Stone walls, crocodile-filled moats, Rottweilers — our ancestors found some pretty creative home security solutions!
Today’s home security systems feature a more tech-savvy approach, but the goal remains the same: to keep your family, your property, and your stuff safe from outsiders.
Recent innovations have fueled a new surge in home security sales.
As you shop around and compare systems, consider your home’s security challenges, your lifestyle, and your budget.
Chances are good you’ll find the system you need, whether you’re a new homeowner or just new to the home security market.
How Security Systems Have Changed Over Time and Recently
Believe it or not, tech-driven security systems have been around nearly two centuries. Augustus Russell Pope of Boston combined electricity, magnets, and a bell to create a burglar alarm in the 1850s.
Marketing the invention proved difficult, though, because people feared electricity as much as they feared intruders. As the decades passed, the world caught up with Pope’s idea.
By the early 20th century, electricity had grown safer and more common. The burglar alarm started to catch on.
By the 1970s, home security systems featured motion sensors. Off-site monitoring caught on in the 1980s.
Prices started to fall in the 1990s, making systems accessible for more homeowners. Now the internet has changed the industry again.
For a few hundred dollars in hardware and installation fees — or perhaps less if you install the system yourself — you can monitor your own home from your smartphone from work, school, your commute, or even while on vacation.
These new systems have drawbacks, too, so before you jump in, make sure you’re getting the security your family needs.
Monitored Vs Unmonitored Security Systems
This has become the first question to ask when shopping for home security: Should you pay more for a system with professional monitoring included?
For decades, monitoring fees prevented a lot of homeowners from getting a home security system.
Even the lowest fees can become cost-prohibitive when you pay them month after month and year after year for the indefinite future.
For those homeowners, unmonitored systems may offer the only way into the home security market. If you have a choice, though, give this question some thought.
Monitored systems come with some advantages you may like.
Advantages of Professionally Monitored Systems
Just like with cars, computers, and houses, you get what you pay for with a home security system.
A monitored system costs more, but consider these advantages:
- More seamless responses: With an unmonitored system, it would be up to you to contact fire or law enforcement officials when you get an alert about an intruder. When you’re out of town, calling 911 probably won’t work as quickly since you’d have to be transferred between areas of jurisdiction. Someone monitoring your home should be able to contact officials more quickly.
- Someone else deals with false alarms: When you’re at work or out shopping and you get a security alert from your unmonitored security system, it’s up to you to assess the risk. If the FedEx guy triggered the alarm by delivering this month’s dog food, you’d feel relieved. But when something like this happens several times a day, it starts to get distracting. A monitored system can take care of these distractions, saving your attention for when it really matters.
- Equipment may be included: Customers who buy an unmonitored system tend to be responsible for maintaining and upgrading their own security equipment. A monitored system would more likely include the equipment and, naturally, its maintenance and upgrades. In a fast-changing industry, your gear can get outdated pretty quickly.
- Protection isn’t dependent on cell service: Most of us always know where our phones are. But what happens when you’re in an area with poor service or when you lose your phone on the Slinky Dog ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios? (I’m not judging!) You may not have access to your at-home security system alerts when most needed. A monitored service can contact authorities to protect your home even when you aren’t in the loop.
Advantages of Unmonitored Systems
Unmonitored, also known as self-monitored, home security systems have become the fastest growing segment of the market for a reason. Advantages include:
- The cost, of course: Since you could use a self-monitored home security system without paying monthly fees, you can save a lot month to month and year to year. Even if you pay a professional to install the system’s panel or cameras, you can still avoid that monthly bill.
- A perfect fit if you’re renting: The home security market has traditionally ignored renters since they don’t have the authority to install hardware or enter a long-term contract. An unmonitored system offers exactly what a renter needs: flexible service with no long-term commitment.
- Having more control: When you’re making all the decisions about whether to call for help or whether it’s a false alarm, you’re automatically controlling the response level. Since you know better than anyone what’s normal at your home, this can prevent some confusion. For example, the monitoring service may not know your brother has a spare key but does not know the alarm code. Since you know this, you can automatically filter out the police response as a viable option (unless you really have it in for your brother).
