How to Choose a Home Security System

Learn About Your Options Before Making a Decision

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Home Security Basics – What You Need To Know

Everybody wants to keep their home and their family safe and secure, but choosing a security system for your home can be a daunting task. Understanding more about the different systems, their features and installation requirements, as well as the different purchase or rental options can help you make an informed choice when it comes to selecting a security system. Not to mention, it could save you a lot of money and hassle. We've produced this guide to help bring you up to speed on what is available in the market today and what things you should think about when considering which home security system is right for you. We not only cover features and accessories, but also payment options and many other factors that you might not have thought about. Read on to learn how to do  your own research so you can find the best system for your needs.

The first thing to take into consideration is your personal situation and whether you own the home you are living in or are just renting as this can dictate the type of system you choose and the money you are prepared to spend.

Do You Own or Rent Your Home?

When you own a home, you may have different considerations when choosing a security system over someone who rents. Homeowners typically stay in place for longer than renters so can choose a system with longevity in mind and can spread the costs over a longer period of time. Also homeowners have the authority to make changes to the home so this might influence their chosen system. Renters, on the other hand, may need to seek a landlord’s permission to make changes to the home and also they may be reticent about spending a lot of money to purchase a system that they may not be able to take away with them when they move or of locking themselves in to a rental contract that they might not be able to get out of. So renters need to consider contract lengths for rental or purchase/rental options that would allow them to keep the system and take it with them when they move.

Buying Home Security Equipment vs Leasing

If you’re renting your property, consider how long you plan to stay at your current location. If it’s only for a couple of years or less, then you’ll most likely want to buy a security system with DIY (Do-It-Yourself) installation and purchased equipment, rather than something that's leased. This might seem counterintuitive, but the reason is that most major security companies that lease their equipment require a minimum three-year contract and professional installation, which can be a big commitment. The good news is that if you move before the agreed minimum period and you have a DIY installed system, you can easily move your system to a new location and be up and running in a matter of hours.

If you’re living somewhere long-term and you own the house, you may want to choose a permanent solution with a lower upfront cost but longer contractual obligations. If you're renting (or are a home owner but plan to move in the future) pick from companies that have a higher upfront cost, but that give you ownership of the equipment. Then you'll see lower monthly costs and the benefit of being able to take the equipment with you when you move. When you own the equipment, you can also benefit from being able to source extra sensors or other options from commercial sources rather than having to buy direct from the leasing company who may charge a premium, so this can save you money.

If you prefer to lease equipment rather than purchase, the upfront cost will definitely be better, but in reality you're still paying for that equipment over time, most likely in your monthly service fees, so consider the overall cost, not just the initial cost. Additionally, if you want extra sensors or other things, the cost of that monthly subscription may rise. Or you may simply be told no, because the company you use doesn't have what you're looking for, doesn't offer it to customers in your area, or has compatibility issues that have to be considered, so you need to consider scalability of the system you sign up for if you might want to make changes later.

Home Compatibility

It’s important that your monitoring system is compatible with your home; overly sensitive alarms leading to false alarms can cause a nuisance, while on the other hand, you don’t want an alarm that doesn’t go off when it should. Also, be careful with what you're buying or you could end up with expensive equipment you don’t really need.

Note that some types of systems are better for certain types of areas, e.g., some are well suited to use in more rural areas, while others can basically be used anywhere. Basically, there are three monitoring options you have and these are based on:

  1. Wi-Fi,
  2. Landline, and
  3. Cellular

Wi-Fi
Nowadays, most modern security systems rely on broadband, which means they need a WI-FI connection to fully function. This method is best for home automation systems. Although broadband connectivity has increased massively in recent years, not every house has broadband connection, especially in rural areas, or such areas may have Wi-Fi but with poor or unreliable coverage, which is not suitable for your security system as you need reliable 24-hour service for peace of mind.

Landline
If broadband or Wi-Fi is an issue, you may want to consider a security system that utilizes a landline. Landline monitoring is the least expensive option, but it's not always the most secure: someone who wants access to your home could easily cut the wires to disable the entire system. That's a concern, but it's also not that common, although it remains a possibility.

