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How to choose a home security system

Headshot of Donna Pittman
Researched by
Donna PittmanContributing Writer
Headshot of Eric Paulsen
Reviewed by
Eric PaulsenContent Manager
Updated 3/15/23

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In today’s home security market, consumers have hundreds of options, from less-expensive DIY systems integrated with smart home devices to traditional, professionally installed security systems. If you are considering a home security system but feel overwhelmed with all of the choices, we can help.

In this article, we will break down everything you need to know when purchasing a home security system:

  • Professionally installed or DIY system
  • Basic components of a security system
  • Wired vs. wireless cameras
  • An overview of monitoring options
  • Other costs to consider
  • Smart home integration
  • How to keep your data safe

Professionally installed or DIY

The first decision you need to make as a homeowner is whether to have your alarm system installed by a professional or to do it yourself.

If you require the highest possible level of security, you should consider a professional home security system. Also called an integrated or central alarm system, these systems are generally more expensive than a DIY, often come as a pre-packaged bundle of equipment, and require professional monitoring. One advantage is that with a professionally installed system, you can have peace of mind that all components are installed properly and are functioning correctly. A disadvantage can be that you may pay up to $200 for labor during installation.

If you are more of a do-it-yourself person, a DIY home security system may be right for you. These systems are typically less expensive overall. The biggest advantage of a DIY system is that you can purchase components à la carte and install them yourself over a few hours. For example, you could begin small with a few cameras and expand your system over time. In many cases, a DIY system also allows self-monitoring through a mobile app, so you can avoid monitoring contracts. A disadvantage is that sometimes installation can be challenging, and a component may not work optimally.

Basic components of a home security system

Regardless of the type of system you choose, many of the basic components of a home security system are the same. You can bundle these items, or you can mix and match the components you want.

Master control panel or base station

A master control panel is the central processing unit for the system, and in a hard-wired system, you typically place it in a closet or basement. In a DIY system, your master control panel or base station is purchased as a part of your security equipment and is simply plugged into an electrical outlet with no hard wiring necessary.

Access control panel or keypad

Both integrated and DIY systems use access control panels. In a central home security system, the access control panel is often a numerical keypad placed near the front door and/or in the master bedroom. This keypad can be used to arm and disarm the system and typically has panic buttons that call the police or fire department. The keypad can notify you if a window has been left open or which door has been breached. DIY systems may also come with keypads, but a mobile app often functions as a keypad. Through the mobile app, you can arm or disarm your system, check your video feed, troubleshoot any issues with your security components, and run self-tests.

Door and window sensors

You’ll need sensors on all ground-level doors and windows. Door and window sensors often involve a magnet and a reed switch. If your system is armed and someone forces open a door or window, the magnet and the reed strip will separate, tripping your alarm.

Glass break sensors

If someone breaks a window or glass door in an attempt to break into your home, a glass-break detector will set off your security system. These sensors can detect glass breaking for approximately 20 feet, so homeowners are advised to place one in every ground-floor room.

Indoor motion sensors

Motion detectors are triggered by movement inside the home when your system is armed. Many use infrared technology, which can sense body heat. These sensors often have a pet mode that can distinguish between your pet and a human intruder.

Outdoor motion-sensing lights

Outdoor motion-sensing lights are a simple way to protect your home at night. These lights illuminate your home, lawn, and driveway if they detect movement on your property.

Outdoor cameras

Home security cameras are an integral part of a home security system. Today, you can connect cameras to the cloud, allowing for live streaming and video storage. At a minimum, most homeowners will have cameras at their front door. These doorbell cameras record “porch pirates” and can provide law enforcement with possible culprit-identifying footage in the event of a break-in.

Yard signs and window decals

Placing yard signs and window decals indicating a home security system can be a low-tech theft deterrent.

Mobile app

You can arm or disarm many of today’s home security systems by purchasing or subscribing to a mobile app. By simply downloading an app to your smartphone, you can be alerted to any alarms when you are not home and even view a live feed from connected cameras.

Wired vs. wireless cameras

Another decision you’ll need to make regarding your home security system is whether to use wired or wireless security cameras. These terms indicate how the system communicates. Wired cameras communicate through wires and cables installed in your home, while wireless security cameras communicate through your home’s Wi-Fi.

Wired camera systems use a digital video recorder (DVR) or a network video recorder (NVR) to record footage 24/7. These recordings are typically stored for 7 to 14 days. You can hardwire these systems to a power source and to your home internet using a coaxial or ethernet cable. With a wired system, you can view a live video feed on a computer monitor and through a smartphone app.

Wired camera systems are less likely to be hacked and have excellent image quality. They are considered extremely reliable—even during power outages when a battery backup can be used. One con of wired camera systems is that even though wired cameras cost less than wireless cameras, the initial cost of a wired camera system will be higher due to installation labor.

Wireless camera systems are growing in popularity. These cameras communicate using your home’s Wi-Fi and may be either connected to a power source or battery-powered. Wireless cameras are user-friendly and frequently use cloud storage for video footage (for a fee), so the footage can be easily accessed from anywhere. Some wireless cameras also store images on an SD card.

Wireless cameras can be set to record 24/7, but more often, they are activated by sound or movement in or around your home. Some brands have advanced features like night vision and even audio capability, so you can speak to the person on the other side of the camera.

Wireless cameras do have a few cons. First, they can be more easily hacked than wired cameras. Next, they are dependent on a strong, reliable Wi-Fi signal. Finally, battery-powered wireless cameras are only effective if you remember to change the batteries!

