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Home Security — Ratings of Home Alarm System installers and advice on home security systems
(From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2015)
Go to Ratings of 17 Washington Area Home Security Firms


Home Security

Because most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows—or pushing and kicking locked ones until they open—even the most basic protective measures will improve your security. Several ways of securing your home are more effective—and much less costly—than alarm systems: Secure all doors with good deadbolt locks; secure all windows that are accessible from the outside; set up lighting systems that deter burglars; and improve your own home security habits. 

While an alarm system will also improve the security of your home, it may not be worth the price if— 

  • You live in a very low-crime neighborhood. 
  • Your house is well secured physically (with locks and other measures). 
  • Someone is almost always at home. 
  • Your neighbors keep an eye on your house and call the police if they notice anything suspicious. 
  • You possess little of substantial value that could be stolen and have good insurance coverage. 
  • Children, houseguests, or others are likely to frequently trigger false alarms. 
  • The hassle of setting the alarm and avoiding false alarms would deter you from using it regularly. 

If you decide you want an alarm system, choosing a good installer is essential to ensuring that the system is effective, convenient, and unobtrusive; minimizing false alarms; and controlling costs. Our Ratings Tables show ratings of area alarm system installation companies, most of which serve all or large portions of the area. Some companies are twice as likely as others to receive top service-quality ratings from their surveyed customers. 

Have several companies come to your home to propose system designs and quote prices. Some will be much better than others at designing a system that meets your needs conveniently for a reasonable price. Even for the same basic design, you will find substantial price differences. 

Read the contract before you sign it. Check especially for the following: 

  • Some companies make it very difficult for customers to inexpensively switch monitoring services to another provider by refusing to provide programming codes or refusing to reset systems to their default modes. We advise you to give extra consideration to companies willing to contractually agree to provide programming codes either upfront or if you request them later on. 
  • The contracts used by some alarm installers—specifically, many of ADT’s contracts—state that, unless otherwise agreed to, installed equipment remains the property of the installation company. If you cancel the monitoring service contract, the company can opt to remove the system—and isn’t required to do so in a tidy manner. Although these companies rarely (if ever) rip out systems in residences upon cancellation of monitoring services, we advise that you deal with a company that will sell you a system you’ll own. 
  • Some companies include auto-renewal provisions in their monitoring contracts. This is also a bad deal for consumers because some companies frequently increase their monitoring rates—if you fail to cancel these monitoring services, the company will automatically renew it. 

Don’t agree to pay more than half of the price of a system installation before the work begins. Ideally, arrange to hold back at least half of the payment until two weeks or a month after the system is up and running. 

Do you have good deadbolts on all your doors? Strong latches on your windows? Do you always lock your doors and windows? Have a barky dog? 

If you can answer “yes” to the first three questions, you’re way ahead when it comes to home security (and get extra credit for the dog). Because most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows—or pushing and kicking locked ones until they open—even the most basic measures of protection will improve your security. 

While it doesn’t take a genius to get at your stuff, the good news is that the incidence of burglaries is fairly slim: Only about one in 50 U.S. homes get broken into each year. Over time, however, the odds turn against you. And given the financial, physical, and psychological damage that can result from a burglary, it makes sense to do what you can to become more secure. 

For millions of American households, one component of a home security plan is an alarm system, and there is evidence that these systems do make a difference: It is estimated that homes with security systems are one-third as likely to be burglarized as homes without them. Although part of the difference no doubt has something to do with location and other protections alarmed homes have in place, electronic alarm systems clearly matter. In addition, these systems help prevent fire damage, and some alert you (or a central monitoring agency) to power outages, water leaks, and other problems. 

The discounts homeowners insurance companies offer households equipped with alarm systems are one indication of their value. Many insurers discount policies by two to 10 percent (most typically five percent) for homes with systems that have central station monitoring. 

This article evaluates alarm system installers for quality and price, describes alarm system features, and provides advice on hiring the right installer and monitoring service. It also discusses many possibly more effective, and much less expensive, measures you can take. A report on locks and locksmiths is available here

Basic Strategies 

Before investing in an alarm system, take a step back to evaluate—and improve—your home’s overall security. You can do many things to enhance protections that cost much less than an alarm system but do just as much good. 

Know the Threat 

It doesn’t take much brainpower to be a thief. Professionals capable of picking locks and circumventing alarm systems commit a very small portion of burglaries. Most burglars enter homes by simply opening unlocked doors or windows, lifting sliding glass doors off their tracks, prying open locked doors and windows, or unauthorized use of a key. The most common points of entry are exterior doors and ground-level windows, sliding glass doors, doors to an attached garage, and basement windows. Few intruders break windows to enter homes if they can’t get in through unlocked doors or other methods. They prefer visual obscurity, silence, easy entry, and quick exits.  

Almost all intruders are male, and more than one-third are in their teens or early twenties. Although it is commonly believed that illegal intrusions are primarily a risk during summer, rates actually vary by less than 10 percent from month to month. It is also widely presumed that most intrusions occur at night, but about half occur during the day. 

Your primary objective when planning security for your home, then, is to beef up its locks and latches and maintain good security habits. More on this later. 

Get Insurance 

Despite the best precautions, your home might still be penetrated. Make sure you maintain adequate insurance. Our article on homeowners insurance will help you identify the best companies to buy from. 

Homeowners and renters insurance policies do not provide reimbursement for personal injuries suffered during assaults, but they do cover property losses due to burglaries. The coverage limit for personal possessions is usually 50 to 75 percent of the amount of coverage purchased for the dwelling, but certain items (jewelry, silver, cash, computers, and guns) usually are covered at low limits. 

In addition, unless you purchase a replacement cost provision, homeowners insurance policies cover only the “market value” of personal property, not “replacement value.” Market value is defined as the replacement cost minus depreciation. Insurance companies offer the option of covering the full replacement cost (with no deduction for depreciation) for about 10 percent more than the standard policy. If burglars clean out your home, coverage for full replacement cost could save you thousands of dollars. Most companies also offer riders that increase coverage on jewelry and other items covered at low limits under standard policies. 

If you suffer a major loss from burglary or fire, an inventory list will help you get compensated. Ideally, the inventory should include a brief description of each possession, its purchase date, and price. Unless you have taken a vow of poverty, preparing a list like that will take days. An alternative is to list expensive items, and record the number of smaller items—for example, “12 miscellaneous cooking utensils.” If you do have to file a claim, the list could jog your memory for the additional details that your insurance company might request. Or make a video of possessions, with a voiceover providing details about each item. 

If you own antiques, expensive jewelry, original paintings, or other items of substantial value that require authentication to establish value, get written appraisals—but first make sure your appraiser is acceptable to your insurance company. Because some appraisers are also dealers, specifically tell the appraiser that you want the evaluation for insurance purposes. If they think you want to sell the items, they might lowball the estimate of their value. 

Keep copies of the inventory, videos, and appraisals in a secure place outside your home, such as a safe deposit box or a friend’s house. Because appraisals indicate your name and address, in the wrong hands they can invite burglary. Update your inventory every couple of years. 

