To catch a thief: are home security systems worthwhile?

Do home security systems really stop burglars?

Television ads warn us that we’re leaving ourselves open to disaster if we don’t install a burglar alarm in our homes. And when you consider there was one home break-in for every 200 people in Canada last year, spending a few hundred dollars on a home security system certainly sounds like a reasonable expense. But do these devices actually deter crime?

Simon Hakim, an economics professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, crunched reams of data to come up with a surprising answer to that question. He found that home security systems almost never catch burglars. Despite what ads show, cops don’t rush over with sirens blazing when your alarm sounds. Instead, they take a leisurely one to four hours to respond — perhaps because police know that 95% of home alarms are false. “By the time the cops arrive, the burglar has had time to have a shower and take a nap,” says Hakim.

Yet despite their dismal record at catching bad guys in the act, burglar alarms can be well worth their price, says Hakim. In fact, he calculates that an alarm on its own is more effective at deterring burglaries than all other reasonable security measures combined. If you don’t have an alarm and you live in a detached house in the suburbs, your chances of being broken into are three times higher than if you do have a security system.

Alarms earn their keep by convincing burglars to bypass your home. “When burglars see the alarm company sign out front, it reduces the odds that they’ll select your house to rob,” says Hakim. Alarms also help to reduce the amount stolen if you are burgled. With alarm bells sounding and lights flashing, “burglars don’t stay as long, so they take less stuff.” Insurance companies know this, and many will reduce your premiums if you install an alarm.

Just make sure you’re not buying more alarm than you really need. Even a $5,000 hard-wired system with sensors on every door and window won’t prevent determined thieves from breaking into your house, says William VanRyswyk, president of consultants Security Through Safe Design and a sergeant on the Ottawa police force.

Since an alarm’s biggest value is deterrence, the smartest buy is usually the most basic system you can find. But do your shopping at large, reputable companies — they’re more dependable than small, neighborhood outfits. A decent system should cost you $300 or less.

VanRyswyk recommends wireless systems, which are cheaper to install because they don’t require cables to be run through your walls. They’ve improved dramatically over the past few years and he has one in his home. He says it’s also worth springing for live monitoring, which will run you about $30 a month or so. That way you’ll at least be notified of a burglary if you’re not home.

Once your system is installed, you can sleep soundly. Consider this: in a recent survey, British security company Micromark found that convicted burglars are almost twice as likely as the general population to use an alarm system on their own homes when they go on holidays. In this case, it’s safe to say that burglars know best.

Who can you trust?

If you don’t want to put your home security in just anyone’s hands, try one of these national companies, all of which are registered with the Canadian Security Association.

Make sure you get two or three quotes from different companies in writing before committing, and always read the fine print before you sign your monitoring contract.