Types of monitoring

Another consideration regarding your security system is monitoring. A security system can be self-monitored or professionally monitored.

Self-monitoring simply means that you are the person who initially responds to any alarm notification. You’ll be alerted through a smartphone app when a door is opened or a sensor is tripped. It’s then up to you to respond by checking the live video feed, speaking through an audio system, and/or calling the authorities yourself. Some people choose this option to avoid monthly fees or to avoid the penalty of a false alarm.

Another reason you might choose self-monitoring is that if a door or window is breached, your security system will activate a loud siren, which might be enough to scare off an intruder. In addition, it can also be faster for you to alert the police on your own instead of waiting for your security company to respond. Some security companies offer low-cost self-monitoring options that include photo notifications and video storage for 30 to 60 days.

On the other hand, professional monitoring is available for both DIY and integrated alarm systems. Professional monitoring companies monitor your system around the clock and respond to alarm activations by calling emergency personnel to do a welfare check on the home. This can result in a faster police response than a neighbor reporting an alarm going off. Professional monitoring costs can range from about $15 per month to over $50 per month and often involve a long-term contract.

Other costs to consider

There are many cost factors to consider when selecting a home security system. While an ad may boast, “Home security systems starting at $250,” the reality may be quite different.

First, you should factor in the cost of add-ons. A basic system might include a bundle of four cameras and six door and window sensors. Everything beyond these basic components will be considered an add-on. These add-ons might include the following:

  • Additional cameras or sensors
  • A motion detector
  • A range extender, particularly if you have a large home
  • Environmental sensors that alert you to smoke, carbon monoxide, or a water leak
  • An additional siren for a finished basement or upstairs area
  • A panic button or a pendant if you have an elderly resident who is a fall risk

These additional items of equipment can have a huge impact on your final cost.

Next, if you choose to use professional monitoring, you should factor in the cost of your monitoring plan. Prices can vary based on the level of monitoring you choose. Some plans involve a two- to five-year contract, but others allow for month-to-month services. In many instances, monitoring is cheaper with a contract. The Ring Pro Plan costs $20 per month or $200 for a one-year contract, netting a savings of $40—or essentially two months free. Just make sure you read the fine print before signing a multi-year contract. Some may have high cancellation fees or lock you into paying for the entire period of the contract.

Finally, investigate whether your city or county requires the purchase of an alarm permit. In many areas, homeowners are required to register their home security systems with their local government and renew that permit periodically. Failure to register for and renew a residential alarm system permit can result in a fine. The cost of a residential alarm system permit will vary from state to state. In Nashville, a residential alarm system permit costs $20, whereas in Dallas, the cost is $50 per year. (1)(2)

Smart home device integration

“Alexa, arm my security system.” If you use smart home devices like Google Home or Amazon Alexa, you may want to choose security products that are compatible and will allow you to control your alarm system with your voice or view video feeds through your smart devices.

Some products are smart-home compatible, and some are not. Many wired devices are not compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, while many wireless ones are. Here are some examples:

  • Popular DIY home security systems from Wyze, SimpliSafe, Cove, and Abode integrate well with Google Home and Amazon Alexa.
  • You can also link your Nest cameras to your Google Home Hub through the Google Home app, allowing you to view a live feed from your Nest cameras.
  • Finally, you can integrate your Ring alarm with your Amazon Alexa device to be able to arm and disarm your system by speaking to your Amazon Echo or Alexa device.

Protecting your privacy and data

One concern that you may have is whether your privacy or personal data may be compromised through the use of a home security system—specifically, through video cameras. Hacks of video cameras and other smart devices occasionally happen, but you can take steps to prevent this invasion of privacy.

Use a privacy shutter

If you have indoor cameras, use a privacy shutter when you’re home. A privacy shutter turns off the camera feed, so the footage is no longer being streamed or recorded on the cloud. Some cameras have an on/off switch, can be turned off from an app, or come with a physical cover.

Enable two-factor authentication

Enabling two-factor authentication is another way to thwart hackers. Two-factor authentication means that after entering your username and password, you’ll be required to enter an additional PIN or code. This is essential if you tend to use the same username and password for multiple accounts outside your security system.

Choose your passwords wisely

Don’t reuse the same usernames and passwords for multiple accounts. Make sure your security system password is unique. Use a hard-to-guess phrase that includes numbers and symbols.

Use a microSD card for storage

Instead of uploading and storing your security footage in the cloud, where it might be vulnerable to hackers, use an SD memory card for video storage.

Next steps

Now that you understand the ins and outs of home security systems, you’re ready to take the next steps toward purchasing one.

Here are some home security systems that we recommend:

Professional installation


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Contributing researcher
Headshot of Donna Pittman
Researched by
Donna PittmanContributing Writer

Donna Pittman is a freelance writer with a passion for educating consumers about new products, especially in tech. She has been a writer for over 15 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in English. She has written for a variety of industries, including home security, commercial security, and solar energy. When she’s not researching or writing an article, she is probably bargain-hunting or hiking.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Eric Paulsen
Reviewed by
Eric PaulsenContent Manager

Eric Paulsen is a writer, editor, and strategist who has been creating content in the B2B, healthcare, FinTech, home security, and government sectors for more than five years. He holds an MFA in creative writing and lets everyone in his life hang that over his head. When he doesn’t have his hands deep in some piece of content, he’s either watching baseball or praying for the offseason to end quickly.

Endnotes and sources
  1. “Alarm Registration Division of Codes,” Nashville.gov. Accessed 17 October 2022.
  2. “City of Dallas Alarm Permit Application,” Dallascityhall.com. Accessed 17 October 2022.