Get a Security Audit 

A home security audit is a good start in the battle against intruders. Most police departments provide such services. Call your local police department and ask for the crime prevention or community services unit. Ask for an officer to come to your home to assess its vulnerabilities and recommend additional security measures. There is no charge for the service, and evening appointments usually can be arranged. 

ID Your Stuff 

Many experts recommend participating in Operation Identification, which involves engraving an ID number on your valuables and putting a decal in your window. The decal will deter some potential intruders because clearly marked items are harder to sell. Although only about 10 percent of burglarized homes recover any stolen items, positive identification improves your chances. Most police departments recommend engraving your driver’s license number. 

Metal engravers cost from $8 to $25. Some police departments lend them out; call yours to see if one is available. 

There are also various ways to “fingerprint” fine art, jewelry, and other items without damaging them. An appraiser or jeweler can provide more information. 

Keep Valuables Out of Sight 

Households often open their front doors to strangers and near-strangers—the pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the sketchy home improvement salesman whose people are “already doing work in the neighborhood,” and others. So it makes sense to place articles of ostensible value out of the view of anyone at your front door. 

The layout of some houses makes it easy for strangers on the sidewalk to look through windows. Keep your valuables out of their line of sight. 

Tradespeople working in your home also represent some risk. While they are unlikely to steal anything you’re likely to notice right away, they might grab a single piece of jewelry from a full box. Always hide away small valuables. 

Work with Your Neighbors 

One of the most effective and least costly ways to protect all the homes in the neighborhood is for community members to get involved in crime prevention. Involvement can range from making sure neighbors keep an eye out for suspicious activity to setting up shifts for foot patrols. 

Neighborhood watch groups can be organized to cover a single block of 10 or 12 houses or dozens of blocks with 1,000 houses. 

Neighborhood watch groups usually set up a system for members to exchange information. Typically, leaders (or “block captains”) work with police and neighbors to compile activity occurring in the neighborhood and distribute the information to members via newsletters, emails, or online groups. 

Neighborhood watch groups get started when police officers train neighborhood residents on security measures, ways to spot “suspicious activity,” and ways to keep in contact with the police. Neighbors also are asked to define the geographical boundaries of their “neighborhood.” After these initial steps, block captains and residents take responsibility for keeping the ball rolling. 

Some neighborhoods even form citizen patrols, a cadre of volunteers who walk or drive a designated area looking for suspicious activity that they report to the police. 

Keep Up Appearances 

Most burglars strike when no one is home, so make sure your house appears to be occupied. 

When You Are Away During the Day or Evening… 

  • Leave music or a TV on. 
  • Don’t let your phone ring for a long time. Either turn down the volume of ringers, or lower the number of rings before voicemail or your answering machine picks up. A long-ringing phone tells passersby and prowlers that nobody’s home. 
  • Consider removing your address from phone listings. There is no extra charge, and if you have this type of listing potential thieves who dial random numbers looking for unoccupied homes won’t find out your address. Similarly, someone who cases the neighborhood and learns your name from the mailbox won’t be able to obtain your phone number. An alternative is having an unlisted or non-published phone number. 
  • Always leave your garage door closed. An open door to a car-less garage indicates that at least some occupants are away. 
  • Plug a light or two into timers. The timers should turn lights on at dusk, and off at bedtime. 

When You Are on Vacation… 

  • Don’t let mail, packages, and newspapers pile up. Have a neighbor every day pick up mail, newspapers, and anything left on the porch. You could have mail and newspaper deliveries stopped, but be aware that these stops reveal your absence to several people at the post office and the newspaper. 
  • Arrange for your lawn to be mowed during the summer and your sidewalk shoveled during the winter. After new snowfalls, have a neighbor traipse from the street to your front door a couple of times. Also arrange for someone to water your yard, if that’s likely to be necessary. 
  • Park a car in your driveway. 
  • Leave blinds, shades, and curtains closed unless that departs from your normal pattern. Even then, close off windows that are particularly vulnerable to observation and leave other curtains open. 
  • Do not let more people than necessary know you are leaving. 
  • Consider hiring a trusted house sitter. 

Keep Your Landscaping in Check 

Doors and windows hidden by garages, bushes, fences, and trees are attractive targets for intruders who prefer to invade unseen. Keep areas around your doors and windows visible from the street—to your neighbors and from within your house. 

If it’s impractical or unattractive to hack back your home’s jungle, consider planting thorny varieties close to the house so prowlers won’t hide behind them. You can get advice on what to plant, and help planting it, from garden nurseries, landscapers, and landscape designers

Large trees may provide access to upstairs windows or, more often, to a porch roof with access to a window. Consider pruning them. 

A high fence is a double-edged sword. It can make it more difficult for an intruder to get in and out, but it also can hide a burglar. If you have a gate, keep it locked so an intruder knows the fence would slow his escape. 

Crowbars, hand tools, or yard tools lying about outside the house or in open garages invite trouble. Lock up any implements that could be used for prying or bashing. Also secure ladders. 

Light It Up 

Most nighttime prowlers flee the moment indoor lights go on, but bolder ones might hide until you go back to sleep. On the other hand, an outside light will chase away all but the nerviest. 

You can use outdoor lights to illuminate the entire exterior of your house or just a few vulnerable areas. In either case, they can be set for all-night operation or to go on only when a prowler is detected. Some incorporate heat and motion detectors that turn the lights on whenever someone comes within about 25 feet of the lights. 

For the greatest security, external lights should have break-proof lenses, strong mountings, hidden wiring, and tamper alarms. Security lights are available at some hardware stores, electrical equipment suppliers, and locksmith shops. 

Professional installation of a whole-house security light system costs $1,000 to $3,000—and increases your electric bill. A do-it-yourself installation at one point of vulnerability may cost less than $200. Unsecured outdoor lights with outdoor sockets (which usually take reflector lamps) cost much less, but a careful intruder can remove the bulbs before attacking the house. 

Place the switch for any outdoor light or lighting system intended to provide security in a convenient location away from the light. You probably won’t want to go down to your basement to turn on a light when a prowler is breaking through the door. 

Keep Track of Keys 

Intruders also invade homes by using an unauthorized key “hidden” under your doormat or on top of an adjacent window frame, or kept by a contractor, or held by a friend of the prior occupant, or made from a key lent to a plumber or since-dismissed housekeeper, or found on a key ring with an ID tag with your name and phone number, or copied by a parking lot attendant, get the idea. 

You can easily guard against these risks. Don’t hide spare door keys in any obvious places—which means any place that’s convenient. Instead, give a spare to a trusted neighbor. 

When you move into a house or apartment, consider having all the lock cylinders replaced or re-keyed. If you must give a house key to anyone you don’t fully trust, install restricted key cylinders in the doors that they will be using. Duplicates of restricted keys, which require unusual key blanks and special key-cutting equipment, can be made only with the written authorization of the homeowners. 

Never put identification on your key ring—even a phone number is risky because someone might get your address by doing a reverse match. 


Signs in many affluent communities have proclamations like “Warning: Houses in this community are protected by an integrated alarm system.” Some of them are bluffs. 

Similarly, you can post a “Beware of Dog” sign at the front entrance of your house—even if you have no dog or the dog you do have is scared of strangers, cats, the wind, and pretty much any moving object. If you want the bark but not a barky dog, you can buy electronic dog barkers that emit barks for a few seconds when triggered. Hang a vibration detector on a doorknob so the device barks when the door is rattled, or hook up the device to motion detectors hung outside the house. They cost about $60 to more than $100. 

Most alarm system companies provide decals for doors or windows indicating that your home is “alarmed.” Some homeowners get fake decals. But be aware that knowledgeable burglars claim they can identify fakes. Also, if you have a decal on your home and live in a neighborhood where most houses do not have alarm decals, it suggests your house has more valuables than your neighbors’ and may attract intruders without providing any real protection. 

Get a Dog 

Dogs can offer several levels of protection from intruders. First and least is the family pet with no particular training in sounding an alert. Performance varies tremendously, depending on its breed and genealogy, gender, individual idiosyncrasies, and life experiences. Dobermans and German Shepherds get a lot of respect from intruders. A concern, of course, is that your untrained dog will attack innocent strangers, your neighbors, or their children. 

The second level is to train your dog to bark at strangers but not attack. This will usually require the assistance of a professional trainer. 

The third level is a personal protection dog professionally trained to attack on command or when he or she thinks a family member is being assaulted. Unfortunately, even after such training most dogs have trouble distinguishing between a friendly slap on the back and a real assault. Many are unreliable except when handled by their masters. 

Securing Vulnerable Spots 

Since most intruders break in through doors and windows, you’ll want to make yours as difficult to penetrate as possible. Intruders prefer unlocked doors and windows; however, many burglars can quickly and almost silently pry open locked ones. Some break a pane of glass so they can reach in and unlock the window or door. Only a few really determined burglars break out enough glass to walk or crawl through, or bash in a well-secured door, and they seldom try to pick locks. 

Lose Lousy Locks 

Good locks are essential. Our locksmiths article describes various types of locks, how they can be strengthened, and how to find a good locksmith to do the work. 

Secure Sliding Glass Doors 

The locks on sliding glass doors are notoriously flimsy—many doors can be lifted right off their tracks. If you have a sliding glass door, consider paying a locksmith to evaluate its vulnerability and, if necessary, install reinforcements. 

Figure 1 shows several do-it-yourself ways to secure sliding glass doors. One door is usually fixed (screwed or bolted at several points to the track) so you have to worry about only the other door. A sliding glass door can resist a pry bar attack if you place a broomstick or piece of lumber in the lower track to prevent the door from sliding open. Aluminum “Charley Bars” mounted waist-high function the same way. Well-designed ones require moving one or two parts before they can be lowered, making them somewhat more resistant to persistent intruders than wood in the track. Charley Bars cost $20 and less. 

Figure 1—Securing Sliding Glass Doors

sliding glass door

If both doors slide, secure them by drilling two 9/32-inch holes where their frames overlap at the top and bottom. Drill through the inside door’s frame and halfway into the outside door’s frame; then insert 1/4-inch bolts in the holes (see Figure 1). This will prevent intruders from prying the doors open, and make it difficult to lift the doors off their tracks. The danger is that if your drill hits the glass, the glass may break. Usually the glass extends less than 1/2 inch into the frame, so position the hole as far from the glass as possible while keeping the drill perpendicular to the door. 

To prevent burglars from lifting a sliding door off the track to open it fully, drill vertical holes through the overhead track every 12 inches or so, and drive screws into these holes just far enough so that the doors slide under their heads but can’t be lifted off the track (see Figure 2). Before trying this, use a pencil or piece of wire to feel whether the top of the door frame is solid or hollow. This technique will not work on some hollow frames. 

Figure 2—Using Screws to Prevent Sliding Doors from Being Lifted

screw to prevent

Replace Weak Doors 

Hollow wood doors are usually made of two 1/8-inch sheets of plywood separated by cardboard spacers. You don’t have to be a black belt to punch through them. And for outward-opening doors, hinge pins located on the outside can be pulled out with a pair of pliers. 

Exterior doors should be solid wood (usually plywood surfaces over wood planks) or foam-filled steel. If doors do not open inward, the hinges should have non-removable pins. Hinges should also be installed so that the screws attaching them to the door and frame cannot be removed when the door is closed. Doors should fit snugly within the door frame, with no more than a 1/16-inch gap on either side. 

If you replace a glass door with a wooden one, you do not necessarily forgo an opportunity to view whoever rings your doorbell. Wide-angle peepholes are available, but before you buy one look through it at objects two feet to five feet away. The focus should be clear and the view at least as wide as the distance. 

The last word in door security is a heavy-duty steel door in a steel frame with a high-security lock. These cost $800 to $2,000, installed (visit for ratings of door installers). 

One step down are metal bar doors installed a few inches outside an existing door. Set into a brick or concrete block structure, defeating them generally takes a lot of time and makes a lot of noise. Their resistance to attack depends on the strength of the framing to which they are attached. The simplest kinds of metal bar doors, which are usually installed along with bars over the windows, make your place look like a prison. But some fabricators make attractive decorative ones, and a few custom-build them as individual pieces of art. These doors typically cost $400 to $1,200, when professionally installed. 

Secure Your Windows 

There are five common types of windows: 

  • Double-hung (sash) windows open vertically; sometimes the top half is fixed and sometimes not. Frames may be wood, vinyl, or metal. 
  • Horizontal sliders are like small sliding glass doors and usually have metal frames. 
  • Casement windows swing outward and are usually opened and closed by a lever attached to a geared hand crank. 
  • Jalousie windows are a series of panes about four inches wide set in metal frames interconnected by levers. 
  • Fixed pane windows do not open. 

To secure a window, you must make it resistant to being pried open. In addition, it should be difficult to open the window frame after a pane of glass has been broken. Most intruders are not keen on breaking glass, but it still happens often enough to justify concern. For the highest level of protection, the window should have unbreakable glazing or steel bars across it. 

Quick Fixes 

The most difficult-to-secure type of window is the jalousie. Even when closed tight, someone can quietly remove a pane. If you have this type of window anywhere accessible to intruders, consider replacing it, adding bars over it, or attaching an alarm to it. 

Casement windows, when closed, often will withstand a prying attack. The geared hand crank mechanism resists prying, and most have an additional lock on the window frame. If a casement window is open a few inches, however, someone can easily reach in and turn the hand crank to fully open the window. You can make that more difficult by removing the handle, but intruders can still substitute a pair of pliers for the hand crank. If you have a ground-level casement window that you commonly leave partially open, back it up with bars or cover it with an alarm screen. 

Locks on horizontal sliders are often flimsy enough to be snapped with gentle prying. Auxiliary locks for these windows include small devices that clamp onto or bolt through the track. However, the former may not resist prying and the latter generally are unsuitable for securing windows in partially open positions because attackers can reach through openings to remove the bolts. 

A homemade stop that works well on some frames is drilling a 1/4-inch hole through the inside rung of the bottom track, then placing a small padlock through the hole. A hole drilled as far as five inches from the fully closed position can still prevent an intruder from entering when opened. Figure 3 shows this technique. 

Figure 3—Securing Sliding Windows

securing sliding windows figure

Double-hung windows are relatively easy to secure, but many commonly available locks are not effective. A simple way to secure this type of window is to pin the two frames together (as shown in Figure 4). Drill a 9/32-inch hole on each side where the lower and upper frames overlap. Drill entirely through the inner frame and three-fourths of the way through the outer frame. Use a 1/4-inch bolt as the pin. To allow the window to be left slightly open, drill a second hole as far as five inches up from the fully closed position. Unfortunately, intruders can remove such pins easily after breaking the glass once they notice them. Also, with the windows partially opened, intruders can use a stick to reach in and knock out the pins. 

Figure 4—Securing Double-Hung Windows with Pins

securing double-hung windows figure

The same basic arrangement, using smaller diameter holes and two-inch #14 screws, would require the intruder to have a screwdriver and patience. You can even obtain screws with strange heads that cannot be removed without a special socket. 

Improve Glazing 

The next level up in window security is to get impact-resistant glazing, such as Plexiglas or Lexan. Premium grades of these plastics are virtually free of visual distortion and more resistant to abrasion during cleaning. Make sure you or an installer follow manufacturers’ instructions for mounting these glazing materials. Temperature increases make them expand more than glass, and intruders can bash in an entire improperly mounted pane. 

At considerably greater cost, you can have a professional replace particularly vulnerable windows with the type of glass used in automobile windshields, which is not difficult to break but is difficult to remove. 

Install Bars 

The ultimate in window protection consists of protective metal bars. These bars (also called grates and grills) come in straight prison-issue and various decorative versions. Most are fully welded on a semi-custom basis by local installers who do not sell them for do-it-yourself installation. 

Hardware stores, however, often stock bar sets that can be adjusted in size to fit your windows; they come in several heights and expand up to 42 inches wide. These bar sets cost $20 to $80. Although they won’t resist attack as effectively as fully welded bars, if properly installed they will discourage all but the most determined intruders. Some hardware stores have begun to stock fully welded window bars, although the selection is limited and may not be suitable for your windows. If the width doesn’t fit exactly, you can cut the fasteners with a hacksaw. 

Both expandable bars and fully welded bars should be installed with large one-way screws—or with carriage bolts, as long as they are punched with square holes and the nuts would not be accessible to intruders (see Figure 5). 

Figure 5—Hasp Fasteners

hasp fasteners figure

Custom-fashioned bars vary not only in decorative patterns but also in quality. Some are heavier gauge than others. Some put the “pickets” (vertical bars) through holes in the “spreaders” (horizontal bars), creating a stronger unit than just welding them to the sides of the spreaders. Some have better welding than others, some have more coats of paint, and some can be more securely attached to the wall. 

Be sure to check how the bars will be attached to the house. They should be attached with bolts or screws positioned parallel to the wall (see Figure 6), and then welded to the bars. This kind of installation makes it very difficult to remove the fasteners and also difficult to pry off the bars, because prying away from one wall tends to push the whole bar assembly against the other wall. 

Figure 6—Steel Window Bars with Installation Bolts or Screws Parallel to Wall

steel window bars figure

Professionally installed, fully welded bars cost about $100 to $300 for a 30-inch-by-60-inch window if you get bars for several windows at one time. 

Don’t Block Escape Routes 

Metal bars on windows or doors, or difficult-to-remove locking devices (such as screws in window frames), pose hazards in the event of fire. Most building codes specify that any sleeping room without an exterior door should have an easily opened window. Window bars with hinges on one side and a lock on the other are risky because the keys can easily be misplaced. Hinged bars with an extended mechanical latch release are safer: No one outside can reach them, but they can be easily operated by someone inside. 

If windows are secured with screws, make all occupants aware that to escape through the window they’ll need to knock out the glass, place a blanket or other padding on the bottom frame, and carefully climb out. Even then, escape through broken glass will be hazardous. 

Block Other Access Routes 

Intruders love unlocked attached garages. After entering the garage and closing the door, they can then work at breaking into the house without fear of being seen or heard. 

Standard twist handle locks on overhead garage doors can be easily defeated. Most electric door openers ($150 to $300) provide more resistance, but because even these may yield to a crowbar attack it’s good to have a backup lock. One simple and inexpensive solution is to drill holes in the track on each side just above the closed door and put U-bolts or padlocks through the holes. This arrangement permits the door to be secured only from inside the garage when the door is closed. Alternatively, the door can be secured from the outside with a hasp and padlock. 

A preference for hidden entries leads intruders to also favor utility rooms and enclosed porches. Make it difficult for them to get inside them; if that’s not possible, make sure a solid-core door with reinforced locks separates one of these areas from the rest of your house. 

If someone could conceivably enter your attic from the outside, lock the attic hatch or door. Instead of glass, most skylights are now a thin plastic that is easily broken. Consider shatter-resistant glazing or adding metal steel bars. 

Most window air conditioners can be removed easily from the outside or by pushing the unit in. The first precaution is to secure the partly raised window frame tight against the A/C case by pinning or screwing the frames together (as shown in Figure 4). Resist pivot attacks by filling any gaps between the bottom of the case and the windowsill with lumber. The easiest way to prevent pushing attacks is to screw a piece of lumber to the top of the windowsill. You can improve the aesthetics by extending the board from one side of the frame to the other and painting it the same color as the sill. 

Create Backups 

Even if you have strong physical barriers, intruders can still penetrate your perimeter. There are several things you can do to protect yourself: 

  • Keep a phone in your bedroom. 
  • Consider getting a lock for your bedroom door. It’s the room where most of us spend about half of our time when at home. You may also want to put a solid-core door with a heavy lock on your bedroom entrance. If you don’t have kids, you can then sleep with your bedroom door locked. If you have kids, sleeping behind a solid, locked door probably sounds like a fantastic idea in terms of getting more sleep and privacy, but it’s a bad idea in terms of safety. On the other hand, if you have a bedroom door that locks you can retrieve your kids and lock out home invaders. 
  • Install a safe. Small fire-resistant models with about one cubic foot of storage space cost $100 to $200. Safecrackers can open these units, but other burglars usually can’t. These units weigh 60 to 100 pounds and can be screwed to the floor. Highly secure—but much more expensive—safes are also available. 
  • Hide valuables. Stash cash and expensive jewelry in unlikely places—for example, in a large envelope or among many paper files. Be sure to select containers no one will accidentally discard. 
  • Rent a safe deposit box. A box may be inconvenient, but it provides a level of security against theft and fire that cannot be duplicated at home for less than several thousand dollars. 
  • Lock up guns. Burglaries are major sources of guns for criminals, although estimates of the percentage of crimes involving stolen guns vary widely. Each year more than 100,000 guns are reported stolen—no one knows how many more gun thefts are unreported (some studies estimate over 60 percent). Trigger locks can prevent accidental shootings but not thefts. If you have guns, store them in locked gun boxes or on gun racks that cannot be easily removed. Another option is to use a Simplex lock, which is a small gun safe that is opened by pressing five buttons in a specific order, a process that can be done quickly even in the dark. Steel gun boxes with Simplex locks usually cost $150 and up. 

Planning an Alarm System 

The amount of protection provided by a burglar alarm system depends on how well you have secured the physical perimeter of your house, the design of the alarm system, the quality of the installation, and how often you activate the system. 

Should You Get One? 

We recommend that homeowners first improve physical barriers to intrusion, as discussed above, before considering alarm systems. Alarms can add protection against intrusions, but they also involve a significant expense and create some inconveniences. Should you get a system? We think it depends on several factors: 

  • How well is your house physically secured against intrusions? 
  • What is the incidence of burglary and other crime in your neighborhood? 
  • Is your house regularly unoccupied during the day or evening? Do you take long vacations? 
  • Do you have neighbors around most of the time to keep an eye on your house and call the police when they detect suspicious activity? 
  • What are you likely to lose in a burglary? Is it replaceable? Is it insured for replacement value? 
  • Are children, frequent houseguests, pets, or forgetful family members likely to trigger false alarms? 
  • Does your family worry about break-ins? 

Home alarm systems provide several kinds of protection. They notify you when doors and windows are inadvertently left open. Publicizing their presence—even the possibility of their presence—will deter some intruders. The sounding of an alarm will cause most intruders to flee and notify occupants of a present danger. The sounding of a siren will notify neighbors to call the police, and systems hooked up to a central monitoring station will notify the company to call the police. 

Basic alarm protection should cover all exterior doors (including sliding glass doors) and any windows easily reached by intruders. The system should also activate a siren and/or notify a central monitoring station. Professional installation of a system meeting these criteria usually costs $1,000 to $2,000. Some companies offer steep discounts to customers who agree to sign long-term monitoring contracts. With these companies, you can get a basic system for less than $500 if you sign a three-year monitoring deal. 

Moderately heavy alarm protection covers other points of potential entry, including second-story windows, attic doors, and skylights. It will also use motion detectors, pressure pads, and sensors on cabinets and bureaus to detect intrusions past the perimeter when the family is asleep or away. Such systems usually cost from $1,500 to more than $3,000. 

Although the more time an alarm system remains in operation the more protection it provides, homeowners continually turn their systems off to prevent false alarms. Every time a person opens a monitored door or window, the system has to be reset, and motion detectors must be turned off when any human or pet is likely to enter their view. Living with an alarm system is at best an inconvenience, at worst enough of a hassle that homeowners don’t use it regularly. 

False alarms are not merely inconvenient: They cause fear, erode neighbors’ goodwill, and, in many jurisdictions, result in fines. According to various estimates, 80 to 98 percent of alarm alerts are false—a serious problem for police departments. 

Most local jurisdictions have ordinances to minimize false alarms by prohibiting alarm systems from directly contacting the police. Instead, the system must notify a third party, usually at a central monitoring station, which is supposed to verify the emergency before calling the police. 

In addition, most police departments fine homeowners for excessive false alarms. Although fines are seldom assessed for the first two or three mishaps in a calendar year, most police departments begin issuing fines for each subsequent occurrence—and increase the amount for each additional false alarm. 


An alarm system consists of five main parts: sensors, control panel (the brains of the system), inputs that deactivate the system and adjust control-panel settings, alert mechanism, and a means of connecting components. 


There are dozens of sensor types. Some detect the opening of doors and windows, some detect broken glass, and others detect an intruder’s body heat and motion. 

Magnetic contacts are the most common type of sensor. A pair of magnetic contacts is installed with one contact on a door or window and the other on the adjacent frame. Contacts are separated when a door or window is opened, sending a message to the control panel, which in turn triggers an alarm. With a third contact, magnetic contacts can be placed on sash and horizontal slider windows so that the windows can be left in either of two positions—closed or partially open—without setting off the alarm. A false alert can occur if doors or windows are opened by family members while the alarm is on, or if heavy winds rattle a loose-fitting window. These sensors provide no protection if an intruder breaks the glass and crawls through. 

Glass breakage sensing devices trigger an alert when they detect the sound of breaking glass. A broken wine glass or bottle may trigger a false alarm. Many installers consider these devices unreliable; others consider them useful. 

Wired window screens are fiberglass screens with fine metal wires woven within. An alarm sounds when the screen is broken. Except when accidentally broken, these screens seldom trigger false alarms. Wired screens are the most practical way to place an alarm on windows that are often left open. 

There are two kinds of motion detectors: passive infrared and dual technology.  

Passive infrared motion detectors are equipped with an “eye” that detects moving heat differentials within their field of vision. They are normally turned on when the homeowner is not in the house or asleep. Midnight snackers or unwary houseguests can cause false alarms. Other changes in room environment also can cause false alarms—for example, a dramatic shift in light from a blown curtain or a bug crawling on the lens of the device. 

A dual-technology motion detector combines passive infrared detection with microwave technology. In addition to “looking” for moving heat differentials, this type of motion detector bounces sound waves off everything in a room. When something interrupts the consistency of the sound waves returning to the device, the detector checks the passive infrared detection. Unless both technologies are tripped, the alarm will not sound, enabling the dual-technology detector to verify a change in environment and be slightly less prone to false alarms. 

Some motion detectors can be specially set to accommodate pets, creating a “pet alley.” Basically, the eye of the detector is aimed at a level above the pet’s normal path so that it will not detect the pet’s movement. While convenient in theory, pet alleys are far from foolproof because pets don’t always stay low. Cats climb on things, and dogs jump up and interfere with the detector’s line of sight. 

Control Panel 

The control panel receives and processes signals from sensors, and activates one or more alarm mechanisms. It also communicates with various inputs (keypads, remotes, smartphone software, etc.) to turn the system on and off and make adjustments. Whenever a sensor detects an opened door or window, or broken glass, or movement of a warm body, the control panel is alerted. If someone inputs the correct code or uses an appropriate key fob or remote 10 to 30 seconds before or after the alert, the system presumes it was caused by authorized occupants of the house. Otherwise, it activates an audible alarm and notifies a central monitoring station. 

Control panels usually have from six to 32 zones. A single sensor or multiple sensors can be “grouped” into individually identified zones, allowing the control panel to indicate more precisely the location of a tripped sensor. The fewer sensors in a zone, the easier it is to pinpoint what caused an alarm. In a burglary, you seldom need to know more than which room an intruder has entered, but in order to identify a malfunctioning sensor it is preferable to put each sensor on a separate zone. 

The panel should have a self-recharging backup battery that allows the system to continue operating during power failures. 

Panels are available with various other features, including fire detectors, flood detectors, and medical alerts. And some trigger different-sounding alarms for each type of problem. 

Some panels can be set so that frequently used windows will not trigger an alarm if they are closed quickly upon opening, or if they are opened so that they align a third set of contacts. It’s a convenient feature because you don’t have to enter a code or hunt down a remote or smartphone every time you open these windows. 

Most panels can produce a pre-alarm warning, a moderate-level sound indicating that an alert has been received; unless canceled within 15 or 30 seconds, the full alarm will be triggered. This gives homeowners a chance to cancel alerts caused by their own mistakes—a good way to prevent false alarms. The pre-alarm warning should be audible throughout the house and outside all doors. A buzzer in only the control panel is insufficient. 

The pre-alarm feature also notifies intruders—who usually flee but may instead try to destroy the control panel or prevent it from sending a signal. Good practice places the control panel in a securely attached, locked metal box with no exposed wires. Alternatively, install it in a locked closet or a difficult-to-find place. 

Many control units are now equipped with self-silencers. After a siren has sounded for five to 15 minutes, it automatically turns off. Your neighbors will love this feature, and local ordinances may demand it. Some units automatically re-arm the system after the self-silencing; if an intruder leaves a window open or a malfunctioning sensor causes an alert, the siren will cycle on again until the alarm system is reset. The best compromise often is for the system to automatically silence the siren, turn off the triggered zone, indicate that the triggered zone has been turned off on the keypad, and leave the other zones active. 

Keypads and Other Inputs 

Various inputs—keypads, key fobs, touchscreens, software on your smartphone, remotes—can be used to control your alarm system. 

If your system uses keypads or key fobs, devices should be installed near all frequently used exterior doors so occupants can enter the code or use their key fobs each time they enter or exit. A big benefit of smartphone home security software is that it easily lets you arm the alarm before going to sleep at night and disarm it in the morning. In addition, if an alert sounds at night you’ll know which sensors triggered it without going elsewhere in the house. 

Some systems have inputs that are easier to operate than others. Ask company representatives to explain how their systems are controlled and exactly what you will need to do to set the alarm, cancel it, reset it, and get information on alerts for specific zones. 

Most systems allow homeowners to manually trigger a burglary, fire, or medical alert by hitting a “panic button.” Some control panels can also receive signals from ill or elderly occupants wearing small wireless medical alert pendants. 

Alert Mechanisms 

The most popular alert mechanisms are sirens or horns mounted inside and outside the house. Outdoor devices more likely to attract the attention of your neighbors, passersby, and the police are also loud enough to be heard within the house. But if your false alarms are more than rare, an external siren will antagonize your neighbors. 

Systems that include fire, flood, or medical alert sensors should have multi-tone sirens that distinguish between various kinds of emergencies. Since it is easy to forget which noise indicates which type of alert, some systems feature enunciators that alternate a loud blaring noise with a verbal description of the emergency. 

Although central monitoring stations will inform the police of your address, some homes do not have street numbers prominently displayed. Because the sound of an external siren often echoes, making it difficult to know which house is emitting the alarm, many experts suggest also mounting a strobe light on the front of your home. 


The components of an alarm system can be “hardwired” to the control panel with low-voltage wires or wirelessly communicate via small battery-powered radio transmitters and receivers. 

Wiring for hardwired components may be fully hidden, partially hidden, or fully exposed. Fully hidden wiring is common practice but expensive to install in houses without unfinished basements or attics, and impossible to install in houses with concrete slab foundations and solid masonry walls. Have representatives of companies that propose to install hardwired components show you exactly where the wires for each component will run, and specify who will be responsible for the cost of any carpentry, plaster work, or painting needed to repair the damage incurred by the installation process. 

Some wireless components are “supervised,” which means that each transmitter periodically sends a test signal to the control panel; if it fails to send the signal, the homeowner or central monitoring station is notified of the malfunction. Otherwise, you have to test the transmitters by going around and activating them, a chore few homeowners perform as often as advised. 

Both types of components wind up costing about the same: Wireless components initially cost more, but hardwired components have higher installation labor costs. 

While ease of installation is a big advantage of wireless components, the main disadvantage is that they are slightly less reliable than hardwired systems. There’s also the expense and bother of periodically replacing batteries, although batteries for most components should last several years. 


Most control panels communicate with monitoring stations by transmitting signals via landline or cell signals. Although burglars usually flee soon after sirens go off—and well before police arrive—the police will come by to close any open windows and doors, and the monitoring station will notify the homeowner. Central station monitoring provides extra protection against determined intruders who defeat the siren, locate and destroy the control panel, or simply disregard the alarm. 

Different jurisdictions have different policies for what central monitoring stations are supposed to do when alerted about potential intrusions. Before you sign a contract for monitoring, check out the current rules with the monitoring company and local police. The most common policy is that when an alarm is triggered the monitoring company calls prearranged phone numbers to make sure it isn’t a false alarm before notifying the police. If it is told it’s a false alarm, the person who answers must provide the correct password. 

Test the service’s response by deliberately triggering an alarm and seeing how long it takes the station to call you. Some control panels have a “test mode” in which a siren emits a low-level noise or silences it so it won’t disturb your neighbors. 

But just as the alarm industry is upgrading its technology, so are professional burglars improving their bags of tricks. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, or are known to have valuable possessions, ask alarm installers about the precautions you can take to protect central station communication. 

Also consider enhancing your system with video monitoring. Set up cameras to either record or transmit to a central monitoring station a video of activity around the outside and inside of your home. Systems can be set up either to start recording or transmitting only when some other sensor has been triggered or on a continuing basis. If the video is being transmitted to a central monitoring station on a continuing basis, the station will not ordinarily monitor the signal unless a sensor activates an alarm notification. 

The large national alarm companies operate their own central stations. Some have stations in each major metropolitan area, while others have a single station. Large independents may also operate their own stations, but most of the smaller independents contract with a station for this service. 

Before contracting with a monitoring service, make sure the communications will work. And if your phone service is set up to reject unidentified callers, make sure your monitoring service can get through to verify an alarm. 

Standards for Alarms 

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) “lists” equipment that meets specified standards. Equipment UL-listed for safety means that it has been tested and proven not to cause harm or injury when used in the appropriate manner. Equipment also can be UL-listed for a specific purpose—for example, alarm equipment might be UL-listed for “intrusion detection.” 

Because new and more technologically advanced alarm equipment is constantly coming onto the market, not all quality products will be UL-listed. It takes time to test some of the newer devices. While purchasing products with a UL-listing is desirable, it is not essential. It is better to select an alarm installer with a track record of satisfied customers than one using UL-listed equipment. 

If an alarm system uses wireless sensors, their transmitters must, by law, be approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

UL also certifies alarm installations in individual homes based on specified standards. The certificate for “Basic Systems” requires contacts only on external doors and one motion detector. Since the motion detector usually is turned off when the house is occupied during the day, easily accessible windows are left vulnerable during those hours. The certificate for “Extended Systems” requires extensive protection. Because UL certification involves random inspection of installations, it is expensive for installers and few participate. And even among those that do participate, not all their installations are designed to meet the standards. 

If you use an established installer with high customer satisfaction ratings, you probably don’t need to worry about UL certification. But if your house is a high-profile target for intruders, Extended Systems certificates provide extra assurance of adequate protection. If you want this assurance, inform installers when you call them, and make sure the contract specifies that the installation will be awarded a UL certificate for Extended Systems. You will probably pay a premium for such an installation. 

UL also certifies central security stations that monitor alarms, with UL standards for the building, equipment, and staffing, and inspections to ascertain continued compliance. A facility can be certified as a “Central Station Burglar Alarm” (CPVX), “Central Station Fire Alarm—Full Service” (UUFX), or “Central Station—Monitoring” (CVSU). There are only a few such facilities in this area. Again, while we would prefer UL certification, we would still do business with a station that has generated high customer satisfaction even if it is not certified. 

Hiring the Right Installer and Monitoring Service 

Even if you purchase a home security system with all the bells and whistles, it might not do you any good if it’s designed poorly or installed sloppily. When hiring an installer, consider several points: 

What Do Past Customers Say? 

Our Ratings Tables list ratings of area alarm installers, most of which serve all or most of the area. The ratings come from surveys we send to area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) asking respondents to rate companies they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on various aspects of service, including “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance quality.” Our Ratings Tables list all companies that received 10 or more ratings on our surveys, and reports the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on each question. Our Ratings Tables also report the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance quality.” 

As you can see, some companies were rated “superior” for “doing work properly” by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but a few others received such favorable ratings from 50 percent or fewer. 

The main problems reported by customers: systems that don’t work right, installation-related damage to property, messiness, and slow response to requests for service. 

Do They Have a History of Complaints? 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, the number of complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices for a recent two-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

Are They Experts? 

In our experience, the expertise of home security representatives varies greatly. Some appear to know little about actual alarm installation, spend minimal time inspecting homes, and have no clear idea of how their installation crews will complete the work. Many representatives seem more interested in explaining their home security products and systems than figuring out how to give customers what they request. You’ll find that with some salespersons it takes considerable time and energy to get an explicit price for your job. When you finally get an estimate from these salespersons, you can only hope that the representatives understand the nuances of the job and will communicate them to their installation crews. 

On the other hand, some companies’ representatives are true experts. Many salespersons have personally performed installation work in the past and some install the alarm systems they plan themselves. These representatives take a good look around the house, check inside closets, inspect the basement and other unfinished spaces, and bang on walls. They seem to know exactly what the customer wants and what it takes to do the job. 

How Much Will It Cost? 

Because home security system installers don’t offer exactly the same products, approaches, design, or options, it’s very difficult to directly compare them on price. To illustrate the range of prices you might encounter, our mystery shoppers collected proposals and prices from companies for two different homes. Although our shoppers asked each company to bid on exactly the same work, there would certainly have been differences between how each company actually did the job. 

Table 1 shows the prices for the systems and companies’ charges for three years of central station monitoring. As you can see, price differences were large, ranging from $1,847 to $4,420 for one of the homes and $1,839 to $3,552 for the other home. 

Table 1—Prices Quoted for Alarm Installations and Central Station Monitoring

Prices Quoted for Alarm Installations and Central Station Monitoring
Company Home A Home B
  Cost for system Monitoring for 3 years Total costs Cost for system Monitoring for 3 years Total costs
Ackerman Security $2,380 $682 $3,062 $1,370 $682 $2,052
ADT Security Services $1,704 $1,296 $3,000 $1,324 $1,476 $2,800
Allied Alarm Specialist $1,890 $900 $2,790      
ASG Security $949 $898 $1,847 $509 $1,330 $1,839
Burtel American Home Security $3,520 $900 $4,420 $2,116 $1,436 $3,552
5 Star Security $1,840 $1,080 $2,920      
Guardian Protection Services $1,169 $1,078 $2,247      
Hofheimer Security $2,970 $828 $3,798 $1,870 $1,008 $2,878
Interamerican Security $1,270 $864 $2,134      
Maximum Security $1,250 $720 $1,970      
N & D Security $1,505 $900 $2,405 $1,575 $1,224 $2,799
National Security $1,485 $862 $2,347      
Petitbon Alarm $2,195 $1,150 $3,345      
Potomac Security Systems $2,225 $864 $3,089      
Protection 1 $1,274 $1,224 $2,498      
Splaine Security Systems $1,865 $1,006 $2,871      
Ultra Guard Security Systems $1,518 $900 $2,418      
Vector Security $1,970 $1,008 $2,978      
Vintage Security $919 $1,044 $1,963      
vivint $1,998 $1,944 $3,942      
Difference between lowest and highest prices $2,601 $1,262 $2,573 $1,607 $794 $1,713
Shoppers requested prices to install the systems described below. Some companies may have intended to install different equipment than requested.
Home A—Control panel, keypad and remote, 16 window sensors, 3 door sensors, 1 motion detector, 1 indoor siren, 1 exterior siren, 3 years of landline monitoring.
Home B—Control panel, keypad and remote, 2 door sensors, 8 window sensors, 2 motion detectors, 2 glass breakage detectors, 1 indoor siren, 3 years of landline monitoring.

Who Owns the Equipment? 

Some installers make most or even all of their profits from monitoring fees. To protect these profits, the contracts used by some alarm installers—specifically, many of ADT’s contracts—state that, unless otherwise agreed to, installed equipment remains the property of the installation company. For example, one contract for ADT we reviewed states: 

“[T]he Equipment will remain property of ADT… ADT may remove or, upon written notice to Customer, abandon in whole or in part, all ADT-owned devices, instruments, appliances, cabinets, wiring/cable and other materials associated with the Equipment, upon termination of this Contract, without obligation to repair or redecorate any portion of Customer’s premises upon such removal, and the removal or abandonment of such materials shall not be held to constitute a waiver of the right of ADT to collect any charges that have been accrued or may be accrued hereunder…” 

In other words, this contract states that if the customer cancels monitoring services provided by ADT, the company can opt to remove the system—and isn’t required to do so in a tidy manner. 

We haven’t heard from any consumers who have actually had systems removed by a company due to a canceled contract (although this happens fairly regularly with commercial customers). Instead, ADT and other companies that maintain ownership of installed equipment simply “abandon” the equipment. Our view is that it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry, and we advise homeowners to deal with companies that sell you a system you’ll own. 

What Are Your Monitoring Service Options? 

Once equipment is installed, some companies allow you to contract with any service you choose for monitoring, while others require you to use their monitoring service for a specific period of time (usually two or three years). Some companies give big breaks on equipment and installation costs if you sign on with them for monitoring. 

If you’re not satisfied with the quality or price of a company that locks you into its monitoring service, it will cost plenty to take your business elsewhere: You’ll have to continue paying for the duration of the original contract or pay a hefty cancellation penalty. 

Some companies also make it difficult to switch monitoring services to another company even after the contract term is up. With most types of equipment, it is easy to switch companies. The new company just has to come to your home and reprogram the device that communicates with the central station. But to take over monitoring of the equipment, the new company will need to know the system’s programming code, and some companies refuse to provide these codes to their customers—or to the customers’ new monitoring service. If the new company can’t obtain these codes to reset the system, it might have to replace part or all of the control panel components, which can be expensive. 

To maintain flexibility in choosing monitoring service, ask prospective installation companies to either supply you upfront with their systems’ programming codes or agree to come out to reset their systems, if requested. Because resetting the system usually involves a service call, it’s reasonable for a company to charge a fee for that work. Any such fee should be indicated on the written contract. 

Our shoppers collected monitoring prices from the companies that provided estimates to install alarm systems. Table 1 shows monitoring costs for three years. Most alarm installation companies do not actually perform the monitoring service, but simply act as sales agents for monitoring companies. Monitoring costs vary widely—from $682 to $1,944 for three years for one of our sample homes. 

What Are the Payment Terms? 

When obtaining bids for alarm system installation, discuss payment terms. The more you can pay after the job is complete, the better. The best arrangement is to pay a chunk of the installation price 15 or 30 days after completion: It gives you maximum leverage if any problems need to be corrected. 

Check also the company’s monitoring agreement for any provisions that require auto-renewal of its monitoring service. Some companies will—without prior notification from customers within a fairly short window of time—automatically renew their monitoring service for a year or more. Because some companies routinely increase their monthly monitoring charges, strict auto-renewing agreements can be bad deals for you. 

Will They Deal with the Paperwork? 

Many jurisdictions require homeowners to register their alarm systems. The company you use should provide the required paperwork, and many will submit it for you. Most registrations either are free or require a nominal administrative fee. Some registrations must be renewed every few years. Your installer should inform you of the requirements in your area.

Extra Advice:
Apartment Security 

Special concerns and resources pertain to apartment dwellers. 

Doorperson. Buildings with security personnel posted at the front entrance are safer. While doorpersons are generally not trained as security guards, they monitor the comings and goings of residents and their guests, and their physical presence deters would-be thieves. 

Call box. If your building does not have a reliable call box system, ask management to install one. Guests use call boxes to call the person they are visiting to get “buzzed in.” Call boxes make it easier to distinguish between legitimate guests and others. In buildings with call boxes, guests generally will not be waiting for someone entering or exiting the building to be admitted. 

Entrance etiquette. Most apartment dwellers are familiar with the often awkward etiquette of entering and exiting their buildings. Do you hold the door open for someone right behind as you enter or exit? If someone is waiting at the front door (perhaps even using the call box), do you let the person in? Unless you know the person, it’s better to close the door behind you without letting him or her in. This is easier in theory than in practice, however, since closing the door on someone—even a stranger—comes off as rude. But this is a security issue, and a simple “Nothing personal, but I can’t let you in” should suffice. 

Get to know your neighbors. Find out whether there is a neighborhood watch group; many buildings have their own. 

Get a security audit. Ask your local police department to perform a security audit of your building. If there are weaknesses, such as poor lighting around an entrance, the officer will write them up and submit them to the building manager or owner. 

Consider using security devices. There are inexpensive do-it-yourself ways to secure your apartment, such as wireless motion detectors that you arm at night for the front entrance area. You can also attach wireless contact sensors to vulnerable windows or doors. 

Remain vigilant. Never assume that your building’s hallways are any safer than the streets outside. Always lock your front door and avoid poorly lit spaces and communal areas—such as laundry rooms—late at night. 

Extra Advice:
False Alarms—Causes and Cures 


  • Failure to enter the required code or use key fob to turn off alarm before or after opening a door or window. 
  • Failure to close a door after entering or exiting the house. 
  • Failure to close all doors, windows, and other protected points before activating the system. 
  • Entry by human or pet into room with an activated motion detector. 
  • Someone accidentally hitting panic button. 
  • Vibrations and noise setting off glass-breakage sensors. 
  • Strong winds rattling loose windows or doors and swelling window frames, triggering contact sensors. 
  • Electrical noise, power voltage dips, brownouts, and blackouts. 


  • Use an experienced, skilled, and reputable alarm installer. 
  • Read instruction materials thoroughly. Show family members, housecleaners, babysitters, and guests how to use the system and check their operation of it. 
  • Place a keypad or other input device close to each frequently used door. 
  • Make sure the pre-alarm signal is audible throughout the house and outside frequently used doors. 
  • Use a central monitoring station that calls you to verify an alert before it calls the police. 
  • Install a central panel with at least eight zones and preferably twice that number. Place each frequently used door in a separate zone. Place glass breakage detectors and motion detectors in separate zones. 
  • Use only high-quality motion detectors and glass breakage detectors. “Dual-technology” or cross verification between two detectors enhances effectiveness. 
  • Make sure that all doors and windows equipped with contact sensors fit tightly and do not rattle. Make sure contact between sensors is maintained when doors and windows swell. Set motion detectors to a sensitivity level that accommodates the shifting of curtains and other objects likely to move. Aim detectors so pets are unlikely to trigger them. 

Extra Advice:
Recovering Your Losses 

A home burglary is more than just upsetting; it leaves your family with a list of important things to do. 

First, call the police. Even though chances are only about one in 10 that you will ever recover any of your possessions, that is better than nothing, and a police report is usually necessary for filing an insurance claim (ask for the report number before the officer leaves your home). Notifying the police also provides crucial information about crime trends in your neighborhood. 

Next, re-secure your house. If you had been careless, this could be as easy as locking windows and doors. If you had been cautious, you will have to do more. Half-inch plywood sheets attached on the inside of broken windows or doors with two-inch screws every foot act as strong temporary barriers. If you can’t do it yourself, some of the locksmiths listed in our locksmiths article can do this type of work. 

Most burglarized families live in fear that the intruder will return. This seldom happens, but burglars often attack nearby houses within a few weeks. So if you’ve had a break-in, alert your neighbors; and if you learn of a break-in nearby, be extra vigilant. 

If your loss exceeds the deductible in your homeowners or renters insurance policy, report it to the company and gather information on the value of the possessions to file your claim. 

Extra Advice:
If Your Protections Fail 

What if all your locks and alarms fail to thwart an invasion? 

If you return home and find signs that your house has been entered, don’t go in. Call the police and wait for them to arrive. If you inadvertently surprise an intruder already in your home, don’t antagonize or stall him. Most intruders want only to grab a few valuables and make a quick exit. Let him take the goods and leave. 

Most burglars avoid houses they think are occupied; if mistaken, they will flee as soon as they realize their error. But if your prowler does not scare off easily, prepare for the worst. Do everything you can to scare the prowler away. Turn on exterior and interior lights, hit the panic button of your alarm, and call the police. 

If that doesn’t work, you have several options. Exiting the house and running to a neighbor’s is your best bet. Or retreat into a room with no vulnerable window and a strong door, and lock and barricade the door with furniture. A third option is to grab your best weapon and take a stand where you think the prowler will enter; it may be easier to overpower the intruder at that point, but any confrontation is dangerous. 

If the intruder confronts you, unless you have a loaded gun in your hand and the intruder is unarmed, cooperate until it becomes clear the intruder intends serious harm. This advice is not only for the timid; it’s what many martial arts instructors and police officers advise. 

Intruders who attack you or break through your barricaded bedroom door probably intend bodily harm. Unfortunately, in these cases there are no general guidelines on what you should do and what’s likely to happen. Some victims manage to talk assailants out of doing them harm; others further antagonize assailants with the same approach. Some submit and avoid further harm; others are brutalized. Some fight off the assailants; others are killed while trying. 

Courts have generally held that, when confronted by an intruder, victims can use only as much force as a reasonable person would believe is necessary to protect themselves and their families. Rarely would the law excuse anyone for shooting a burglar in the back, but there is considerable ambiguity about many other situations, including: 

  • Can you attack potential intruders before they enter your home? 
  • Can you attack an intruder who has entered through an open door? What if he hasn’t revealed intent to take anything or harm anyone? 
  • Do you have to warn intruders, or can you surprise them with a bullet or a baseball bat? (A warning might cause intruders to leave without injury, but also give them a better chance to hurt you.) 
  • How much force, if any, can you use to apprehend intruders who are escaping? Does it matter whether they are taking anything? 

Where to Complain

State and Local Government Consumer Agencies

District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024

District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW, #11455
Washington, DC 20001

Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035

Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Columbia, MD 21046

Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330
Rockville, MD 20850

Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
102 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
800-552-9963 or 804-786-2042

Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington
1411 K Street, NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

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