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Important Things to Know Before Choosing a Home Security System

McCall Martin
McCall Martin | Senior Editor

We've always had security to provide peace of mind in one form or another — a gate around a city, a moat around a castle, a fence around your property, or just a lock on your door. Home security systems started gaining more traction in the early 1990s and led to a sharp decline in residential burglaries, but with so many options now, it can be hard to tell which one is best for you. Here are a few things to know before taking a look at the best home security companies.

Home security basics

A home security system will have a few basic components: a keypad unit or base station, at least one or two sensors, and a monitoring station. The keypad is the brain of the system, usually mounted on a wall in a high-traffic area of your home. The keypad allows you to arm and disarm your system, and some systems can even be armed remotely from a cell phone. Sensors come in two pieces. One piece, you'll place on the edge of a door/window, and the other piece you'll place next to it on the door/window frame. The door and window sensors will be able to tell when a window or door is closed.

If the system is armed and a motion sensor detects that a window or door has been opened, an alarm will sound and an emergency signal will be sent to a remote monitoring service station. Representatives at these remote monitoring stations have been trained and certified to respond to home security emergency signals. They'll have tools to contact you and ask if the signal trip was a fluke, and they'll contact the authorities in the case of an actual emergency.

Installation and activation fees

Sometimes, an alarm company will claim to charge a low monthly fee, then hit you with a host of upfront fees. Usually, they'll be classified as activation or installation fees and can cost you hundreds of dollars, so be wary. If you have an alarm company representative knocking on your door trying to sell you a contract, make sure you're explicitly clear on understanding upfront fees. You might be paying more out of pocket than you'd like. However, some top-tier home security companies won't charge anything for installation or activation. Check out our home security reviews if you want to learn more about the top-rated home security companies. 

Contracts and warranties

It's normal for a home security company to lock you into a three- to five-year contract. A three-year contract is more convenient because a shorter contract means more versatility for you. While a five-year contract might translate into a lower monthly fee, it really depends on the company. Either way, you need to be absolutely sure that you won't be moving in that three to five year period or your home security provider could penalize you. You might be able to pass the contract onto the next homeowner, but if you insist on keeping your system and moving it to your next location, you'll probably have to pay a moving fee and renew your contract. Make sure you ask a home security representative all these questions before you sign on the dotted line.

Monitoring options

Security systems are linked to a monitoring center via a Wi-Fi, landline, or cellular connection. Cellular connections are becoming more common, but landline connections still have their place in less expensive systems. Landline connections can still contact the monitoring center even if the power goes out. However, most cellular security systems will have backup power that will last a few days in the case of a power outage. As for Wi-Fi-enabled security, you have to rely on a stable broadband connection or your home security system is going to be out of commission.


Typical home security equipment consists of the following:

Control panel—This is the brain of your home security system. The control panel allows you to arm and disarm your system and is usually mounted on a wall in a busy area of your home, such as the kitchen or living room. A lot of WiFi-compatible home security systems will have an app that allows you to arm and disarm your home security system from a mobile device.

Window/door sensors—Window and door sensors are the bread and butter of your home security system. These basic sensors are mounted on your doors or windows and alert the keypad unit of a break-in when a door or window is opened. Every security system will have at least one or two door/window sensors.

Motion detectors—A motion detector detects movement inside or out of a home. Some motion sensors are advanced enough to detect the difference between a human and a pet such as a cat or a dog. If movement is detected, it alerts the keypad unit.

Smoke detectors—These detect fire and smoke in your home and send alerts to the keypad unit.

Carbon monoxide detectors—These detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and sounds an alarm when it gets too high.

Yard sign—This is the unsung hero of your home security system. Most burglars will pass up your home if they see a yard sign out front. They want an easier target, and a home security system complicates things.

Security camerasSecurity cameras will be classified as interior or exterior cameras. An exterior security camera is manufactured to withstand elements such as snow or rain, while an interior camera isn't. In most cases, you should be able to monitor video surveillance from a security app and even store footage for a regular fee, but it depends on the company and package.