Cellular
Cellular is the option least susceptible to tampering, but it's also tends to be the most expensive choice. If you select this choice, you want to be sure your area has good cellular coverage, otherwise you won’t be able to reliably access your security system remotely to check on any alerts or to view the live feed from the security cameras. You also need good coverage to enable your security equipment to communicate with the monitoring company and to work with compatible devices and sensors. Think of it in the same way your computer wirelessly connects to your printer and interacts over the same network. If you have a security system with remote sensors and a smartphone app, all of that technology needs proper interaction in order to make everything truly safe and secure.

Home Automation Options

Increasingly, people are looking to fully automate their homes, especially with the growth in the availability of smart devices. Many people want increased automation because it's easier and more convenient, and also because it's novel and interesting. Also, being able to control so many aspects of your home with your voice or an app is an excellent way to relax and still get things done.

Some security systems today are already compatible with smart home automation devices, like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. So, if you're looking for a security system that's compatible with features like unlocking your door from your phone, controlling the AC, activating lights with your voice, then you need to be sure the system you choose is compatible with other devices.

You will find that some equipment is compatible with almost everything, while some are only compatible with very specific systems or possibly even devices from the same company/brand and won’t work with other systems; for instance, a lot of the current smart thermostats won't work with voice controlled options such as Amazon Echo. Additionally, getting each and every device in a home to work together, and to stay working that way, can be frustrating and difficult. However, the more compatible a security system is with other smart technology in the home, the less chance you'll have of problems with the system or its components.

Cost of Home Security – What You Should Expect to Pay

While finding the right home security system to fit your needs is likely your main focus, the cost will still likely be a major consideration. When assessing costs, it’s important to determine how much you'll really be paying, not just what the company is advertising. Many security companies like to offer monitoring services “starting at” a particular price. They may also say “as low as,” but those aren't the actual tallies when you get a monitoring system. There's more to the total cost than the initial, starting price.

When searching for a security system, usually the only price you’ll see upfront is the monthly fee. However, most security systems also have installation fees, activation fees, and sometimes even equipment fees, as well as taxes and surcharges to add on. You’ll want to compare the upfront costs to the long-term costs of each security system. You might find your $20 a month advertised bargain monitoring contract ending up costing you say $45 a month by the time you're added on all the fees and other charges.

When looking at the overall costs of different systems and options, add up the overall costs, and compare the costs between the various security companies you’re considering. Remember, a company advertising free installation and activation may have a higher monthly fee, actually making it more costly than a system that has a fee for installation. Equipment may often rented out by a company too, with the cost of that rental built into a higher monthly fee or you may be required to buy the equipment upfront, but then will have a lower monthly fee, and here an option that seemed too expensive based on upfront fees may actually be very affordable when you take a look at how much you'll be paying every month and could average out to be a lot better deal. On the other hand, it could end up costing you more than if you had rented the equipment and paid a higher monthly fee but with a much lower upfront price. This shows the importance of looking at the overall costs.

Here's a side-by-side cost comparison of some of our top rated security systems:

Home Security CostsFrontpointVivintADTSimpliSafe
Installation Cost$0Starts at $49.99Starts at $0$0
Activation Cost$0$0Starts at $25$0
Equipment CostStarts at $199.95Starts at $549.99Starts at $125Starts at $229.96
Monthly Monitoring Price$34.99 – $49.99$39.99 – $49.99$28.95 – $52.99$0 – $24.99

Home Security Features

For many, the features of a home security system are the most important aspect to think about. There needs to be a good balance though between the features you want and how much you want to pay for those features, and at the same time, you don’t want to pay for a lot of features you don’t need and won’t use, which may be the case if you are purchasing standard home security bundles. You can thus save money by choosing a system that meets your needs perfectly and only paying for what you are going to use, e.g., why pay for a bundle with ten window sensors when you only have eight windows. On the other hand, the bundle you’re looking at may not have all the sensors you need to properly secure your home. So write down what you want monitored in your house, and make sure the systems you’re considering have all the devices necessary to meet your needs. However, on the flipside, it's generally better to have features you don't use, instead of later wishing you had features that don't come with your chosen system, so do your homework first. It’s important to note that almost all major security companies will customize a system specifically for your home and budget.

Here's a comparison of some of the most common features available from a few of the top rated security companies:

Home Security FeaturesFrontpointVivintADTSimpliSafe
Installation TypeDIYProfessionalProfessionalDIY
No-Contract OptionNoNoNoYes
Home AutomationYesYesYesNo
Mobile AppYesYesYesYes
Customer Support Score5-stars3.5-stars3-stars4-stars

Here are some of the most common options and features to consider when shopping for a security system:

  • Control Panel – A control panel monitors security equipment, has a siren or other alarm, and can communicate with emergency dispatchers. Some control panels have a simple digital display, while others may feature a full-color touchscreen for managing the system. The quality of the control panel can vary greatly based on the brand and price. These days, a majority of people are doing all of the control of their systems from their smartphone, in which case there is less need for a sophisticated touchscreen digital display. Think about how you’ll be using your system when deciding what kind of control panel to purchase.
  • Remote Control – Most home security systems now offer remote controllers that fit onto keychains and that usually have buttons that can arm and disarm the security system, and can also alert a monitoring company if help is needed. They are a quick and easy way to access the system and work very much like the key fob offered with many cars today.
  • Sensors – These come in a number of different types, so making sure you get the right ones matter and this will be one of your main considerations in getting the right system to fit your needs. Some sensors may be essential, while others may be options that aren't really going to enhance your security experience but might give you added peace of mind, albeit at a price. However, generally, the bigger the house, the more important the extra sensors may be. The main features and options to consider when looking at home security systems include:
    • Motion SensorsThese sensors are generally placed at entry walls and in large rooms. They will send an alert whenever they detect motion, and often work hand-in-hand with security cameras, so they can activate those cameras to record the motion visually. That way not only will you, and possibly your alarm company, be notified when someone is in your home, but you'll be able to see who it is and even record it.
    • Freeze Sensor – These sensors will alert the user about very low temperatures that could freeze pipes, so the homeowner could wrap the pipes to keep them from freezing and breaking; thus reducing the risk of broken pipes and water damage.
    • Heat Sensor – Different from smoke alarms, these sensors will be set off by rapidly rising temperatures indicative of a potential fire. They don't need smoke to be activated, so if there isn't much smoke or it's blowing the other way, these sensors will still work to keep you and your home safe and protected from harm.
    • Flood Sensor – Most useful in flood prone areas with basements, these sensors will alert you when water levels are detected so you can take action to prevent further damage to your home.
    • Glass Break Sensor – These sensors are set off by the high frequency sound of glass breaking, alerting you to vandals or burglars. There are specific noises that can be used to test these sensors, and they are generally relatively sensitive. If someone breaks your window to access your home, this sensor will let you know.
    • Door and Window Sensors – These are similar to motion sensors, but only detect whenever the window or door they are attached to is opened. This can be great for a door or window that's not easy to see or to get to from the main parts of the house but where someone could more easily slip into these areas if the door or window is left unlocked.
  • Carbon Monoxide DetectorThese alert you if carbon monoxide levels reach a level high enough to be life threatening. That's very important, because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless so you may not realize it's a problem until it's too late, but with a detector you can have good peace of mind.
  • Smoke AlarmSmoke alarms detect and alert you when a high level of smoke is detected, signaling a potential fire. Although they are often just purchased with a battery and used alone, having them wired into the house and into the alarm system is a better choice for most homes. It's safer and can reduce the risk of loss when it comes to life and property.
  • Two-Way Voice – This allows you to speak with someone at the call center of your security system monitoring service, either through the control panel or another device enabled with this feature. You can let them know if it’s a false alarm, or tell them if there's a serious problem you need help with, such as a medical emergency.
  • Mobile & App SupportMobile access for home security systems lets people monitor and control their homes remotely, from anywhere in the world. A smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer can be used for arming a system, viewing live security video, controlling lights, unlocking and locking the door, and even controlling the air conditioning.
  • Guarantees and Warranties – Companies often offer warranties for equipment, in case that equipment happens to fail within a given time frame. They may also provide relocation guarantees with discounted or free installation services, in case you move within the length of your contract. Not all companies provide these things, so pay close attention to the details of any contract you're considering before you sign it.
  • Security Cameras – These provide video recordings and a live view of your house and surroundings, which can be seen remotely if the service provides app support. If you want this service, be sure to check whether there is app support. That's especially important if you travel or work long hours, when you may be away from your house a lot of the time. See our favorite security systems with cameras.
  • Home Automation – Installing a security system in your home is a convenient time to add home automation. Home security companies provide mobile apps that can control home lighting, thermostats, surveillance cameras, and more. But carefully check equipment compatibility. Here's a list of our favorite home security systems with automation.
  • Cellular Monitoring – Many alarm system control panels use cellular signals to communicate with emergency operators. Others use landlines or broadband Internet connections as we mentioned before. Cellular systems are generally the least vulnerable to tampering, but they are also the most expensive. Be sure to find out which type of connection the company is offering before getting an alarm system.
  • Landline Monitoring – Landline monitoring provides the most stable connection when a reliable cellular or Wi-Fi network isn’t available. Traditionally, landline home security was the least expensive, but cellular networks today are becoming more affordable. Note, with a landline there is a risk someone could cut the wires to disable the system. While this isn't common, it's something to be aware of.
  • Flood Lights – Often combined with motion sensors, these can be used to light up a large area so you can see who is on your property or to scare them away.