- Integrating additional home systems: Some of the best self-monitored systems are an extension of WiFi-enabled home automation. Along with feeling more secure, you can also lock or unlock doors, change your thermostat, turn certain lights on or off, and even control the garden sprinklers (and lawn mowers!), all from an app. (Traditional monitored services have started adding these features, too.)
Can You Get the Best of Both Worlds?
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could combine the best aspects of professionally monitored and self-monitored systems?
Well, the industry has been moving in that direction.
Here’s why: The rapid growth of self-monitored home security systems has grabbed the attention of the traditional home security companies.
The leading monitored services are compensating by adding modern conveniences such as app-based customer control and, in some cases, acquiring smaller, self-monitored home security companies.
And it’s not a one-way street: Some self-monitored services have added the option to have your home professionally monitored, but with a twist. You can get add-on monitoring for a fee only when you need it. That way you could still avoid the contracts and flat monthly fees.
As the market continues to evolve, I’d expect to see less separation between these two categories.
But full-time monitoring will continue to be a separator. It simply costs more money to have someone monitoring your home and responding to problems all day every day.
And in many cases, professional monitoring equals a more secure home.
Should You Buy a Monitored or Unmonitored Security System?
This gradual merging of monitored and unmonitored home security features could, ironically, make it harder to decide what kind of service to buy.
If you like the control an unmonitored system offers, you don’t necessarily have to opt for an unmonitored system anymore. You can find a monitored system with similar capabilities.
Or, if you want a monitored system because you’re out of town a lot, you no longer have to choose from only traditional security service providers. You may be able to find an unmonitored service with added-on monitoring periods without a contract.
If you can’t decide for sure, take a look at your home, your lifestyle, and your personal preferences. They can tell you a lot about your needs.
What Type of Home Do You Have?
The kind of home you’re protecting should help drive the kind of protection you buy.
Makes sense, right?
Well, it’s easy to forget such obvious things once you start comparing features, prices, contracts, apps, and customer reviews.
Take a look around your home. If you have two full floors full of windows and doors, along with a garage door and windows to consider, you’ll need a lot of equipment installed and maintained.
You’ll also have a lot more sensors to trigger false alarms. A monitored system could be worth the cost.
On the flip side, if you live in a 2-room apartment with just a few windows and only two doors, your up-front equipment investment will be less, and you’ll have fewer trigger points to keep an eye on as you monitor things while away. A self-monitored system could do the job.
How Connected Are You?
If a home security system sends an alert to your smartphone but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? We could debate that question for hours, and if your phone happens to be off, someone could be stealing your stuff as we contemplate.
With an unmonitored system, you’re on call around the clock via your smartphone. If you’re the kind of person who likes to unplug after work or while on vacation, you may want to lean toward a monitored security system.
If, however, you and your phone are inseparable — if you sleep with the phone beside you on the pillow — you’re likely set up well to monitor security alerts.
That said, I’d suggest using a different ringtone for home security alerts. You wouldn’t want to ignore a serious problem thinking it was just a reminder to pick up your sister’s cat from the vet tomorrow.
How Connected Is Your Home?
Most of us have WiFi at home now. Most does not mean all, though.
People without WiFi at home will have a hard time using all the features of a self-monitored home security system.
In that case, a landline-based, traditional system would be a better option.
If you have WiFi, the quality of your surveillance will depend a lot on the quality of your Internet connection.
As more devices and appliances get online — thermostats, washing machines, tablets, phones, TVs, refrigerators, lawn mowers — there’s more demand on your network. For many of us, a DSL connection just doesn’t cut it anymore.
If you have a gigabit-per-second coming across fiber into your home, your unmonitored security features should work just fine.
How Busy Are You?
A lot of us can add tasks to our regular schedules without a lot of stress. People in the gig economy or with a couple side hustles may have just the kind of schedule flexibility they need to assess threats from their smartphones.
Sure, you may have to re-arrange a few things or tell a client to hold on a second while you check the alert on your phone, but it’s still possible. People who teach school, run meetings, perform surgery, or preside over class-action lawsuits may not have time to check their phones every couple of hours.
Just like any other commitment you take on, consider the time demands of an unmonitored security system.
