Here’s what you need to know about home security systems

By Gregory Karp Chicago Tribune

An electronic home security system can be the source of great peace of mind or great financial headache.

But buying a system can be a thorny purchase, fraught with such perils as wildly differing prices, high-pressure sales tactics and unfriendly contracts.

Basic home security systems, or burglar alarms, are typically wired to a central control panel in the home that will activate when windows or doors are opened while the system is armed.

More advanced systems add fire and carbon monoxide alarms, motion sensors, glass-break detectors and, increasingly, home automation options such as controlling home lighting and temperature.

Consumers often report hassles, said Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, which collects customer ratings for various categories.

“Home alarms is one of the categories where we hear complaints about high-pressure sale and scare tactics,” she said.

And prices can be all over the place, said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook.

Here are some basics to help you shop.

Do I need a home security system? Burglars often just take advantage of unlocked doors or windows.

Cheap and effective alternatives are quality deadbolts, substantial window locks and motion-sensor lighting outside.

Always lock doors and put lights on timers when you’re gone. Have someone pick up newspapers and mail or place both on vacation hold.

An alarm can be a hassle. You have to turn it on when you leave and rush to turn it off when your arrive home. Children, house guests and pets can accidentally trip it, potentially leading to local fines for false alarms.

Choosing an installer: Get several price quotes for both system installation and monitoring, perhaps starting with companies rated highly by Consumers’ Checkbook or Angie’s List.

Check with the Better Business Bureau. Avoid salespeople who try to pressure you into a quick decision or who can’t explain how the system works, according to tips at Angieslist.com.

Do I need monitoring? Central system monitoring can automatically notify an alarm company and can, in turn, notify police or fire departments.

Monitoring typically costs $20 to $50 a month, depending on what’s included, but your alarm system will work without it.

If your home is usually occupied or you have neighbors who will notify authorities that an alarm is sounding, central station monitoring provides only limited additional protection, according to the report in Consumers’ Checkbook.

And you don’t have to stay with the same monitoring company. “People should realize that if they already have a system, they can switch very easily to another firm,” Krughoff said.

Is there anything new? Cable and telecommunications companies are starting to get into the home security business, in addition to home automation.

They intend to offer some intriguing options, such as monitoring your home systems with an online computer or smartphone.