How to Choose a Security System

From the big national brands with multiple monitoring centers to DIY systems you can watch from your smart device, there are thousands of home security options to choose from. The best alarm system for your house makes life safer and more comfortable without breaking your budget or feeling too complicated, but how do you choose one?

See our top picks for 2021: The Best Home Security Systems

Ask yourself a few questions before you start shopping:

  1. What am I protecting?
  2. How do I want to install it?
  3. How big is my home?
  4. What is my family’s routine?
  5. What is my budget?

The answers to these questions can tell you what kind of features you want, along with the best way to install, and how big of a system you need.

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Security system features

Before choosing one type of home security system, ask yourself what you want to protect. Do you want a nanny cam for the little ones or monitors to catch leaky pipes? Security systems do more than keep intruders out of your home. They can also communicate with your kids when they get home from school or tell you when that Amazon package arrived.

The right equipment package, payment plan, and features for you depend on what you want to do with your system. In today’s market, there are three main types of security system packages available: home automation, security equipment, and environmental monitoring.

Smart home automation

Smart tech adjusts to your family’s schedule and preferences. Home automation can keep the lights on while you’re out of town or let the dog walker in while you’re out of the house.

Security equipment

Traditional home security devices like burglar alarms, glass break detectors, and outdoor cameras are helpful if you’re worried about issues like intrusion, theft, or vandalism.

Environmental monitoring

Equipment like smoke alarms, pipe freeze detectors, and leak detectors fall into this category. Families with older homes, especially, should look for devices in this category.

home security equipment

Common home security equipment and features 

We made a list of standard security system equipment most companies carry. Security providers tend to bundle devices differently, so it’s essential to keep your priorities in mind as you browse through product packages. The following equipment and features are available from almost every security company.

  • Doorbell camera
    What it does: records who stops by your front step and lets you speak with them remotely
    What it’s good for: talking to the mailman, shooing away solicitors, welcoming guests, catching package thieves
    Best Smart Doorbells for Your Home
  • Nanny camera
    What it does: watches over nurseries, kids’ rooms, and caretakers
    What it’s good for: catching up with the nanny or babysitter, helping aging parents, watching pets while you’re away
    Best Nanny Cams
  • Spotlight camera
    What it does: lights up the surrounding area when it senses motion
    What it’s good for: catching intruders, stopping curious animals, grounding sneaky teenagers
    Best Outdoor Security Cameras
  • Panic pendant
    What it does: provides a wearable shortcut to emergency services
    What it’s good for: helping people who are aging or have a disability in an emergency, saving lives
    Panic Pendant FAQ
  • Door/window sensor
    What it does: tells you when a door or window opens
    What it’s good for: guarding entrances, preventing kids from accessing off-limits areas
    Best Door and Window Sensors
  • Glass break sensor
    What it does: alerts you of loud noises and broken glass
    What it’s good for: scaring off intruders who enter through your windows
    How Does a Glass Break Detector Work?
  • Motion sensor
    What it does: alerts you when it detects motion
    What it’s good for: keeping kids and large pets out of dangerous areas, alerting you to intruders
    The Beginner's Guide to Motion Sensors
  • Smart home integration
    What it does: combines the powers of your security system and smart home devices
    What it’s good for: making your system voice controlled, creating custom routines for your family
    Best Smart Home Security
  • Wireless monitoring
    What it does: uses radio signals to connect devices in your home, allowing the sensors to send alerts to the base station and to the monitoring center from there
    What it’s good for: making installation easier, simplifying moves, functioning during a power outage
    How Safe are Wireless Home Security Systems?
  • Two-way talk
    What it does: turns a device into an intercom you can speak and listen through
    What it’s good for: checking on the kids, getting the dog off the couch, speaking to visitors, catching intruders
    What is ADT's 2-Way Voice and How Does It Work?
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) detector
    What it does: activates an alarm when it senses carbon monoxide in your home
    What it’s good for: saving lives, sending alerts when you’re home and away
    Carbon Monoxide Detector Buyers Guide
  • Flood sensor
    What it does: alerts you of leaks and pooling water
    What it’s good for: preventing serious water damage, catching plumbing and appliance issues
    Best Water Leak Sensors
  • Freeze sensor
    What it does: alerts you of severe drops in temperature
    What it’s good for: preventing frozen pipes and plumbing issues
    How to Protect Against Frozen Pipes in Your Home
  • Fire and smoke alarm
    What it does: alerts you to fire, smoke, and severe heat
    What it’s good for: preventing fires in your home, saving lives
    Best Fire and Smoke Alarms for the Home
  • Professional monitoring
    What it does: connects to a professional call center that can contact emergency services for you
    What it’s good for: catching emergencies before they become disasters, providing a calm voice in a stressful situation
    Why Professional Monitoring?
man installs door lock

Professional vs. self-installation

Security systems have recently adopted cellular technology, making them easier than ever to install without professional help. Naturally, there are pros and cons to self-installed and professionally installed systems.

Professional installation can come with steep installation fees, but you won’t have to do any of the work. Home security companies like Vivint and ADT send a trained professional to your home for a consultation. You’ll be able to discuss your security priorities, budget, and expectations with a real person. These professionals also offer product package bundling and years of industry experience to put you at ease.

On the other hand, the best self-installed systems like Frontpoint and SimpliSafe come directly to your door pre-programmed and ready to go. These systems may not have as many bells and whistles as their professionally installed counterparts, but they’re great for smaller homes that need the basics. Installation for these systems is a breeze because most of the equipment sticks onto your walls, doors, and windows.

To the Point

Professionally installed security systems require an installation fee, but you don’t have to lift a finger. Self-installed systems are generally more affordable, but you need to do all the placement and installation yourself.

Security system size

Whether you opt for a DIY or professionally installed system, you’ll need enough equipment to fit your home. The best security systems for apartment dwellers should be smaller DIY systems with fewer sensors. Professional installers for systems like Vivint can recommend the right sized package and add-ons to fit larger homes.

Just remember to cover all the entrances and exits in your home with a sensor or camera, plus any other equipment to protect kids, pets, or the rest of your family. Even window wells and basement entrances are worth adding a sensor to for extra measures.

Security system costs

It’s tempting to put the price tag as your top priority, but look for the right equipment first, and the right price will appear. All of our favorite home security systems have different tiers of services and prices, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. You can find a great home security system on a budget, but you shouldn’t compromise safety while doing it.

When looking at your budget, prices boil down to a set of one-time and regular fees. Most security systems require a monthly payment for monitoring and a one-time payment for the equipment. You can find systems without a monthly fee like Nest Secure that allow you to monitor your own home, but the initial cost is steeper.

It’s wise to read the fine print before signing onto any security system. Most companies charge for cancellation after a trial period or could add extra fees for moving equipment from house to house.


Landline security systems use a home phone connection to link security devices and monitoring together. They aren’t as common anymore because they’re easy to tamper with. But folks in rural areas may find that this is their only option if cell reception is poor where they live.

Broadband security systems connect to the professional monitoring center through your home’s internet connection. So if your home’s Wi-Fi goes out, so does your security system. The good news is it’s harder to tamper with than landline security, making it a little safer.

Cellular services are the most expensive, but you won’t have to deal with hardwiring or power failures. Your devices can “talk” to each other and the professional monitoring center from your home using cellular uplink.

Most security system companies allow you to take your system to a new home, but some will charge you to buy new equipment or reinstall new devices.

If you move frequently, self-installed systems are much easier and cheaper to use.

For those on a budget, the short answer is “no, but it helps.” Home automation and smart home devices have a variety of functions (and prices).

From something as simple as a smart outlet that lets you turn lights on and off remotely to more sophisticated equipment like a smart doorbell, it all boils down to what makes your life easier and safer.

Smart home equipment is getting better and more affordable every year, so if you’re building a home security system, it’s not a bad idea to start integrating smart devices now.

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Info current as of 04/23/21. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
*$0 due up-front with consumer financing.
†No-contract options available with outright equipment purchase.
‡Landline monitoring only. Some restrictions apply. (Full disclaimer)
**With $99 installation charge and new monitoring agreement. Early termination fee applies. See full disclaimer for full offer details, terms, and conditions.​

Katie McEntire
Written by
Katie McEntire
As a renter, pet-owner, and woman living alone, Katie McEntire takes safety seriously. She’s tested devices like pet cameras, home security systems, and GPS trackers in her own home and devices in the name of safety. In addition to testing, writing, and reviewing for SafeWise, she also makes videos for the site’s YouTube channel. She’s been featured on publications like TechGuySmartBuy, Forbes, Healthy Moms, and Digital Care. Katie has a Bachelor’s degree in Technical Writing from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. She’s held previous writing positions at and Top Ten Reviews.
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