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DIY home security vs. professionally installed systems: Which is right for you?

Price isn't the only consideration when comparing Vivint, ADT and other professional options to Ring, SimpliSafe and the DIY alternatives.

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Vivint

If you're looking into buying home security, you'll notice that plenty of companies throw around the terms "DIY" and "professional installation." Some home security companies allow you to choose from preestablished kits and send professionals to install them; others let you customize your starting setup and install the devices yourself. Often systems offer a combination of both. So how do you make sense of all the services on the market?

Generally speaking, pro systems offer larger, predetermined kits to start, and require professional installation. Some also involve contracts or longer-term payment plans. DIY services, on the other hand, generally allow for more customization, both in hardware and monitoring subscription options. You can often customize and install your own system. A true DIY system does not have monthly monitoring or offers monthly monitoring optionally. DIY systems also tend to have no contract or long-term commitments.

Which option you choose will depend on a number of factors, including your budget, desire for convenience, familiarity with smart home tech and time. Let's look at these differences in more depth and help you decide which is right for you.

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Even DIY systems are increasingly offering monitoring of various types.

Chris Monroe/CNET

DIY vs. professional installation 

While most home security companies generally fall into the two categories I've outlined above, it's not always so neat. Many DIY systems offer optional professional monitoring add-ons and even professional installation, making them something of a hybrid. On the other hand, more and more professionally installed systems do not require lengthy contracts, and increasingly give customers more control over the devices they get in their setup.

Messiness aside, though, the general categories are still helpful -- especially when it comes to price differences. DIY security systems are generally much more easily down-scalable. If you have a small home or apartment, systems like Ring Alarm, SimpliSafe and Abode will make much more sense than a professional system, just from a cost perspective.

DIY services

A true DIY system allows you to build your kit before purchase. You might add certain devices to a cart right on the website, or select them with a salesperson over the phone. While you can sometimes pay for extra help, you're pretty much on your own for installation -- but the devices are usually fairly pain-free to set up since average customers are the target audience. Such systems include Ring Alarm, SimpliSafe, Abode, Wyze and others.

Other companies that have traditionally required professional installation are offering DIY options, too, these days. Xfinity and Brinks are two examples here. Conversely, even distinctly DIY systems like Ring offer professional help if you don't want to follow the setup guides online.  

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SimpliSafe is one of the most popular DIY systems on the market.

Chris Monroe/CNET

An interesting feature of DIY systems is that you can often get professional monitoring as an optional add-on -- or you can self-monitor, a more affordable middle way between professional monitoring and nothing. Different companies offer different prices: Ring Alarm lets you self-monitor for $30 a year, for instance, but also offers 24/7 professional monitoring for $100 a year.

These subscriptions are optional, with no long-term contracts or cancellation fees. DIY systems also tend to be very affordable for home monitoring. Wyze offers an optional $5-a-month plan for 24/7 home monitoring -- an impressively cheap plan that will call you if the system gets tripped and contact emergency services if unable to reach you.

DIY options often give additional ways to save, too. For instance, SimpliSafe allows you to save 25% by purchasing refurbished devices directly from the company. If you don't need the latest and greatest, and are on a budget, a refurbished device can give you decent home monitoring. Additional add-ons can also help you both customize your system and keep on budget. Wyze also has a $1.25 per camera per month Cam Plus subscription program that unlocks features like person detection and package detection.      

Professional installation and monitoring 

If finding deals and fiddling with your own monitoring system isn't your cup of tea, professional systems offer something a little more painless. These often come as preestablished kits, often offered in tiers. The three-tier approach is common, starting at base systems that give you devices like alarms, door/window sensors and control panels. Higher-tier kits add bells and whistles like smart cameras and connected deadbolts.

An obvious benefit is that these systems take away the headache of setup. One system we recently reviewed positively, Vivint, occasionally runs promo codes for free professional installation (listed at a $199 value) and a $0 activation fee. The pros set up the system, activate it and show you how to use it. If you want a system that's highly regimented and easy to understand, an option like this could be a good choice.

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We recently reviewed Vivint Home Security and were impressed with its integrations, even with third-party devices from Kwikset and Chamberlain.

David Priest/CNET

The other big benefit of professionally installed systems is that they generally integrate nicely. Rather than pulling in devices from various brands that may or may not work with your other smart home gadgets or voice assistants of choice, big security systems are made to work consistently and easily across the board. In our experience, that integration has been impressive -- especially from companies such as Vivint and Comcast.

Furthermore, different tiered systems can also have a wide array of benefits. For instance, Cove has free equipment upgrades on its Plus program. If you like being able to choose between tiers that offer different services, and those higher-tiered plans fit into your budget, it pays to look around at different organized plans and packages for the most features that you can afford. 

Feature comparisons 

Below we'll look at features that are common in DIY and professional security. These should give you an idea of which approach might be best for you.

24/7 monitoring 

This is a feature you'll see across all of the main professional services -- and increasingly at DIY ones, too. Different services can have certain features, like smart cameras being set up to detect pets, packages and people. You can often get custom alerts for what is going on in your house, from smoke detection to certain types of objects spotted, like packages. Wyze stands out for monitoring due to its affordable and customizable $1.25 per month option that allows for person and package detection.   

While DIY systems allow for self-monitoring, where you get alerts and local sirens, most professionally installed systems only offer professional monitoring subscriptions. With those pricier subscriptions come more support -- often including always-staffed support centers to help monitor and relay information to authorities in case of emergency.

Plans and contracts 

Monitoring plans often include a monthly fee on top of the equipment purchased, again regardless of which system you opt for. Depending on what is included, you could pay anything from around $5 per month to $100 or more. Xfinity stands out as a unique choice, as it allows you to bundle home security monitoring with TV and internet.

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Many DIY systems allow you to choose from a wide variety of devices that fit with your routines -- such as this key fob from Abode, which lets you arm or disarm the security system as you get into the car.

David Priest/CNET

Customization 

This refers to how well the service lets you set up your own home system. If you want a highly structured pro system, this feature might not be of importance to you. If you have a specific budget and goals, it can help to find a DIY option that allows you to build your own kit right in the checkout section of the website, based on which devices you need. Ring, Abode and SimpliSafe stand out in this category, since you can buy individual devices as needed to build and later expand your kit.  

Price 

Price can be affected by what is monitored around your home and how many devices you have on your package. DIY packages will generally cost less both for their hardware and monitoring subscriptions. That said, professionally installed systems often have their installation costs built into the pricing -- so it's not simply wasted money.   

Customer support and warranties 

It's also important to consider warranties and other support features for customers. Brinks Home stands out for its two-year warranty, where the company replaces anything that breaks within the first two years. If you don't like the Brinks system, you can also return it in the first 30 days for a refund. Many professional and DIY systems offer similar support, though you'll need to check for the specifics of your choices, as they vary slightly.

Conclusion 

Home security systems vary greatly depending on what you're looking for. DIY systems are generally more affordable, customizable and scalable over time. Monitoring is also optional and affordable. 

Professionally installed systems are more expensive, but bring more pain-free installation, better support and strong device integration.

Whichever option you choose, be sure to carefully select the plan that is right for your home and budget.