When you get existential about it, much of our daily lives revolve around the notion of "protection." When you slip a cardboard sleeve on a paper coffee cup filled with your half-caf vanilla oat milk latte, for instance, you're protecting your hand from that sloshing liquid's scorching heat. When you slap a password on your computer's log-in screen, you're protecting your data from aspiring hackers. And when you mute the word "NFT" on Twitter, you're protecting yourself from having to reckon with the knowledge that people are spending millions of dollars on fugly cartoon apes. (Highly recommend!)
It's sort of weird, then, that so few of us have equipped our very own houses with some sort of protection. According to the National Council for Home Safety and Security (NCHSS), an industry trade association, less than 17 percent of us have a home security system in place. What gives?
Maybe it's because shopping for a home security system is kind of a nightmare. The market is crowded with dozens of competing companies and growing exponentially — keeping up with all of the rapidly evolving technologies is a feat in itself. And that's on top of all of the complicated industry jargon and oft-ambiguous pricing, which is plenty enough to scare away the average homeowner with limited knowledge of the market.
Let's fix that.
What is a home security system, exactly?
A home security system is a group of devices that all work together to protect your home, usually using a combination of visual surveillance, motion detection, audible alarms, and system alerts. The average home security system typically includes a camera or two, some motion sensors that can make out infrared energy, a handful of sirens (either built into the sensors and cameras or standalone devices), and a base hub syncing all of the hardware. You'll control the latter manually or using a companion smartphone app.
From there, most home security companies will give you the option of fleshing out your system with à la carte accessories for further protection. Popular add-ons include:
A glass break sensor that will alert the system when it detects the sound frequencies or vibrations of shattered glass.
Environmental sensors that can detect water leaks, smoke, and carbon monoxide.
A keypad or key fob you can use to manually arm and disarm the system, in case you don't have your smartphone on hand.
A panic button that will quickly alert law enforcement in emergency situations.
Yard signs and stickers that'll serve as visual (and inexpensive) deterrents to wannabe intruders.
Most home security companies are also in the business of home automation these days, which means you'll be able to control your setup using smart assistants and connect it to other devices like smart locks, lightbulbs, and thermostats. (Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility are pretty standard nowadays, while Apple HomeKit options are fewer and far between.) If you want to get really fancy, several brands also offer support for "If This Then That," or IFTTT, a free web-based service that lets you connect and build commands for internet-enabled devices and apps.
Is it worth it to get a home security system?
It's difficult to measure "could-have-beens," so research is mixed on how well home security systems actually deter crime. One expert told The New York Times that he's seen little evidence of risk mitigation with things like alarms and locks, while the NCHSS boldly claims that homes without any kind of protection are 300 percent more likely to be burglarized. (The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines burglary as "the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft," FYI.)
Even the culprits themselves are divided. Some convicted burglars surveyed by an Oregon news station in 2017 said they weren't daunted by security system signs and alarms, which could be disabled or avoided, but most would steer clear of a home with a big, loud dog. Yet 60 percent of burglars surveyed for a frequently cited University of North Carolina survey several years prior would find a different target if they saw an alarm on-site.
These findings should also be considered alongside the fact that burglary rates have seen a sharp decline over the past decade; they only counted for about 16 percent of overall property crimes as of 2019. (That also includes motor vehicle theft and arson.)
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that most break-ins occur when people aren't home — and in that case, a home security system serving as your eyes and ears from afar can provide invaluable peace of mind.
As an aside, installing a home security system may also qualify you for a serious discount on your homeowner's insurance, which certainly doesn't hurt. Contact your insurance provider to learn more.
Can you install a home security system yourself?
You absolutely can. Most home security companies give their customers the option of free DIY installation, which is usually as simple as plugging in a device (or putting some batteries into it), hooking it up to your home's WiFi system, and pairing it with its hub and/or your smartphone. SimpliSafe (our No. 1 pick) says that 97 percent of its customers go this route, if that tells you anything about the level of effort involved.
For more complicated setups (and those of us who aren't especially tech-savvy), professional installation typically starts around $100.
Can you monitor a home security system yourself?
You absolutely can, but we'd rather leave this part to the professionals (despite the extra cost) simply because you can't be on guard duty 24/7. Work happens, sleep happens, binge watching Succession happens, going to the dog park with your new puppy happens — it's easy to miss an alert if you aren't staring at your phone all day. It's also on you to decide whether or not to contact law enforcement in case of an emergency if an expert isn't doing it for you, which is a pretty big ask.
In most cases, you'll also get more out of your system's mobile app if you sign up for a monitoring plan. We'll use SimpliSafe as an example again: Its service comes standard with a live video feed of your cameras, a system timeline, and the option to tweak some device settings from the app, but that's it. Additional features like water leak alerts, dangerous temperature detection, and even push notifications are locked behind its monitoring plans, which start at $18 a month. (Most companies' offerings sit somewhere in the $20 to $30 range, for what it's worth.)
What's the best home security system?
Below, you'll find a rundown of six home security systems we recommend in 2022 based on customer and expert reviews — and one we strongly advise against installing based on some of our own reporting.