Home Security System Buying Guide

Purchasing a home security system once required a technician to come into your house and run wires through your walls, but today’s systems are wireless—and much easier to install.

Traditional security companies have had to adapt as they face a wave of newer tech-savvy competitors, such as Abode, Amazon-owned Ring, Cove, Eufy, SimpliSafe, Vivint, and Wyze. For example, professional security stalwart ADT acquired DIY security company LifeShield in early 2019 and rebranded it as its own DIY offering called Blue by ADT. The company then partnered with Google in 2020 in order to integrate its security offerings with Google’s Nest smart home products. Later that year, Google discontinued its own Nest Secure DIY system.

What does all this upheaval in the industry mean for you? Lower prices and more choice as manufacturers seek to beat the competition. According to a 2019 report from market research firm Mintel, 26 percent of U.S. consumers are interested in owning a smart security system. That’s compared with 29 percent who are interested in owning smart speakers—currently one of the most popular types of smart home products.

Many home security systems now double as smart home hubs, centralizing controls for lights, thermostats, locks, and more within one app on your smartphone.

And a lot of the systems on the market now are DIY, meaning you can install them—and even monitor your home—yourself. 

Because DIY security systems are sold as starter kits, to which you can add more components and sensors à la carte, it can be tough to comparison shop. In this guide, Consumer Reports will break down everything you need to know when choosing a wireless security system for your home, regardless of whether you go with a professionally installed system or take the DIY route.

How We Test DIY Home Security Systems

Because of the complex nature of DIY home security systems, Consumer Reports’ test engineers have spent a lot of time fine-tuning our test methodology. We rate each system for security essentials, security add-ons, smart home add-ons, ease of use, ease of setup, motion detection, and video quality of security cameras. Our ratings also note flexibility of professional monitoring options (where an alarm center dispatcher responds to triggered alarms 24/7 year-round), whether systems offer two-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access, and more.

For security essentials, our test engineers evaluate each system for features and functionality that Consumer Reports believes every system should provide. That includes motion sensors, contact sensors for doors and windows, key fobs, keypads, remote sirens, and smartphone apps.

Next, our testers assess security add-ons. These are features that offer extra forms of protection, such as panic buttons or pendants and security cameras that trigger the alarm with motion detection.

Because many security systems now double as smart home systems, we also examine their add-on smart home features, namely their ability to integrate compatible smoke/CO detectors, water and temperature sensors, thermostats, and lighting.

Our ease-of-use test looks at how easily you can interact with the systems through apps and keypads. The evaluation includes checking for features like the ability to adjust the sensitivity of motion sensors, as well as use geofencing (the ability to tell when you leave and return home using your phone’s location data) to arm and disarm the system automatically. We also judge how difficult it is to set up each system.

For motion detection, our test engineers challenged the sensors with various forms of movement, such as crawling or walking slowly past them. Finally, for systems with add-on security cameras, we evaluate the video quality using the same tests developed for our home security camera ratings.

Our test engineers take the results from these individual tests and use them to calculate an Overall Score for every system that enters our labs. 

Latest Trends

Over the past few years, the market for DIY home security systems has seen a wave of new entrants, including Cove, Eufy, Kangaroo, Ring, and Wyze. There were even two new offerings that came and went—Google Nest and Samsung SmartThings.

The ones that have remained have one thing in common: They all compete heavily on price. Cove, Eufy, and Ring all have starter kits that cost $200 or less. Kangaroo has a starter kit that costs $100, and Wyze has one that costs just $50.

These companies also offer very competitive professional monitoring plans. For example, Eufy, Kangaroo, and Ring charge $100 per year for professional monitoring, while Wyze charges just $60 per year, or $5 per month.

Aside from more options and lower prices, the other big trend in this space is tighter integration with other smart home products. For example, Amazon now offers a feature for its smart speakers called Alexa Guard, which uses the speakers’ microphones to listen for the sounds of smoke alarms, glass breaking, and more to alert you to a possible break-in. Alexa Guard can integrate with security systems, such as those from Abode, ADT, Ring, and Scout Alarm, so you can forward these alerts to professional monitoring dispatchers.

More integrations similar to Alexa Guard are likely to be possible as the smart home industry adopts a new communications standard called Project CHIP, which stands for Connected Home over IP (Internet Protocol). Through this standard, smart home devices from different manufacturers will be able to talk to each other without the need for dedicated partnerships between companies.

The standard already has support from Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, and over 170 other companies, including ADT, Resideo (maker of Honeywell Home), and Wyze. CHIP-certified products are expected to enter the market by the end of 2021.

Types of Home Security Systems

You should compare a DIY home security system to a professionally installed system to see which best fits your needs. 

A DIY wireless home security system.
Photo: Nest

DIY Wireless Home Security Systems

These security systems come as packaged kits that you install yourself. Most let you self-monitor your system via a smartphone app at no cost, but a few require you to pay for professional monitoring. Many self-monitored systems offer optional professional monitoring that you can start (and cancel) whenever you like, such as when you go away on vacation.

Pros: Systems with optional professional monitoring give you more flexibility. These systems usually have lower monthly monitoring fees than professionally installed systems. Most don’t require you to sign a multiyear contract. 

Cons: You have to install the system yourself. Self-monitored systems are not monitored 24/7 by trained professionals—miss a smartphone alert at a critical moment, and you’ll give a thief time to enter your home.

A professionally installed home security system.
Photo: ADT

Professionally Installed Home Security Systems

These security systems, installed by a technician, come with 24/7 professional monitoring. That means trained dispatchers at alarm-monitoring centers verify triggered alarms and alert the authorities. Many systems offer a smartphone app for remote control and monitoring, but some providers charge a higher monthly fee to use it. There is usually an up-front cost for equipment and installation, as well as a required multiyear contract with a recurring cost for monitoring. (Consumer Reports does not test these systems.)

Pros: A technician sets up the system for you. Your system is always monitored by a professional.

Cons: Monthly fees are usually around $40 or more. You’re locked into a contract for multiple years.

Basic Security System Sensors and Components

Home security systems are made up of many individual sensors—battery-powered devices ranging in size from a pack of gum to a large box of matches—and other components, such as keypads and alarm sirens.

Here, we define the parts you will usually find in basic home security systems, arranged in order of their importance to the overall system. DIY security system kits usually include a base station, a keypad (or touch-screen control panel), contact sensors, motion sensors, and key fobs.

•  Base station: The base station acts as the brain of the security system, wirelessly connecting to all the sensors and components and acting as a bridge between the individual components and the internet. This device usually includes a built-in siren and features backup batteries and backup cellular connectivity for power and/or internet outages.
•  Contact sensors: These sensors attach to doors and windows to alert you (and/or authorities, if you have professional monitoring) when they’re opened and closed.
•  Motion sensors: Great for rooms with multiple doors or windows, these sensors detect the movement of people. Some are calibrated so that pets won’t set them off.
•  Keypad: With some systems, you’ll use a 10-digit keypad to enter access codes that arm and disarm the alarm.
•  Touch-screen control panels: Similar to a small tablet, this could take the place of a keypad. On the panel, you can arm and disarm the system, enter access codes, and control other smart home devices.
•  Key fobs and tags: Similar to the key fob for your car, these fobs have arm and disarm buttons, and some contain RF (radio frequency) tags, so you can tap the fob on the system’s keypad or base station to arm or disarm.
•  Range extenders: Most base stations have a range of a few hundred feet. For larger homes, some systems utilize extenders to increase the wireless range of the base station and connect to more-remote sensors. In other systems, the wireless components (as well as range extenders) act as signal repeaters that further extend the base station’s range.

Add-On Sensors and Components

Most security systems also offer a variety of add-on sensors and components—at an additional cost—for other types of monitoring, such as personal safety, fire, and carbon monoxide. Here, we define the most common add-on components you’re likely to see as you shop.

