Choosing a home security system for a home or business can take some detective work. Security systems can be as simple as a single surveillance camera or as elaborate as a wired system covering an entire house, garage and maybe even a swimming pool.
The equipment can include cameras, motion sensors, control panels, alarms and keyboards, all designed to help detect intrusions, heat, smoke and carbon monoxide. A monthly fee is charged for linking the system to a company that can alert emergency services.
What can you expect to pay? If your choice of a system is based on what you can afford or are willing to spend, here are some rough guidelines:
Less than $500
Some do-it-yourself equipment, available from such retailers as Lowe's or RadioShack, can start at about $70 for a simple device that can monitor a doorway.
RadioShack, for example, has a variety of surveillance cameras and wireless systems in the $100-to-$150 range. Some of those come with an automated dialer that when triggered can call as many as four phone numbers with prerecorded messages.
Pros: Retail products can be easy to install and understand, and having a surveillance camera or two might help you identify an intruder later on.
Cons: Such a system might not be suitable for large homes, there's no backup in case the phone lines go dead, and they might not prevent a break-in. Also, wireless devices such as cameras can be monitored by eavesdroppers unless encrypted.
$500 to $1,000
In the middle ground, a consumer can pay a professional company to install a basic system for about $600, which might include a control panel, keypad, perhaps three door contacts and a couple of motion detectors, said Bill Cooper, a Louisville security expert who works with ADT. Tack on $22 to $30 a month to have an outside company monitor it.
Pros: This can provide more peace of mind and adequate protection for many homeowners by covering more options and territory.
Cons: It can place more of a burden on homeowners to learn how to use the system properly.
More than $1,000
On the higher end, how much you spend will be determined by how much area you want to cover, how much equipment you need and how elaborate a system you want.
Pros: In addition to guarding against break-ins, you can buy sensors to detect heat, fire and carbon monoxide, even whether pipes are starting to freeze.
Cons: "A high-priced system may be so complicated you can't use it. Or, if there are so many things to keep you from doing things, you have to wonder, `Can I live this way? Do I need to protect every door and window?' It's how much comfort are you getting by giving up convenience," says Ed Perratore, an associate editor at Consumer Reports in Yonkers, N.Y.
Whether to have a professionally installed system or one a homeowner can install is up to the homeowner, said Perratore, who has researched home security systems.
"Homeowners have a wide stretch of capabilities," he said. "If you were very handy you might be able to do a decent job. But there are so many things to do with installing, it's very easy to leave something out."
Consumers may consider protecting just the first-floor doors and windows if higher floors are difficult for an intruder to access. Cooper's recommendation for basic, minimum security is to have all doors covered and motion detectors for interior traps, such as hallways and foyers. Enhancements can include smoke, fire and broken-glass detectors.
"And use signs and decals to let people know you have a system," he said.
WEIGHING ALARM COMPANIES
Some tips for choosing a professional security company:
Get referrals from friends and insurance agents. Check out any customer referrals from companies being considered.
Check out companies with the Better Business Bureau and state attorney general's office, and ask how the companies prescreen employees.
Get several bids, in writing. A down payment is appropriate, but you should not have to pay in full upfront.
Ask whether the company belongs to the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association ? (301) 585-1855 or www.alarm.org ? which imposes a code of ethics. "If they're not a member, it doesn't mean they're shady; it's just that we can't vouch for them," said Rick Ostopowicz, a spokesman for the organization.
Study any monitoring contract closely. Understand the length and terms; what recourse you have if you are not satisfied with the service; whether you can cancel the contract and whether there's a penalty for doing so; and what your rights are if your monitoring company is acquired by another company.
Be cautious with companies that offer a "free" system. "Usually they say the installation is free, but the catch is you have to sign up for monitoring," said Bill Cooper of ADT Security Services. "The key is to compare the overall price with what you would pay if it wasn't free. In some cases you can end up paying just as much as for a regular system, in some cases maybe more."