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Stop Paying Monthly Fees with These DIY Home Security Systems

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When we first bought our house, my wife insisted on a security system to warn us of any intruders. In an uncharacteristic move, I did no research and just shelled out for an ADT subscription. Two years and hundreds of dollars later, I realized my mistake: there are some much more affordable, equally effective options out there that don’t require a monthly fee.

Why 24/7 Monitoring Isn’t Crucial

Photo: Whitson Gordon
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Typically, a home security system—whether it’s a DIY kit or a setup from companies like ADT and AT&T—consists of a number of sensors around your house. Basic systems may include sensors on each door that can tell when they’re open or closed, and maybe a motion sensor in the living room or other large spaces. If you pay more, you can build a more complex system that includes things like glass break sensors or cameras. Some may even integrate with smoke alarms, leak detectors, and other safety devices.

Once set up, these systems sit in the background, out of your way. At any point—generally when you leave the house or go to bed—you can “arm” the system, which will put it into monitoring mode. If any of the sensors are triggered—i.e. if it detects a door is opened while the system is “armed”—the alarm will go off. You can disable the alarm with a keypad or keyfob, but if you don’t disarm it within a few minutes, your system will also notify emergency services and dispatch police to your home. (This is usually known as “24/7 monitoring,” and it’s why those companies charge you a monthly fee.)

But here’s the thing: that expensive 24/7 monitoring plan is not necessary for everyone. If you need the peace of mind that comes with being one alarm away from emergency services, then by all means, sign up now. But I’ve never really understood the benefit. If someone breaks into my house, all I really need is that siren—once it goes off, most burglars are going to be out of there faster than Sonic the Hedgehog on amphetamines, and the automatically-dispatched police will rush to a scene that’s already ended. Why pay $50 a month for that when I can just call the police myself after the siren goes off? I’d rather build my own system, make sure that siren’s as loud as can be, and save some money.

The Best Subscription-Free Security Systems

In the age of smart home overload, there are tons of DIY home security systems out there. Most offer a 24/7 monitoring subscription, and while many offer you the option to eschew that monthly payment, some of them become crippled when you do. For example, SimpliSafe and Scout—two rather popular options—allow you to turn off the monitoring features, so only the siren goes off when the sensors are triggered. However, this cuts off communication with your phone, so you won’t be notified if your house is broken into while you’re away. As a result, I don’t recommend systems like this if you’re looking for an option with no monthly payment—instead, you want something that allows you to “self-monitor” by getting notifications on your phone in addition to the siren.

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Abode was one of the first systems to allow for full self-monitoring, and it’s still a great pick. Their starter kit comes with a motion sensor and a door sensor along with a hub and key fob for $279. (They also recently released a new hub called iota that includes a camera, a built-in motion sensor, and Wi-Fi connectivity in addition to Ethernet for $300.) Abode integrates with your other smart home devices (like Alexa, Nest, IFTTT, and Zigbee/Z-Wave) and offers some nice short-term monitoring options for a few days at a time if you’re on vacation. (Or, if you want a cellular backup in case your internet goes down, you can subscribe to that for only $10 a month without the 24/7 monitoring.)

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Amazon-owned Ring now has its own security system called Ring Alarm, which comes in a bit cheaper at $200 for a Wi-Fi enabled hub, keypad, motion sensor, door sensor, and signal extender. Like Abode, it offers self-monitoring, but it’s a bit less mature and lacks some of the smart home integration you get with Abode—it works with Alexa but not Google Assistant (yet), and it supports some smart locks, but not as many other devices. In fact, it doesn’t even integrate with Ring’s own cameras, which is a little weird. Ring’s also still building up its library of sensors, so you don’t have as much choice if you want something more specific like glass break sensors.

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If you really want smart home integration, a system like Samsung’s SmartThings can be very powerful. Since it’s a full smart home ecosystem, rather than just a security system, you can build all kinds of routines and automations for your sensors and other gadgets, and get notified on your phone. (Samsung has partnered with ADT for 24/7 monitoring, but you can skip that if you’d rather self-monitor.) There are so many compatible products and kits that SmartThings can be a bit overwhelming, and you’ll likely need to buy a lot of items separately (like a siren), but if you’re already familiar with the different smart home protocols out there, it might be the one for you.

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If you prefer to base your system around cameras (rather than doors and other sensors), Nest Secure might be a decent, albeit expensive option. For $400, you get a hub/keypad, two key fobs, and two door sensors. It lacks the wider variety of sensors you get with other systems, but can integrate with Nest Cams nicely, among other Works With Nest smart home devices. I will say, though, that Nest’s cameras only reach their true potential when you purchase a Nest Aware subscription, so while it technically works in self-monitoring mode, it’s much better with a subscription unless you have very basic needs.

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When it comes to truly budget options, iSmartAlarm is a popular choice, offering a pretty sizeable starter pack for only $120. It supports different kinds of sensors, cameras, and IFTTT integrations, and can send you alerts without any monthly fees or contracts. But unlike the others on this list, it doesn’t even offer the option to pay for 24/7 monitoring or cellular backup if the internet goes down—something that you may want for the occasional trip out of town. Still, at this price, it’s a good alternative for the penny pinchers among us.

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These aren’t the only options on the market, either—having just come back from CES, I can tell you there are plenty more here or on the way, not to mention lots of camera-only systems. But for a traditional, sensor-based security system that replaces those from ADT or AT&T, these are some great options, and you can sleep at night knowing your house is a little safer and your wallet a little thicker.

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About the author

Whitson Gordon

Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and all-around tech nerd. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn't get grease on his mechanical keyboard.