I’ve been in more than one meeting where someone had to check on a security alert. (Usually, something like leaves blowing onto the porch or a delivery from Amazon triggered the alert.)
Do You Own Your Home?
I referred to this earlier, but it bears repeating. Traditional home security firms more or less ignored renters for years since they didn’t have permission to install a system anyway.
With no wires to run behind walls, a tenant can usually install an unmonitored system without changing the property.
Mounting a camera in the corner is hardly different from hanging a picture, and it’s a whole lot simpler than installing a wall-mounted TV.
Plus, when you move on to a new home in a new city, you could take a lot of the system’s components with you to use at the new rental house. Of course, check your lease agreement to make sure you have permission to make the changes an unmonitored system would require.
And, by the way, if you’re a renter who would like a traditional monitored system, ask your landlord about it. He or she may be fine with the idea, especially since a system could reduce your landlord’s homeowners insurance rates.
Best Security System Providers For 2021
We’ve chewed on a lot of theoretical stuff, so let’s get into what really matters. How do systems compare to each other, and which one should you get?
A year or so ago I would have made two best security system lists: One for monitored security systems and one for self-monitored systems.
The features of these systems have blended so much I think one list will better serve shoppers. I’ll be sure to indicate whether you would need a contract to use each service.
While convenient features are important and worth weighing into the equation, the quality of the system itself still matters most.
So I’ll be giving the quality of your home security system first priority in these comparisons while giving conveniences and customer flexibility a little less importance.
Contract required: Yes
Professional monitoring: Yes
Length of contract: At least one year
Remember earlier when I suggested the future of home security will likely blend the features of monitored and unmonitored systems?
I had Frontpoint in mind when I said that.
This company has led this confluence of features, offering professional monitoring plus the conveniences do-it-yourself systems introduced.
Yes, Frontpoint requires a contract and you’ll be paying for 24/7 professional monitoring. But you’ll also have a user-friendly app that can control your locks, lights, and thermostat.
With Frontpoint, you install the equipment yourself since it’s wireless, lightweight, and easy to position with included adhesive strips.
Essentially, Frontpoint offers the best features of monitored and unmonitored services in one package: professional monitoring, quality equipment, convenient features, and a do-it-yourself approach.
That’s why I’ve listed Frontpoint first.
I also like the 30-day, risk-free guarantee. If you’re unhappy with the service, Frontpoint won’t bill you and you can return all the hardware. You won’t be on the hook for the rest of the contract.
I also like the one-year contract. Most companies require a three-year commitment.
Frontpoint offers three price points. If you’d like to access recorded video surveillance from your property, you’ll need to go with the most expensive plan.
Best for: A homeowner who wants mobile control, full-time professional monitoring, and more contract flexibility than usual.
Avoid if: You don’t want to enter at least a one-year contract.
Contract required: Yes
Professional monitoring: Yes
Length of contract: At least three years
ADT, a leader in home security for almost 150 years, has also started offering the conveniences of unmonitored security in its ADT Pulse system.
Like Frontpoint, ADT Pulse still bases its services on contracts, but it has bulked up its app to give customers more control over their security equipment. In fact, you can probably incorporate your own cameras and sensors into ADT’s system since it supports many third-party hardware brands.
Unlike Frontpoint, ADT Pulse includes professional installation (and a corresponding $99 set-up fee). The result is another best-of-both-worlds approach for the customer who is willing to enter into a contract.
In ADT’s case, the contract will last at least three years, and you’d be billed a hefty termination fee to get out of it.
ADT will let you out of the contract if you’re not happy with the service, but it’s not a no-questions-asked policy. ADT will try to resolve your issues, which is a good thing if home security is your priority.
Best for: A homeowner who wants a time-tested, trustworthy home security partner with professional installation plus modern mobile-based control.
Avoid if: You’re not sure about entering a long-term contract.
Contract required: Yes
Professional monitoring: Yes
Length of contract: At least three years
By now you’re sensing a trend: Traditional, contract-based home security companies that have adopted modern conveniences are dominating the top of this list.
And for good reason: Ultimately, a home security system should provide the best home security for you and your family, and professional monitoring tends to offer more security.
ProtectAmerica makes this list for those reasons and because of its flexible pricing options. The company has five price points.