Home automation

Home automation is becoming much more popular as it becomes more affordable. Home automation includes tools such as light control, remote door locks, thermostat control, doorbell cameras, and even small appliance activation all from a mobile app. These devices can communicate with your mobile app and each other using advanced z-wave technology. However, it's important to know that these features are almost never standard with basic alarm systems. Chances are that you'll have to purchase an advanced system from your home security provider if you want to have home automation functionality. Most of these tools such as smart lights and remote locks operate on a Wi-Fi connection so they won't function if the power is out.

If you decide that home automation is for you, ask your preferred home security provider what packages and home automation devices it offers. When it comes to home automation, not every company is created equal, and some companies will be able to offer you more options than others.

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Home Security Frequently Asked Questions

Do home security systems really work?

While no home security system is 100 percent effective against home invasion, the presence of a security system is enough to deter most would-be burglars. On the off chance that a home invader breaks into a protected home, a professional monitoring station will alert both the homeowner and the authorities within seconds. In most cases, police will arrive on the scene within minutes of a trigger event.

Do I need an alarm permit to install a home security system?

Most local governments require homeowners to secure an alarm permit prior to installing an alarm system. This is for a number of reasons, not least of which is to authorize the dispatch of emergency services when a home system has been triggered. Homeowners without a permit could also be subject to fines if their alarm siren goes off.

How much does a home security system cost?

The cost of a home security system largely depends on desired features and services. Most security equipment packages can cost anywhere between a few hundred to nearly a thousand dollars. Monthly monitoring costs, meanwhile, can range from $15 to more than $40. Some companies will also charge homeowners installation or activation fees of $100 or more.

What does a basic home security system consist of?

While every home security provider varies in what it defines as a “basic” package, most companies will offer some combination of the following security features:

  • Central control panel
  • Door and window sensors
  • Motion detectors
  • Yard signs and window decals

For an additional fee, you can expand your system to include indoor and outdoor security cameras, video doorbells, remote key fobs, and specialized sensors like a glass-break detector.

Which is better: DIY or professional installation?

This largely depends on how responsible you want to be for installing, maintaining, and responding to your home security systems. If you live in a small house or apartment and would rather monitor your system yourself (rather than pay for professional monitoring), a DIY system could be right for you.

On the other hand, if your home requires more sensors or your property has more potential blindspots, a professionally installed and monitored system might be best.

Which is better: wired or wireless systems?

Prior to recent developments in home security technology, hard-wired or landline-based systems were considered preferable to wireless systems because they were more difficult to tamper with or disarm. But wireless communication protocols have become much more sophisticated in the past few years, to the point where they are just as or more reliable than hard-wired systems. For example, most modern wifi- or cellular-based sensors test their communication to the central hub regularly — once every hour — to ensure the system is not faulty or being interrupted. Some security companies offer both communication types in the same system as a redundancy.

The real question to ask is whether you want your security provider to drill and run wires throughout your home. If you plan on staying in your home for a prolonged period, a hard-wired system might be preferable; but if you rent or plan on moving, a wireless system will prove much more portable and easy to install in your new home.

How do I avoid getting scammed by a home security company?

One common pain point in the home security industry is the high-pressure, door-to-door sales tactics employed by some less reputable home security companies. To avoid getting scammed by bad actors, consider the following tips: 

  • Do not commit to a contract on the first day — sales representatives may try to pressure you into signing a contract by advertising low-cost promotional rates or other discounts for signing right away; however, these low rate are sometimes accompanied by steep upfront fees, and are often replaced by the regular rate after the first month of service.
  • Ask direct questions — sales reps and companies that use these tactics often prey on the ignorance of homeowners to make their sales. Asking direct questions can quickly help you root out which companies will actually deliver on their promises: 
    • “How long is your service contract?”
    • “What fees am I expected to pay upfront?”
    • “How long does your promotional rate last?”
    • “Do you offer a free trial, and if so, for how long?”
    • “What if I want to cancel services?”

If this information is not easily attainable, either by a sales rep, customer service rep, or the company website, you may want to align yourself with a company that can provide these answers in plain terms.

  • Read customer reviews — regardless of what a company may say about itself, you’ll almost always find the truth about how that company does business in the customer reviews. When researching customer reviews, look for objective platforms that publish both positive and negative reviews. 


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