Home Security Systems Still a Cost Worth Considering

No one likes things that go bump in the night. But how much are you willing to pay for peace of mind?

An intruder sneaking into your home while you sleep is a terrifying thought, yet it rarely happens. More common are burglars snatching valuables from open garages or empty homes.

If the thought of an intruder has you alarmed enough to join the 17 percent of American households with a home security system, here are basic questions to consider:

_Should I buy a burglar alarm?

When a neighbor is burglarized or the media reports frightening crimes, many people think of investing in a home security system.

"It pushes people to come in and want to do something," said Mike Blake, president of Alert Security in Colorado Springs, Colo.

National security companies are smart enough to use fear in their marketing. "In the time it takes you to read this sentence, one burglary will be committed in the U.S.," reads the Web site for ADT Security Services, the largest security system company in the country. ADT and others are selling the feeling of security to their customers, which is certainly worth paying for.

The only problem is that a good system may cost you $1,000 to $1,500, plus ongoing monthly monitoring fees. For some people that's a small price to pay to reduce their worries, but for others it is prohibitive. (You may save some money, often 10 to 20 percent, on homeowners insurance.)

Crime-prevention experts say there are simpler, cheaper ways to deter crime. Leave your porch light on. Close the garage door and lock the doors. Put wooden dowels in the windows and sliding glass doors. Install dead-bolt locks. Such easy steps may keep you from being the vulnerable target on the block.

"The sound of a big dog barking is a really good deterrent, too," said David Husted, crime prevention officer for the Falcon division of the CSPD, when asked if he'd spend his money on an alarm or a canine. "I don't know, I may just go with the dog, if it's got a pretty good bark."

A Consumers Union study in 2002 found that dogs and alarm systems are the most effective ways to keep intruders out.

Crime experts agreed there are no downsides to buying an alarm system, other than the cost. From the police officers' experience, they are effective as long as they are turned on and working.

"I think alarms are good, and there's plenty of good, reputable companies out there," Husted said. "If it goes off and makes noise, the burglar is probably going to run away."

Dave Gilman, crime-prevention officer for the Stetson Hills division of the CSPD, thinks the systems can even be a deterrent before they start blaring.

"If you're the bad guy and you're looking at two homes, and the one on the left has an alarm system and the sign's up, and the one on the right doesn't, which one will you choose?" Gilman said.

"It's another tool in the toolbox. I would not say that they're required or I highly recommend them. You have to look at what you're willing to spend. It is a viable tool and I wouldn't tell anybody to not buy one."

_What should I look for in a system?

Let's say a burglar alarm is worth the cost to your family. How do you go about buying one? What questions should you ask?

Even people within the industry advise customers to be wary.

"In the state of Colorado, you can be anything you want and be in this industry," said Blake, of Alert Security.

Blake said you are giving out personal information, phone numbers and credit cards to these people, so make sure they have a good track record.

Colorado Springs has addressed the issue by requiring city licensing for alarm systems, said Cliff Stoker. He runs American Bell Security Group, with 38 years in business locally.

"City licensing ... got rid of a lot of the trunk slammers who were coming in here and selling cheap, shoddy equipment," he said.

Both men were adamant that when it comes to burglar alarms, you get what you pay for. Sure, you can get a cheap motion sensor for your house, but then the miller moths will set it off. Sure, you can get a system for a few hundred bucks, but you'll probably get bad installation and inferior equipment.

Stoker also said you must know how your alarms will be handled. Typically, when an alarm is tripped, a signal goes to the company's monitoring center; they call the homeowner to ensure it is not a false alarm and police are summoned.

Stoker said call centers for national alarm companies have hundreds of operators. However, many local companies have a smaller operation. American Bell is a local, independent company, but Stoker abandoned his own central station to route calls through a national company.

"Sometimes a little central station will have too few people," Stoker said. "If they have too few people and a lot of calls come in at the same time, and somebody left to go to the bathroom . . . there's a problem."

After four decades in the business, Stoker is a passionate booster for his product.

"The only burglaries we've ever had is when their systems are off," he said. "I'm a firm believer in it. It's the only way I know to keep something bad from happening."

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ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

What to ask when you're buying a burglar alarm:

_Do you have a city license to sell security systems?

_How long have you been in business locally? How many alarm systems of this type have you installed?

_Can you give me customer referrals? _Do your employees receive background checks and drug tests?

_What procedures does your company use to avoid false alarms? (A homeowner must pay the city a fine of $25 after a third false alarm, and a system may be shut down after four false alarms.)

_Who answers my alarm call? How many operators are on duty at this station in the middle of the night?

_What are my up-front costs?

_How much will I pay in monthly monitoring costs and how long is my commitment? (Many companies install alarm systems cheaply but then require a commitment of three years or more of monthly monitoring costs.)

_Does your equipment come with a warranty and free service?

_Will you work with my insurance company to reduce my rates? You might save 10-20 percent on premiums.

_Are there complaints for this company on file with the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado? (636-1155)

_If it's wired, does the system switch to battery power without activating when there's a power failure? _Is the noise loud enough for neighbors to hear?

_How much damage will installation do to my home?

_Will you educate me on how to use the system correctly?

_How many doors and windows will be covered by this system? How much does it cost to protect additional entry points?

_Can I upgrade my alarm system to include motion detectors, glassbreakage sensors or carbon-monoxide detectors?

SOURCE: Mike Blake of Alert Security; Cliff Stoker of American Bell Security Group; Dave Gilman and David Husted of the Colorado Springs Police Department; Consumers Union

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(c) 2006, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

Visit The Gazette on the World Wide Web at .

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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