I’d stay away from the company’s less expensive, landline-based options. They do not offer the control and integration you’d get from Frontpoint or ADT Pulse (unless you want a traditional, landline-based system).
ProtectAmerica’s broadband and cellular-based options deliver a lot. You can even integrate the system with your Amazon Alexa or Google Home smart device for voice control.
And when an alarm goes off, you can also get a voice prompt from the system telling you which sensor or camera triggered the alarm. When you’re half asleep, this simplicity can pay off! There’s also a panic button which will automatically call for help.
Best for: A homeowner or renter who wants the conveniences of tech-based security with fewer potential complications.
Avoid if: You’re shy about a three-year contract.
Vivint Home Security
Contract required: No, unless you’re financing equipment
Professional monitoring: Yes
Length of contract: At least 42 months (but only when financing equipment)
If you’ve been looking for a no-contract home security solution that still delivers professional results, consider Vivint Home Security. Vivint offers monitoring for a monthly fee, but it doesn’t require its customers to commit to more than one month at a time.
However, if you cancel your account while you still owe money on your equipment, Vivint will bill you for the balance. So even though you wouldn’t have an official contract, you’d still be compelled to keep the service or pay a lump sum to end your connection to the company.
It’s not exactly a no-strings-attached situation, but customers do have more control month to month, especially if they pay up front for the equipment.
Vivint makes this list because of this potential flexibility and because of the flexibility of the company’s equipment.
You can essentially build your own home security and home automation package the way you want. Rather than choosing from a package, you can combine different kinds of surveillance equipment including outdoor monitoring, and different safety features such as smart lighting and thermostat control.
You can manage your system through a Google or Amazon smart speaker or you can use a more customized control panel.
Best for: A homeowner who wants to customize a security solution.
Avoid if: You don’t want to pay up front for equipment. If you don’t pay up front, you’ll have a de facto contract.
Contract required: No, unless you’re financing equipment
Professional monitoring: Yes (by a third party monitoring center)
Length of contract: N/A unless financing equipment
Link Interactive rounds out my top 5 because, once again, it blends traditional and unmonitored features to give customers the best of both worlds. Link Interactive stands out because it has embraced broadband and cellular networks more thorough than most other providers.
As a result, you can talk with a professional monitor through your control panel at home during an emergency. Sometimes just knowing what’s going on and finding out easily when help will arrive can alleviate stress.
But you should know that Link Interactive uses a third party, which doesn’t always equal a loss in quality, but it does mean the company has less control over the monitoring process.
Still, lots of Link Interactive customers have been satisfied with their service according to TrustPilot and Better Business Bureau reports, which tend to lean toward the negative for security systems.
Link Interactive lets you pay month to month instead of committing to one to three years. However, as with Vivint, if you owe money on your home security equipment, you’d have to pay the balance if you canceled service.
So unless you pay up front for the equipment or pay the balance down enough to make more affordable, you’d likely be sticking with the service for a while.
Essentially, it’s a contract by another name. Link Interactive does stand by its 30-day grace period. If you change your mind or don’t like the service, you can cancel without obligations.
Security matters most, and even though I’ve listed a couple concerns, Link Interactive has the experience (about 70 years’ worth) and the equipment to serve its customers well.
Best for: A homeowner who wants a reliable partner with the best modern conveniences.
Avoid if: You don’t plan to stick with the company for at least until you’ve paid off the equipment.
Best Self-Monitored Home Security Services For 2021
I know — I listed my five top choices for home security, and not a single one offers a completely self-monitored system.
I alluded to the reason earlier but here it is again: Professionally monitored systems simply provide better security across the board, and we’re looking for the best home security systems.
In most cases, security tends to be better because you have a staff of monitors at the ready to respond to a crisis at your home.
Most, of course, doesn’t mean all. You may have just the right work-life balance to handle a self-monitored system. Or you might just prefer to self-monitor your home security, either to save money or because you like the control.
If so, you have a lot of choices.
Let’s take a look at a few of my favorites.
You’ve probably seen this one on TV. It looks simple, efficient, and affordable.
Overall, it lives up. For only $200 or so up front, you can get a pretty solid set-up and install it yourself. Pricier packages offer more components for larger homes.
