.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 alarm installers, most of which serve all or most of the area. The ratings come from surveys we send to area consumers (primarily Consumers' 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.” 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.” Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.

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?

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. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts and rates.

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.

The table below 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.

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
FOOTNOTE:
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. The table above 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.