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DIY vs. Professional Home Security Systems – An Honest Comparison

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According to a study by the FBI, about 1.4 million break-ins occurred in the U.S. in 2017. Despite this, fewer than 20% of U.S. homes had any sort of home security system installed in 2015, according to data from the National Council for Home Safety and Security — although the proportion of protected homes is expected to rise as lower-cost options proliferate.

With multiple cameras and continuous monitoring, my home is among the minority of protected U.S. abodes. My research into the state of the home security industry taught me a great deal about the multitude of options on the market right now — and where the industry is likely headed as Internet-connected, self-monitored systems become the norm.

This guide grew out of that research. It is meant to explain the distinction between DIY-only and professionally installed and monitored systems.

To be clear, the distinction isn’t always clear-cut. Both categories are broad and variable, with notable overlap between them. Some DIY systems have professional monitoring options, for instance, while others feature little more than Wi-Fi cameras and smartphone apps. But there’s enough daylight between them to justify a head-to-head comparison.

DIY Installation & Monitoring

DIY systems rarely require professional installation, although you can hire a handyperson to set yours up if you lack the time or inclination. Equipment is usually sold a la carte, with multi-node systems installed as needed.

DIY systems can be as simple as a single interior or doorbell camera, or as complicated as a comprehensive home automation setup that controls safety, security, comfort, and entertainment features through a home automation hub.

Some systems have their own mini-hubs or control panels that connect to central hubs, often produced by third-party manufacturers and service providers. For instance, Scout Alarm integrates with popular home automation systems like Google Home and Philips Hue, which also manage a home’s lights, audio, and climate control through a central hub. Scout doesn’t control those systems directly, however.

Many DIY providers offer professional monitoring options for an added cost. For example, SimpliSafe’s baseline monitoring service is very affordable, although the lower price tier isn’t as comprehensive or particularly interactive.

Typical Features and Equipment

DIY systems typically include one or more of these features and equipment types:

  • Interior cameras (wall- or shelf-mounted, also known as nanny cams)
  • Exterior cameras (wall- or surface-mounted)
  • Doorbell cameras, sometimes with two-way audio
  • Window and door sensors
  • Smoke alarm sensors
  • Carbon monoxide sensors
  • Water sensors
  • Integration with smart lighting, stereo, and thermostat systems
  • Miniature or central hubs that allow remote control through a smartphone app

Potential Add-Ons

DIY systems commonly offer add-on features and services for an added one-time or monthly cost:

  • Cloud storage and secure sharing for video
  • App-based controls
  • Keychain remotes
  • Product warranties
  • Professional monitoring options

Representative Brands

Popular home security brands with DIY offerings include:

Equipment Cost Range

This is a rough cost range for popular DIY home security equipment and packages:

  • $69 to $200 apiece for doorbell, interior, and exterior cameras before bulk discounts
  • $150 to $600+ for multi-camera-and-sensor packages
  • $15 to $60+ per window or door sensor before bulk discounts and package deals
  • $500+ for a multi-camera-and-sensor and hub or control panel package, depending on the system’s comprehensiveness

Subscription Cost Range

Basic DIY home security systems don’t come with obligatory storage or monitoring subscriptions. If you’re just interested in setting up a live-streaming camera or two on your property, you shouldn’t have to pay an ongoing fee to do so.

For a wider range of capabilities, such as video recording, storage, cellular backup during power outages, and extended warranties, expect to pay up to $100 per year. Professional monitoring can cost $300 or more per year.

Advantages of DIY Home Security Systems

DIY home security systems have a number of upsides, including total customization and upgrades without professional aid, reasonable cost, and (usually) no long-term commitments.

  1. Customizable Footprint. You can start with a fixed-mount exterior camera or doorbell cam with two-way audio, spending less than $200 for a modicum of front-end home protection. If you’re not satisfied with those defenses, you can always add additional layers: interior cameras, window and door sensors, smart locks, home automation, or professional monitoring. A customizable footprint controls costs and limits technical issues.
  2. Reasonable Cost. A bare-bones system is obviously cheaper than a comprehensive one. A single doorbell camera could set you back as little as $100 with no ongoing costs. A fixed-mount outdoor camera with no two-way audio capability is even cheaper. You can start at a price point you’re comfortable with.
  3. Optional Upgrades. You can trick out your system as much or as little as you want. Many users add video cloud storage to replay events that occurred in their absence. Some DIY systems offer optional professional monitoring services for a reasonable monthly fee.
  4. Easy Installation. Unless you’re truly averse to handiwork, it’s unlikely you’ll need professional help to install a DIY system. Most manufacturers bend over backward to limit installation troubles. After all, the easier it is for you to install your first camera or window sensor, the likelier you’ll be to purchase another. Bear in mind that more comprehensive DIY systems can be time-consuming to install.
  5. No Contracts or Subscription Required. Unless you upgrade to a professional monitoring package or add data storage, you won’t have to commit to a long-term contract or pay a monthly fee. Aside from your equipment’s negligible power consumption, you shouldn’t face any recurring costs.

Disadvantages of DIY Home Security Systems

DIY home security systems’ downsides include uneven performance and limited dependability and functionality — although pricier systems are generally worth what you pay for them.

  1. Professional Monitoring Isn’t Included. By nature, DIY security equipment doesn’t include professional monitoring. Your system’s mobile app should alert you of activity in near-real-time, but it’s your responsibility to respond. If you want someone overseeing your system 24/7, you’ll need to upgrade and pay a monthly subscription fee.
  2. Low-Coverage Systems Are Easy to Evade and Disable. Low-coverage systems are pretty easy for burglars to circumvent. If your front door has camera or sensor coverage, it’s not much trouble for a burglar to head around back — although your doorbell cam may catch a glimpse of them in the meantime.
  3. Functionality May Be Limited. Basic DIY systems don’t include remote climate, light, or audio control. Many also don’t include smoke, carbon monoxide, or water detectors. Although it may be possible to add these functions to a hub-based system like Nest or SimpliSafe, it’s not guaranteed and may increase your system costs.
  4. Dependability May Be Limited. Many DIY cameras are Wi-Fi-only with no backup during power or telecom outages. In the aftermath of a violent storm, your home could wind up defenseless. You’ll need to pay extra for cellular backup that kicks in when Wi-Fi goes down.
  5. Some Features May Require a Subscription or Additional Fee. Customizing your system and maximizing its usefulness may call for additional out-of-pocket expenses. Video storage and cellular backup generally mean monthly fees, while extras like keychain remotes carry one-time fees.

Professional Installation & Monitoring

This category includes comprehensive systems that combine the confidence of having professional oversight, the convenience of home automation, and the flexibility of on-demand self-monitoring. It also includes “legacy” home security systems, the hardwired, phone-based systems that existed before the dawn of the Internet. Available providers include legacy companies chasing young, tech-savvy homeowners and newer operators that also play in the DIY space.

Some professional monitoring providers deeply discount or even waive equipment and installation fees, saving users hundreds upfront. That said, they make their money back with high one-time or recurring fees for add-ons, as well as hefty monthly or annual fees for professional monitoring, often over multi-year contract terms. And some well-known legacy providers like ADT sell through local franchisees or independent dealers, resulting in inconsistent pricing and package options.

If you start with an off-the-shelf DIY system and upgrade to professional monitoring down the road, you’ll miss out on the upfront discount but avoid locking into a long-term contract from the start.

Typical Features

Professionally installed and monitored systems can include many of the same types of features and equipment as DIY systems, such as interior and exterior cameras, doorbell cameras, window and door sensors, water and hazardous gas alarms, app-controlled hubs, and integrations with smart home systems. Some professional systems bundle add-ons for which DIY packages charge extra, such as cloud storage and product warranties.

Representative Brands

Brands offering professionally installed and monitored home security systems include the following. Some also offer DIY products and packages with optional upgrades to professional monitoring.

Equipment Cost Range

Full-price equipment costs for professional monitoring packages tend to match those for DIY systems. However, it’s common for long-term monitoring contracts to offer free or discounted equipment and installation, reducing or eliminating the upfront cost of getting those systems off the ground.

Subscription Cost Range

Professional monitoring packages always carry ongoing subscription costs. Subscriptions range from less than $10 for basic monitoring to more than $50 for comprehensive support. Additional features, such as cloud backup and extended warranties, often (but don’t always) cost extra. Some vendors charge one-time activation fees in excess of $50.

Advantages of Professional Home Security Systems

Professional home security systems have several notable advantages, including the likelihood of a relatively low upfront cost and far better support from system providers.

  1. Professional Monitoring Included. It’s no fun opening your home security system app each time the mailman crosses your doorbell cam’s field of vision or your cat trips a window sensor. Professional monitoring relieves you of some responsibility and provides invaluable peace of mind.
  2. Low Upfront Cost. To entice new customers, providers often discount or waive equipment and installation costs, so some professionally monitored systems cost little to nothing upfront. Long-term contracts ensure you’ll pay handsomely for monitoring, often to the tune of $1,000 or more over the life of a 24- or 36-month contract. But if cash flow is an issue, the initial out-of-pocket break is helpful.
  3. May Have Redundancies. Professionally monitored systems may come with built-in redundancies, such as cellular backup or landline connections that alert customer support teams and local law enforcement even when the power is out. This is crucial in areas where the electricity goes out frequently due to weather events or grid issues.
  4. Better Customer Service. With greater monitoring requirements and more demanding clientele, professional monitoring providers tend to be better staffed and more attentive than DIY-only providers.

Disadvantages of Professional Home Security Systems

Professional home security systems’ downsides include higher long-term cost and a greater likelihood of longer-term obligation.

  1. Recurring and Potential Add-On Costs. These systems invariably carry subscription fees. They also tend to charge more a-la-carte fees for add-ons like keychain remotes, broken glass sensors, and crash and smash protection.
  2. May Require a Multiyear Contract. Many professional monitoring arrangements lock customers into a multiyear contract, most often 24 or 36 months long. Most contracts can’t be broken without steep cancellation fees, usually equivalent to 8% or more of the total value of the contract. Think of this as an interest-free financing agreement in which you agree upfront to 24 or 36 installment payments. The good news is that no-contract professional monitoring services are increasingly common, so you have options should you decide a contract isn’t right for you.
  3. May Require Professional Installation. Control panels and other system elements may require hardwiring, and some elements may need to be placed in hard-to-reach areas. If you’re handy, it’s possible you can handle these demands on your own, but professional installation is usually a better bet. And some providers may require professional installation, leaving you no choice.
  4. Limited Out-of-the-Box Features. Some professionally monitored legacy systems don’t integrate with home automation hubs or control nonsafety features, at least at lower price points. If you opt for such a system, make sure its smartphone app is versatile, and consider an alternative if you’re worried about lack of control or functionality.

Final Word

Home security vendors specializing in professionally installed systems like to play up the peace of mind that comes with redundant coverage and 24/7 monitoring.

They have a point, as high-quality professional systems tend to be more effective. But the distinction is far from black-and-white. Even a rudimentary, low-cost DIY system featuring — for example, a front doorbell cam and a single outdoor camera pointed at the back entrance — can deter opportunistic burglars and porch pirates.

If that’s the sort of deterrent value you seek, perhaps a DIY system is all you need to sleep soundly at night.

Are you planning to install a home security system? Does a DIY or professionally installed system seem like a better fit for you?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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