60 per month.
Finally, you generally won’t have to pay installation or activation fees, though some companies that offer professional-installation do require these. Thankfully, they are one-time costs, and hey, it’s always nice to get help from the pros.
Benefits of a Home Alarm System
In some cases, having a home security system in place can save a life. In other cases, it might only keep your Amazon packages safe around the holidays. But it’s hard to deny the crime-deterring potential of an alarm system. The benefits are far-reaching in our experience.
If you’re away on business or vacation, it’s nice to know that your home is being monitored for suspicious activity. Also, we’ve heard stories where having an alarm helped to keep teens (and sleepwalkers!) from sneaking out at night.5 Another benefit is that you can often get a discount on your homeowner’s insurance if you show proof that you have a security system installed. You see, there are lots of reasons why it’s a smart decision to protect your home.
Final Words on Alarm Systems
We’ve highlighted several different factors related to keeping your home and family safe from bad guys. We shared with you our favorite home alarm systems. We discussed what features to look for in a package. And we covered how much you can expect to spend on getting outfitted with equipment and monitoring that makes sense for you. At the end of the day, you have to make the decision whether or not to invest in home protection. But if you ask us, we say it’s more than worth it — and do it sooner than later.
Remember, if you’re just looking for a basic home alarm, you’ll only spend around $200-$250. But if you have the budget to work with, we recommend going with something that offers professional monitoring with video support and smart home integrations. Either way, we think you’ll sleep a little better at night knowing that your home is locked down from the inside out.
Home Alarm System FAQs
You will need a base station or control panel, entryway sensors, and a motion sensor. Security cameras and smart door locks are optional but recommended.
Most companies don’t require a long-term contract. This means you will pay month-to-month and have the option to cancel anytime without penalty.
No! Today you can get a DIY alarm kit for a couple hundred dollars — but even more advanced systems can come in under $500.
We recommend cellular monitoring, as the response is quicker and more reliable than Wi-Fi monitoring. This will cost between $29-$49 per month.
In our experience, the average DIY system takes about 30-45 minutes to install. However, SimpliSafe and Cove are two brands that have really dialed-in the self-installation process, offering 15 minute installs. On the other hand, professionally-installed home alarm systems take between 1-3 hours, but the pros take care of everything.