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Choosing the Right Home Alarm System

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Although I take a certain amount of comfort from statistics that show major declines in most types of crime throughout the U.S., I also know that burglaries have increased in areas surrounding my neighborhood over the last few years. Until now, I've been on the fence about how best to ensure my family's safety and protect our property.

What finally prompted action was when my family recently returned home after being away for one night and found that someone had gotten about 90 percent through the process of unscrewing our front door handle -- in full view of anyone who might have passed by on our fairly well-traveled street.

I figured we got lucky that time but it was a wake-up call that we needed to beef up our security measures. I did a lot of research on home alarm systems and here's what I learned:

There are several national players in the home security industry (like ADT, Protection 1 and XFinity), as well as numerous regional and local companies. I discovered that much of the equipment used by most of them comes from the same few manufacturers, including GE and Honeywell.

With larger companies like ADT (which we eventually chose), you can buy directly from them, or go through one of their authorized contractors who will sell you the equipment and install it, then turn over the ongoing monitoring to ADT. In our case, I was able to use my AAA membership discount with a local ADT-authorized agent and bargain for a lot of additional hardware, saving considerable money on the overall deal.

Certain vendors will sell you the equipment directly to install yourself, which can save even more money on installation and monitoring fees. I watched their installation videos and it seemed fairly straightforward, but ultimately my wife and I decided that it was more cost-effective to take advantage of the steep equipment discount that came with having it professionally installed. (Run the numbers both ways if you're handy with installations.)

Some people install a security system that sounds an ear-piercing alarm if their house is broken into but doesn't send a signal to a central monitoring station. That'll save you from paying a monthly monitoring bill -- typically $20 to $50 a month or more. If you're lucky the neighbors will call the police, but be aware that police departments often charge a stiff fee for responding to false alarms.

Far more common is to sign a monitoring service contract with a home security company -- usually at least a two- or three-year commitment. It's not unlike buying a subsidized smartphone from AT&T and then being locked into a multi-year service contract -- that's how they recoup the expense for discounted equipment.

Typically, whenever your system is activated by a broken seal or unexpected movement, it sends a signal to a central monitoring station -- usually via your phone line. The monitoring station generally will call your home or workplace to verify it's not a false alarm. If they can't reach you, or the person who answers gives the wrong password, they may then contact the proper authorities (police, fire or medical services) to investigate.

Depending on how much you're willing to spend, there's a broad array of security equipment available, including:
  • Central control unit with backup battery, keypad and siren. (Some systems send a silent alarm to the monitoring station, which contacts the police.)
  • Motion detectors, which sense changes in a room caused by human presence. Special detectors are also available for people with pets, to avoid false alarms.
  • Magnetic door and window contacts, which, when the alarm system is activated, form a circuit that breaks when the door or window is opened, sounding the alarm.
  • Detectors for smoke, fire, carbon monoxide and/or broken glass.
  • Panic buttons (hand-held or mounted in strategic locations).
  • Pressure mats placed under rugs to detect footsteps.
  • Closed-circuit TV system to allow monitoring and/or recording inside or outside your home.
  • Temperature gauges to detect if your furnace is broken and the pipes are about to freeze.
  • Water detectors to detect basement leaks.

Most homeowners and renters insurance policies provide a discount for installing an alarm system -- generally between 2 and 20 percent, depending on which equipment you've installed. We got a 5 percent discount for installing sensors on two doors and eight windows, along with two motion detectors.

As with any major purchase, it pays to shop around. I asked friends for recommendations and did a lot of online research, although I couldn't get accurate pricing information without speaking to sales representatives. Don't fall for high-pressure sales techniques or scare tactics. Once you've identified a few good candidates, check for customer complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Angie's List or other trusted reviewers. The Federal Trade Commission provides tips for choosing a home security system and identifying common scams.

If you can't afford an alarm system, there are many relatively inexpensive steps you can take, such as installing good-quality door deadbolts and window locks, using light timers when away, adding outdoor motion-sensor lighting and installing inside-release safety bars on ground-floor windows.

And don't forget common-sense safety habits like always locking doors, whether at home or away, placing delivery holds on mail and newspapers when on vacation, and never publishing your travel itinerary on social media sites -- and make sure your kids don't either.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.