How to evaluate a home security system

A home security system is your first line of defense when protecting your family and your property. But home security systems come in all shapes and sizes, from complex, professionally installed systems to simple DIY setups. 

Choosing the best home security system can be intimidating, but it’s easier once you know what you need. We’ll guide you through some important questions you should ask to help you find the home security system that’s right for you. 

Home security facts

What is a home security system?

A home security system usually starts with a control panel that acts as the “brains” of the system. The control panel uses your home phone line, a cellular connection or a broadband connection to call for help in case of an unauthorized entry or signal. Most home security systems also have a device called a “horn” or “sounder” that creates a loud alarm when a security device is tripped. It can be part of the control panel or placed in a separate location. 

Basic wireless home security systems use contact sensors and motion sensors that send signals to the control panel. You can place contact sensors on doors and windows so that an alarm will sound when they’re opened. Motion sensors use passive infrared (PIR) to detect movement. They’re usually placed in the corner of a room and will sound the system’s alarm when tripped.

If you’re looking to go beyond basic home security, you can add in more devices like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, video surveillance cameras, video doorbells, automated lighting, flood sensors, freeze sensors and more.  

With all the options available, it can be hard to even know what to ask when shopping for a home security system. Here are the top five questions you should ask when evaluating a home security system.

How much protection do we need?

When deciding how much protection you need, the most important consideration is the size and layout of your home. 

If you live in a small apartment, a basic system with just a few contact sensors and a motion detector might be all you need. But if your home has multiple entrances and windows at ground level, you’ll probably want more protection. Keep in mind that multiple entrances and/or windows can often be covered with a single motion sensor instead of multiple contact sensors. 

If you frequently travel out of town, you might want to add smoke detectors and home automation capabilities to your alarm system. This lets you arm and disarm your security system from anywhere using an app on your smartphone, and you can also connect smart locks, thermostats and interior and exterior lights for added security and convenience. Video surveillance is also a good idea if you’re frequently away. 

What are our home security must-haves?

Once you know how much protection you need, it’s time to think beyond the basics and consider the features that will help you feel safer on a day-to-day basis. 

For example, if you live in a neighborhood that’s a hot spot for door-to-door salespeople, doorbell cameras, outdoor video cameras and motion sensor floodlights are good investments. If you live in a more secluded area with a long driveway, you might decide to get a driveway alarm. If you have kids, smart locks and home security camera systems are useful. 

How much do we want to pay?

Though it’s not true for all home security systems, a common rule of thumb is that systems that cost more up front typically have lower monthly fees, whereas systems that are cheap (or even free) to install will likely cost you more in monthly monitoring fees. 

On average, you can expect to pay around $200 for a basic, DIY, self-monitored home security system. DIY systems frequently have optional monthly monitoring, so you’ll pay anywhere from $0 to $30 a month for monitoring. You can have a basic system professionally installed from $49 to $99, but your monthly fee will probably be between $20 and $30 or more, because it includes the cost of the equipment along with monitoring.

You can save a significant amount of money in the long run by choosing a home security system with a higher upfront cost, but if you’re on a budget, it might be easier to spread out the cost over several years. 

Do we want the system to be professionally monitored or self-monitored?

Traditional, professionally monitored home security systems send a signal to a monitoring center whenever there’s an alarm event. Monitoring center dispatchers can then call police or firefighters to your residence if needed. Self-monitored systems send an alert to your phone instead, and it’s up to you to call 911. 

Self-monitoring is a great option if you’re on a budget, but because you can easily miss an alert, you don’t get the same level of security as you do with a professionally monitored home security system. 

Do we want to sign a contract or not?

There are many contract-free home security systems, but contracts can help keep your monthly fees low. Before signing a contract, it’s important to understand the company’s cancellation policy, including any fees or other expenses you might be responsible for if you have to cancel. 

Also consider your situation: Is there a chance you could move before the contract term is up? Can you still keep your contract and your home security system in your new home? Make sure you know all the details before signing on the dotted line.

Top home security systems

ADT

ADT is known for its longstanding reputation in the security industry. Its professionally installed wireless home security systems are a good option for those who don’t feel comfortable with a DIY installation. ADT requires a minimum three-year contract, with professional monitoring fees starting at $36.99 a month. It offers virtually every type of security device on the market, and has several redundant monitoring centers throughout the U.S. so you’ll never be without monitoring coverage.

Cove

A basic home security system with Cove will cost you around $275, and monitoring fees start at $14.99 a month.It’s pretty bare bones — the company only sells ten pieces of equipment — but it also comes with a price lock guarantee, and its DIY installation is known to be one of the easiest in the industry. It’s a good choice for smaller homes and apartments. Cove works with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, but you won’t see smart door locks, smart lights or other home automation products in its lineup, so if having a smart home is important to you, you might want to keep shopping.

Frontpoint

Frontpoint’s affordable, DIY home security systems make it a popular choice among both homeowners and renters. Installation takes less than 30 minutes, and basic home security system packages start at $99 down, with no long-term contract. The only catch is you can’t monitor your own security system — you have to pay a monthly fee to have it monitored by Frontpoint, and at $44.99 a month, you’ll pay more than you would with other home security monitoring plans.

Link Interactive

Link Interactive skips upfront equipment costs and instead rolls it all into your monthly monitoring fee. Once your system is paid off (or if you choose to use existing equipment you already own) you’ll only pay $30.99 a month for monitoring. Link Interactive has a keypad with two-way voice so you can talk to dispatchers at the monitoring center if you can’t get to a phone. Installation is DIY, but you can customize your system so you get only the devices you need. Link Interactive is a lesser known company, but it gets an A+ and a 5-star customer rating from the Better Business Bureau.

Nest Secure

Nest Secure has devices that are both beautiful and highly functional, and it’s a great choice for home security if you already have a Nest thermostat. Nest Secure has unique features like door and window sensors that do triple duty as motion sensors and night lights. Nest Protect is a combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that can communicate with your Nest thermostat to turn off your heating and air system if it detects a problem. You can also add on video doorbells and cameras to your system, but Nest cameras have been the subject of some recent security concerns. Nest Secure packages start at $399 with DIY installation. You can monitor your home security system yourself or opt for professional monitoring through Brinks.

Protect America

With no upfront costs and monthly monitoring starting at $19.99, Protect America offers a pretty good deal on DIY home security, but there’s a catch: The low monthly fee is only for landline monitoring, and it comes with a 36-month contract. Still, if you’re looking for a long-term, bare-bones, low-budget option, Protect America is worth considering. Unlike many home security companies, it offers a lifetime warranty on all equipment and a price lock guarantee, so you can rest assured your monthly monitoring fees will never go up.

SimpliSafe

Simplisafe is a DIY home security system with equipment packages starting at $229, but you can get a discounted price when you sign up for professional monitoring. The good news is monitoring is month-to-month, with no contracts, and starts at just $14.99 a month. The bad news is you don’t get mobile access unless you pay an additional $10 a month. Simplisafe equipment is sleek and attractive, but it’s also more basic and not as user-friendly as more expensive systems. Still, it’s an affordable choice, especially for those with smaller homes and apartments who don’t need all the bells and whistles. 

Vivint

If you want all the latest smart home gadgets without having to install them yourself, Vivint is a good choice when it comes to professionally installed home security systems. Installation fees start at $99. Vivint’s equipment is top-notch, but it’s pricey — expect to pay close to $1,000 for a basic system. Fortunately, Vivint offers financing, so you can roll in the cost of your equipment with your monthly monitoring fees, which start at $29.99 a month. 

Comparing home security system companies

ADTCoveFrontpointLink InteractiveNest SecureProtect AmericaSimpliSafeVivint
Starting price for installation$99$275$99$0$399$0$229$99
Installation typeProfessionalDIY DIY DIY DIY DIY DIYProfessional
Smart home integrationsWorks with Alexa, Nest, Ring and Z-wave devicesWorks with Alexa and Google HomeWorks with Alexa and Google Home and Z-Wave devicesWorks with Alexa, Google Home and Z-wave devicesWorks with Nest and Google HomeWorks with Alexa, Google Home and Z-wave devicesWorks with Alexa and Google Home Works with Alexa, Google Home and Z-wave devices

*Prices as of March 31, 2020

Shopping for home security doesn’t have to be painful. First, decide on a budget and determine your basic security needs by asking the five questions outlined above. (Remember, you can always choose to add more security later on.) Then, check out our top picks for the best home security systems and decide which is right for you.