•  Security cameras: While not required, most systems work with wireless security cameras and video doorbells that allow you to see what’s going on at all times. They typically record footage when the alarm is triggered.
•  Environmental sensors and alarms: Most systems work with environmental sensors and alarms to monitor your home for fire, water leaks, extreme temperatures, and more. These devices include smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, alarm listeners that listen for the sound of those alarms, and leak and freeze sensors.
•  Sirens: Standalone sirens can be placed away from the base station. If you live in a larger home, you might consider installing multiple sirens.
•  Glass-break sensors: These sensors can detect the sound if, for example, an intruder smashes a window to get inside.
•  Garage-door-tilt sensors: Placed on the interior side of a garage door, these sensors can tell when the door is open or closed based on their horizontal or vertical orientation.
•  Panic buttons and pendants: Physical panic buttons are a quick and easy way to alert a monitoring service that you need help. Panic pendants work the same way, except they can be worn by the user, making them useful for, say, an individual who’s at risk of falling.

Contracts for Professionally Installed Systems

Professionally installed security systems usually require that you sign a contract lasting two to five years. While contracts lock you into a security provider and commit you to a recurring monthly fee, they do have a few upsides.

“A three-year contract is a good way to guarantee that monthly fees won’t increase,” says Kirk MacDowell, president of home security consulting firm MacGuard Security Advisors. He adds that having a contract will help ensure that your system will be maintained and updated with the latest software. 

Considerations for Self-Installed Security Systems

Professional Monitoring vs. Self-Monitoring
A big factor in your purchase—and the long-term cost of your system—is whether you want professional monitoring. With pro monitoring, a team of trained dispatchers will monitor your system 24/7 and alert the authorities, if necessary.

Self-monitoring means no monthly fees, but it also means that missing a notification on your smartphone can be the difference between being robbed and thwarting a potential burglar.

Many self-monitored systems offer optional professional monitoring, sometimes called on-demand monitoring. With these systems, you can sign up for professional monitoring indefinitely or temporarily, even for just one month.

A few DIY security systems require professional monitoring with a multiyear contract, but they are the minority. Other systems might offer optional multiyear contracts in exchange for lower monthly monitoring fees.

Additional Component Costs
Security system companies like to advertise that their systems start at just $200, $300, or $400. But the reality is that you could easily spend over $1,000 when you factor in the cost of the additional components you might want.

That base price usually only includes a handful of contact and motion sensors. One contact sensor for a DIY system, for example, could cost anywhere from $15 to $50. Depending on the model you choose, a security camera could cost anywhere from $75 to $350. 

Other Factors to Keep in Mind As You Shop

What Do You Want to Monitor?
While all home security systems guard against burglary, consider whether you want additional forms of protection. You can set up a security system—using some of the sensors defined above—to alert you to fires, high levels of carbon monoxide, leaks and floods, and extreme temperatures. Some systems offer panic pendants you can wear and activate in the event of personal injury. Keep in mind that if you pay for professional monitoring, some providers might charge higher monthly rates for these additional features.

Smart Home Integrations
Many home security systems now double as smart home hubs, allowing you to automate and control connected locks, lights, thermostats, and more from a single app on your smartphone. And if you have other smart devices, the integrations can add convenience.

For example, some systems will automatically arm and disarm your alarm system when you lock and unlock a smart lock. Others will automate your home’s lighting to make it look like you’re home when you’re not.

Alarm Permits
Some municipalities require that anyone running their own security system with professional monitoring obtain a permit, so local authorities have a record of all alarm systems in their jurisdictions.

Check with your local police department to see whether it requires alarm permits and if there’s an associated fee (some are charged at the time you obtain the permit, and some are charged annually). Yonkers, N.Y., where Consumer Reports is based, requires permits but does not charge residents a fee. Dallas, on the other hand, requires its residents to pay an annual fee of $50 for alarm permits.

Best Time to Buy a Security System
If you want a deal on a new security system, especially on a DIY solution, the best time of year to buy one is during the holiday shopping season. That’s when we usually see the steepest discounts. But if you need to get one sooner rather than later, your best bet to score a deal at this time of year is Amazon Prime Day, which should happen sometime this summer.

Security System Features

Here are some common features you’ll see offered by virtually all home security system providers, regardless of whether a professional installs it or you do it yourself.

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