Whether you’re looking to increase the IQ on your smart home or catch the neighborhood package thief, there’s no question a security system is a savvy purchase. In fact, a study from the University of North Carolina found that approximately 60% of burglars indicated that the presence of an alarm would cause them to seek an alternative target.
We spoke with eight industry experts — from product developers to house flippers — to create a cohesive guide to building your home security system. With dozens of components, and as many decisions to make, purchasing a system can be complicated. But it’s no shallow investment, and we’re here to help you make the most informed decision and design a system that will protect your home.
Step 1: Choose between professional and DIY
While shopping for your home security system, you’ll have to first choose between a professionally monitored system and a self-monitored system (DIY). Depending on your security needs and priorities, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each type of system.
With a professional home security system, the company your purchase through will monitor and maintain your system. If an alarm is triggered, they’re responsible for contacting the police. Before they make that call, however, they’ll try to reach you on a two-way control panel or call you (and anyone else you’ve assigned as an emergency contact).
If they reach you, you’ll have to decide whether its a false alarm or if you want them to send the authorities. If they can’t reach anyone, they’ll notify the police. It’s a surprisingly slow process — and could result in a hefty fine if the police find that it’s a false alarm.
In addition to maintenance support, you’ll purchase through company reps who can walk you through your home and outfit the equipment you need. If you’re brand new to home security and don’t want to have to guess at what you need, you can rely on their expertise.
This monitoring service typically costs around $40–$50 per month, in addition to any equipment rental fees.
Some providers, like SimpliSafe or Abode, offer a DIY or self-monitoring option. Whenever a sensor is tripped, you receive an alert on your phone. Then, it’s up to you to determine if there’s a burglar or if your cat knocked a plant over. If it’s a true emergency, it’s your responsibility to contact the authorities.
Know that you’ll still need to pay a monthly service fee to use the system. Plans usually fall between $10 and $30 per month.
Step 2: Choose your equipment
Not matter what kind of system you choose, there’s a ton of home security equipment that you can integrate into your service, but not all of it is necessary. Depending on whether you’re looking to build a fortress with glass-break sensors and motion detecting, or simply want to upgrade your smart home with a thermostat and smart lock, you’ll have different priorities that influence your system. Here, we’ll help choose the equipment that’s right for your home based on our security expert’s advice.
The control panel or hub is a central computer that connects the entire system — it’s where you’ll program, arm, and disarm your system. Depending on the company, the control panel can be a tablet-like touchpad that fits flat against a wall or a chunky keypad panel that looks more like a calculator.
Most installation guides advise you place the control panel in the entryway or near your front door, but the pros advised against this. Lee Walters, a former FBI agent that spent 12 years working with a group that conducted penetration testing of security systems, explained that “professionals have a habit of placing the panel in the same spot for convenience, but if you know a little about electronics, you can disable the alarm.”
By placing the control panel somewhere unexpected, you ensure it’ll go off long enough to ward off a burglar, who may otherwise try to disarm it.
Video cameras are a must-have. You can use video cameras to watch for service personnel (like landscapers), package deliveries, and when home-dwellers come and go. But most importantly, the cameras can capture footage of any criminal that invades your home — a major asset for the police. Video cameras do the verification work for you, whether your system is DIY or professionally monitored.
“With video verification, you can verify every alarm and reduce false alarm rates to zero. You also get more priority with first responders if you have video evidence.”
The best location for your cameras depends on the exact layout of your home, but our experts offered a few general tips. All agreed that the first priority should be your entryway and driveway. Joe Liu, industry expert and President of Home8alarm, advised having a camera that can cover the entire approach to your home and told us “you want two cameras to cover a long driveway.”
Backdoors are another common target. As for placement, somewhere up high where wires can’t be clipped — or by the doorbell, where burglars won’t want to do anything suspicious.
You’ll want to focus on covering the master bedroom, too. Glenn Kurtzrock, a criminal defense attorney and former homicide prosecutor, told us that based on his experience, most burglars “go for the master bedroom, and won’t waste time in rooms like a kid’s room.”
He explained, “burglars don’t like to spend a lot of time in a house regardless of whether there’s a security system” so will prioritize the rooms most likely to have cash, jewelry, or small electronics.
After that, the best areas for placement are any high traffic rooms, such as a living area or main hallway, that a burglar is likely to pass through multiple times on their way in or out.
Door and window sensors
Having entry sensors on the doors and windows of your home is a security system essential. When two sensors are joined together on either side of a door frame or window sill, it creates a security circuit. When you’ve armed your system, this connection will trigger an alarm or alert if separated. Most sensors will chime, even when unarmed, whenever a door or window is opening — providing full awareness of anyone coming or going and peace of mind in a home full of children and pets.
“They work by using magnets to tell whether or not a window or door is open or closed. We’ve personally never had a false alarm with these sensors. We use these on every project.”
Before placing the sensors with their adhesive tape, Roberts and Miller recommend cleaning the surface and letting it dry.
Quite simply, these sensors detect motion. Sometimes they’re called passive infrared detectors, because they use changes in infrared energy levels to detect a breach.
It depends on the product, but many motion detectors can't tell the difference between a wandering pet, a hot radiator, or an invading human. The result? A lot of false alarms.
Miller and Roberts agreed: “When we used them we frequently received false alarms that had us scrambling out to a home, simply to find it just the way we left it.”
Surveillance cameras will detect motion too, but they offer a look at what is moving. In general, we recommend cameras over motion detectors.
Flood, smoke, and CO detectors
These devices go a step beyond the basics: Not only will they sound an alarm if they detect danger, but they’ll also contact the fire department. Some automation systems, like ADT Pulse, will also allow you to remotely shut the air off in your home (to slow the spread of smoke and fire).
You can also purchase environmental sensors that can detect CO, floods, pipe-freezing temperatures, and humidity levels. Most homeowners insurance companies will give customers discounts for installing these safety measures, too.
Our home security reviews
We’re in the process of reviewing the entire home security and home automation market. Check out our other reviews here if you’re interested in digging deeper: