Home security systems: should you have one?

Home security systems a shrewd buyHome safety and security is a top concern for most consumers, so it's no surprise the home security industry is booming in this time of economic uncertainty and rising crime statistics. But while new technologies have made home security systems smarter and easier to use, how much protection do you really get for your money?

The answer is: it depends. Costs, services and benefits are as varied as the ways burglars try to break into a house. If you're monitoring the home security market for the right system to protect your family and your property, here are answers to the big questions about home security alarm systems.

How much will a home security system cost?
The cost of alarm systems ranges from next to nothing for basic components and a monthly monitoring contract priced between $30 and $50, to several thousand dollars for a more complex, advanced home security system. Different homes and homeowners have different requirements, and the cost of a security system ultimately depends on the features you include and the level of service you choose. Video surveillance, wireless motion sensors, smart-phone-based controls and carbon-monoxide detection are just a few of the elements that can increase costs along with security. Surprise setup and activation fees can also catch you off guard.

It's mission critical to do thorough research before you buy, making sure you've read the fine print and pushed past the flashy marketing that accompanies many bargain-priced security packages. What looks basic and seems to cover all your security bases may actually involve several additions that add up, like installation of supplemental smoke or heat detectors that are required by your local building safety code. An on-site assessment by your home security system representative is the best way to determine what you and your home really need, so don't make any big purchase decisions without it.

How does a home security alarm system work?
Security alarm systems vary, of course, but usually include a combination of motion sensors and door and window contacts that connect back to a home alarm device with at least one keypad control. When the system is armed and active, the sensors and contacts trigger the on-site alarm. If the alarm isn't immediately disarmed by punching the correct code into the keypad, the security company's monitoring center is notified, and they in turn will call you and the police. System additions like fire and flood detection will trigger other alert processes, and a reputable home security alarm company will work with you to develop every detail of detection, protection and contact for emergency situations.

What makes a home security system worth the money?
A home security system can be a strong, proven deterrent for would-be burglars. In fact, a recent Rutgers University study found that the presence of residential burglar alarm systems actually decreases crime, making homes that have security alarms far less attractive to intruders. And, contrary to popular belief, because burglars find your home protected doesn't automatically mean they will go down the street to attack a neighboring house. The Rutgers team found that home security systems protect the homes they are installed in without displacing potential burglaries to other homes in the neighborhood.

Peace of mind is also a major benefit, and the variety, flexibility and high-tech features offered by today's security systems make it possible to cover concerns beyond breaking and entering. Smart systems can notify you when the kids have arrived safely home from school, warn you of fires and carbon-monoxide exposures, and even alert you to frozen pipes and potential plumbing disasters when you're out of town.

Another reason home security is worth the investment? Reduced insurance costs. Depending on your system's design and service structure, most of the monitoring costs can be made up by discounts on your homeowner's insurance coverage.

Cheaper alternatives
While home security systems can offer a wide array of protection, you don't need to invest in one to toughen up your home for intruders. A number of cheap home security tricks can enhance your home security, or build upon the effectiveness of any professionally installed system.

For example, a well-lit home is much less likely to be broken into, so illuminate your home's exterior with motion-detector spotlights and other strategic fixtures, and put interior lights on timers when you're away. Also pay attention to your landscaping, keeping trees and shrubs trimmed so that thugs don't have a place to hide. Reinforce all entry doors with deadbolt locks, add security bars and pins to sliding and garage doors, and install a wide-angle peep hole in your front door so that you can easily see who's come knocking.

Finally, make sure all windows are closed and locked any time you leave the house, and forget the idea of hiding spare keys in "secret" places outside your home (news flash: smart burglars definitely know which flowerpots to look under).

According to the FBI, nearly one-third of all burglaries occurred when the intruder simply walked right in to an open house. Even the best security system in the world can't protect you from that!

Tom Kraeutler delivers home security tips and more each week as host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. He is also AOL's Home Improvement Editor and author of "My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure."

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Investing in Real Estate

Learn the basics of investing in real estate.

View Course »

Advice for Recent College Grads

Prepare yourself for the "real world".

View Course »