Installation Methods

Installing a security system can be a daunting task, so perhaps its best left to the professionals, especially if you’re not much of a DIY person to begin with. However, there are some systems that can be installed by homeowner relatively easily themselves; this can save a lot of money

Professional vs DIY Installation

Professional installations can ensure that everything is working properly, and the installer can give you a walkthrough of all the features so you can quickly become familiar with all the features and how to use them. This is best for people who are sure they’ll be living in their current place for a long time, since it’s a one-off cost, albeit it can be expensive, and you will have peace of mind knowing that the system has been properly installed. However, if you think you're going to move relatively soon, then a system with a DIY installation option may be the best choice for you as this would save you money, and would also serve you in good stead as experience to install the system elsewhere when you move.

But first, it also depends what type of person you are. Professional installations may be best for busy families and non-tech-savvy people or people who aren’t good with tools. The elderly and busy families may also benefit from getting a professional installation, rather than over-burdening themselves with a DIY option. But if you have the time and the skills, a DIY installation can be a good choice and can save you potentially lots of money, especially DIY enthusiasts and tech-savvy individuals. Many companies that allow for DIY installation have very comprehensive manuals on how to set everything up, and even apps that can guide you through the connectivity between devices and the control panel.

The main issue with DIY installations is if any problems do arise, you may not be clear on how to fix them. What seemed like a quick setup could turn into hours of troubleshooting or even back-and-forth dialog with customer support (if you go with the wrong company), being put on hold, and having to redo installations over, and over, and over again. That can become a huge source of frustration, and no one wants to deal with that. These kinds of problems are generally not the norm, but they can happen in some cases.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that wireless systems usually do not need a professional installation. These usually involve relatively a simple installation as such systems are nearly plug-and-play with no wires to run through walls and usually very user-friendly connectivity processes, so you should be able to install the devices yourself with some basic tools.

Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of both types of installations:

Professional Installation

The Pros

  • It can be a major time saver – All you need to do is set up the appointment for the installer to come by your house and get everything installed. You won’t need to spend hours toiling over what goes where, getting everything drilled and screwed in, and then realizing it doesn’t work right and you have to spend time troubleshooting to find where the faults are or where the connections have been set up wrong, and then having to redo it all again. The professional knows exactly how to set up the system.
  • It will have a professional appearance – The professional will install everything flawlessly, so that all the cameras, sensors, and the control panel are level and properly secured. DIY installations can get sloppy if not done properly.
  • You'll get an experienced walkthrough – At the end of the installation, the installer will be able to walk you through how to work the system and how to take full advantage of all the features. If you do it yourself, you may never come across certain features.
  • There may be an opportunity for a bundled discount – Sometimes professional installations come with an offer of extra equipment or even discounts on the monthly plans, which can offset some of the cost of the professional installation and make it more economically attractive. Check with your system provider to see if they offer any such discounts.

The Cons

  • Possibly increased upfront costs – Some providers may advertise professional installation as “free,” but really the cost will be built into a higher monthly fee or higher equipment costs. Generally, the costs for a professional installation can range from as low as $99 for a basic system, up to $1,500 or more, with this cost depending on what features you want and how big your house is. You’ll want to compare the upfront costs, along with the total cost of the monitoring service over the course of the contract to see if the “free” installation really is free and worth taking up.
  • Appointment scheduling for the installation can be a hassle – If you’re a busy person that's only home in the evenings, for example, scheduling an appointment can be difficult, especially as some companies only give a timeframe of up to eight hours when their installer will show up and you’ll need to be home that entire time to wait for them. Taking the whole day off for a security system installation may not be realistic, depending on what you do for a living and what types of hours you traditionally work.
  • Your system may not be fully customizable – While the professional installer will set everything up nicely, they tend to follow a strict install and set up routine, which may not be exactly to your individual spec. You might later want some additions and upgrades too, but these might not match with your system set up, so consider future scalability, especially if you're very particular about what you want with your home security system.

DIY Installation

The Pros

  • You'll have full control – Professional installers tend to follow a strict routine when it comes to how to install and set up a security system. When you do it yourself, you can fully customize where the devices go. You can then add on any additional devices whenever you want, or change old ones. It's a great way to have the freedom to really make the home security system your own.
  • There will be lower costs – Doing it yourself eliminates the need to pay someone else to do it. You can easily save hundreds of dollars, and possibly even more as the monthly plans of many companies that allow DIY installation tend to be cheaper, too.
  • There aren't any appointments to keep and you can do it at your own convenience – You can install the system whenever you want. There's no need to wait on the installer to come by, or to reschedule if something changes. This is a great way to work on the system after hours, on weekends, or whenever you have the spare time to set it up and get it operating and protecting your home. If you're in a hurry, there's no need to wait on an appointment, either.
  • You'll get a tremendous sense of satisfaction – Anyone who has done DIY projects knows the satisfaction of seeing something you did yourself come to fruition. If something does go wrong down the road, you’ll also feel empowered to fix it on your own, rather than feeling helpless and needing to call in someone else to address the issue. You'll know a lot about your security system by the time it's operating, and you can feel good about your level of knowledge in caring for the system in the future.

The Cons

  • DIY installations can be tough and time consuming – DIY can be time consuming, especially if things don’t go smoothly. If you’re a busy person or have a chaotic schedule, it could turn out to be a much bigger hassle to install the system yourself, rather than simply paying someone else to get it done quickly and correctly. You have to weigh the lower price of the DIY installation against the value of your time.
  • There may be troubleshooting issues – When things don’t go smoothly, you may have to spend hours figuring out what the issue is, possibly seeking help through the company’s customer support. But even then, you may not be able to fully solve the issue. Not all customer support personnel are helpful, and it can be hard to explain and understand the issue if you're not exactly sure what's wrong.
  • Consider the upfront equipment costs – You may have to buy the equipment yourself to install it, which will add to the upfront cost. With professional installations, you may just be renting the equipment, with the costs built into the monthly subscription fee. If you don't mind paying a little bit more upfront, though, you could save yourself a lot of money over time by doing a DIY installation.
  • You won't get a professional walkthrough – With no walkthrough, there's a chance you might not fully comprehend all you can do with your new security system and might miss out on some features or tips. Control panels and apps can have a lot of hidden functions that you may not discover on your own, or even see mentioned in the manual.

Here are many of the top companies currently offering security solutions for the home.

List of Home Security Companies

Summary

Choosing a home security system can seem intimidating; especially when you're trying to decide which one best fits your lifestyle and living arrangements. It can be time consuming to go through each and every offering. But the more understanding you have of home security systems, the better off you'll be when it comes to finding the one that will work best for you. Hopefully, this guide helped you narrow down your options and make the right choice. Next, check out our most popular list of best home security systems.