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.
I was finally prompted to take action was when my family 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. 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, as well as numerous regional and local companies. 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. 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. 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 - usually at least a two- or three-year commitment.
Typically, whenever your system is activated it sends a signal to a central monitoring station. The monitoring station generally will call you to verify it's not a false alarm. If they can't reach you, or whoever 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.
Motion detectors, which sense changes in a room caused by human presence.
Magnetic door and window contacts, which 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.
It pays to shop around. I asked friends for recommendations and did a lot of online research. 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 or other trusted reviewers. The Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.ftc.gov) provides tips for choosing a home security system and identifying common scams.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs.