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Important Things to Know Before Choosing a Home Security System

Jordan Grimmer
Jordan Grimmer | 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

How do home security systems contact the police?

When the home security system is armed, one of the peripherals triggers the keypad unit if they detect a door or window opening. A loud alarm blares within the home and sends you an alert that your house has been broken into. If you don't answer immediately to report a false alarm, a signal is then sent to your local police department that your home has been broken into. Law enforcement should be there momentarily.

Can't I just get security cameras?

Sure, you could, but it wouldn't have all the features of a robust home security system. The majority of Wi-Fi security cameras which are so popular today don't have a way to contact a monitoring service if there is a break-in. The camera can detect motion and send you push notifications on your phone, but it's then left to you to contact local authorities. If your house is being burglarized and you're not near your phone or it's turned off, you're out of luck. This is why a security camera can be a great addition to a home security system but it can never really take the place of a full-fledged home security system. Monthly monitoring services are what make all the difference. Professional monitoring ensures your home is protected at all times.

Why can't I just get a dog for home security purposes?

You could get a dog as a home security measure, and it might help. When it comes to protecting your home from burglaries, it's important to create a lot of "what ifs" for your potential predator. A dog is one of those what ifs. What if it bites me? What if it starts barking and making a racket? More variables make for a more complicated target, which should lead your burglar to simply move on to the next one.

With that being said, some dogs are so friendly and quiet that they'll treat your burglar as another guest. If your dog is overactive, it might make a scene over false alarms. Some experienced burglars will distract a dog with a piece of meat or some other distraction, so it's best to get special training for your dog to teach them how to attack predators. However, special guard dog training can take years and cost thousands of dollars. If you've already got a dog, that's great, but it shouldn't be your primary source of home security. Home security systems can provide safety and coverage that your dog cant and home security companies also offer quality customer service and assistance that makes home security easier to handle. 

What's the difference between DIY and professionally installed systems?

Most established home security companies prefer to do professional installation by sending a trained representative to install your security system. This means that you'll need to be at home at a prescheduled time while they set things up. These professionals should have gone through rigorous training to become certified in home security installation.

Do-it-yourself home security systems are becoming much more popular in recent years. Some alarm systems operate completely on Wi-Fi and cellular systems, so there's no need to string and conceal long wires between sensors and the control panel. This also makes moving your system much more convenient if you need to relocate, and apartment owners won't have to make landlords unhappy with nail holes and wall mounts.

Essentially, one isn't inherently better than the other. It just comes down to preference. When looking at home security companies, check out alarm system reviews to see if customers preferred the do-it-yourself solution or the professional solution. This may help you decide which one is best for you.

How do I know what kind of system I need?

First, take into account how many windows and doors you have in your house. Naturally, if you have a smaller home, you can probably get away with a smaller system. If you have a very large home, you'll want to get the biggest, most robust system you can find. A professional installer will already have an idea of where to place sensors for optimum security, but if you're installing a system yourself, prioritize the back door, basement windows, and floor level windows.

What are some low-cost ways I can enhance my home's security?

There are many low-cost and simple ways you can enhance your home's security. Here are a few:

  • Trim bushes and remove trees around your house, decreasing places to hide
  • Place small solar lights down walkways and driveways
  • Keep ladders and other tools safely inside the house
  • Place things in front of windows that would be hard to climb over or move
  • Keep lights or TVs on when you leave the house

What is the best home security company?

The best home security company is ranked according to our criteria and home security reviews left by customers. Usually, the company with the most positive user reviews is ranked number one at Best Company, but this isn't always the case. Our criteria at Best Company involves which company scores best in regards to price, upfront fees, contract lengths, monitoring options, equipment available, and national coverage. The most important thing is that consumers get quality products and reliable services while saving money, so when you pick the top-ranked company at Best Company, you can have peace of mind and feel confident that you're getting high-quality products and great customer service.

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