You can opt for professional monitoring (for $10 a month or $100 a year) or for self-monitoring, which is free. Ring connects to Z-wave, which means you can incorporate a wide variety of home management and security equipment.
Amazon owns and sells Ring systems, so if you’re a frequent Amazon shopper you’ll know pretty much what to expect.
Best for: A low-cost but useful alternative with professional monitoring available.
Honeywell Smart Home Security
Honeywell, whose name you may have seen on thermostats somewhere along the line, has expanded its business into smart home connectivity, including home security.
You’ll pay more, over $1,000 most likely, to get your system going, but after that, you can do a lot, including arming and disarming the system with a key fob and even integrating facial recognition.
Honeywell’s system works seamlessly with Amazon Alexa, and the system should soon also offer Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit integration.
Honeywell also syncs with Z-wave, which means you can use all sorts of wireless equipment to manage and monitor your home.
Best for: A do-it-yourself alternative that still has top-notch gear and accessibility specializing in self-monitoring.
SimpliSafe has grown in name recognition and market share. The company offers a lot of options. About 16 to be precise. They all vary slightly in the number of components and price.
Set-up fees range from about $290 to about $550 depending on how much equipment your home needs. The equipment is easy to install and use. You can go without professional monitoring and keep using the security equipment.
It tends to be harder to incorporate third-party equipment, though. So if you get SimpliSafe don’t assume you can use existing gear from previous systems.
Best for: An all-in-one system for homeowners new to security systems.
If you use Google products — Google Assistant and the Android operating system, for example — Nest Secure could offer a sensible extension for your home automation and security needs.
Naturally, the service integrates nicely with Google Assistant and your Android phone or tablet. You can spend up to $500 or so getting the equipment set-up.
You can add professional monitoring on a contract or month-to-month basis.
Best for: Customers who already use Nest home automation products. Nest is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
Going Cheap? Create Your Own System And Go Full DIY!
Even though the home security market has changed a lot with the success of self-monitoring systems, customers still have two basic choices:
- Enter a contract of some sort to get professional monitoring and pay less up front.
- Buy a do-it-yourself system, spending $300 to $1,500 up front, and have the freedom to self-monitor and avoid the contract.
Some customers wonder why they can’t just buy some cameras and door sensors and connect the gear to their smartphone. That may be possible, and if that’s your thing, you could save compared to buying a pre-packaged deal.
But, for the majority of consumers, I do not recommend this approach for a few reasons:
- It depends upon your ability to connect and maintain the equipment.
- You couldn’t add professional monitoring if you wanted to.
- It’s more difficult to self-monitor without an app to centralize the camera feeds and sensor data.
Regional Security Firms May Offer a Lot
I tried to limit this post to companies offering nationwide service. Some regional companies offer great equipment and great service, too.
If you’re considering a regional firm in your area, make sure to check on the following issues:
- Who monitors the company’s security systems? Is it local or third party? If third party, try to find out response times for the monitoring service.
- Are you as the customer responsible for maintaining the equipment or will the company keep it up to date? If you’re responsible, work that into what you’ll be paying.
- Does the system’s control panel have a battery backup during loss of electricity? What about backup for the WiFi connection? If not, the system could leave you vulnerable.
- If you have the ability to self-monitor, can you integrate components you already own via Z-wave or another similar service?
- What do local law enforcement officials think about the firm? Cops know a lot about home security. They may know the value of a local or regional home security outfit.
Need Proof of Results? Ask Your Insurance Agent
Our homes are personal. Having a stranger violate, steal, or destroy our homes, our property feels like a personal attack even if we’re not home and deal only with the aftermath.
People who have experienced that feeling know it can change the way you look at the world for a while.
It makes sense for homeowners (and renters) to seek some kind of protection against this danger. No system can guarantee your safety and the safety of your family.
But home security systems do get results. For proof, just ask your homeowners insurance company.
Many insurers will give you a discount on your home insurance premiums if you have a professionally monitored home security system. Insurers give this discount because they know a quality home security service will likely reduce the likelihood of a personal property insurance claim.
As you compare systems, consider what kind of security you need and whether what you’re buying fits your home.
Security is personal. It’s up to you to make sure you’re getting a system to match your life.