So you've noticed the signs sprouting like multicolored mushrooms in your neighbors' yards and are wondering whether it's time to install a home security system.
You wouldn't be alone. Last year, Americans spent an estimated $4.4 billion on electronic security for their homes, an increase of 5 percent over 1997. And they did so despite a continuing drop in the burglary rate.
But crime remains a concern to many Americans. Add to that a booming economy and falling prices (systems average $1,200 installed; monitoring costs start at $20 monthly) and you've got a pretty active market. Of 700 people surveyed by the National Crime Prevention Council recently, 27 percent had a home security system; 12 percent of those who didn't were planning to buy one within a year.
One important force driving sales is the fact that the systems do scare away burglars. According to Temple University economics professor Simon Hakim, homes without security systems are two to three times more likely to be burglarized.
That doesn't mean residents can just install burglar alarms and relax; the systems come with drawbacks and responsibilities, and adequate burglary protection requires a combination of measures. Fairfax County crime prevention officer Josh Brown, who has worked in the alarm industry, says residents need to focus first on outdoor lights and good locks -- and remembering to use them. But when it comes to advanced home security, he says, alarm systems rank at the top.
In fact, Hakim says, alarm systems are the single most effective deterrent to burglary. In industry-funded surveys of four northeastern suburbs during the mid-'90s, Hakim and his students found that the yard signs alone will turn away burglars casing a neighborhood. According to Hakim, burglar alarms work because burglars are "like businessmen. They want to go in and steal the most and get out without being apprehended."
On average, Hakim says, a burglar takes about 20 minutes to browse a neighborhood -- usually a relatively wealthy one along a familiar route within three blocks of a main road. He'll search out a quiet street that doesn't have much pedestrian movement. Then he'll zero in on an attractive house that is unoccupied (one proven deterrent is a car in the driveway), relatively isolated and has easy or concealed access (aided by foliage or lack of light, for example) through the basement or first floor.
Once he's chosen a house, not much will keep a determined burglar from getting inside. That's why alarm company window decals, loud televisions and even barking dogs are not particularly effective; by the time a burglar gets close enough to see or hear them he's already committed, and he might be on drugs that reduce his level of caution. In fact, Hakim says, most door locks won't stop burglars, who take an average of 60 seconds to break into a house; your best bet is to use deadbolt locks on strong-framed doors.
University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Scott Decker, who interviewed criminals for a 1994 Justice Department-funded survey, thinks there is a danger in assuming that burglars are typically rational and businesslike. But his study, like Hakim's, found that burglar alarms have a deterrent effect: 56 of 86 criminals interviewed said they would not try to break into a house with a security system.
Of course, that means that more than a third of them would. The reasons, Decker says, are that burglars know that (1) the systems often are not turned on and (2) even if an alarm sounds, they have at least three to five minutes before the police arrive, plenty of time to grab items such as money, jewelry, silverware, guns and small appliances. For that reason, he says, residents should make it as difficult as possible for burglars to find valuables, hiding jewelry in the bathroom, for example, instead of in the master bedroom.
But although alarm systems deter burglars and cut down on property loss, homeowners often don't use them wisely. They neglect to arm the systems (in one Temple study, 41 percent of equipped homes that were burglarized did not have the systems on) or inadvertently set them off -- so often that neighbors sometimes fail to respond to alarms because they assume they're false.
False alarms, which account for about 95 percent of activations, are the security industry's greatest problem because they lower the police response rate. To address this, police and the industry are working on a variety of promising measures: penalizing homeowners and businesses that have too many false alarms, either with fines, loss of response or forced participation in a remedial class; training customers more carefully; and simplifying the often-complicated control panels.
Besides panels that befuddle customers, alarm systems offer a mind-boggling array of options, from motion detectors to glass-breakage sensors. Experts say it's important for residents to purchase systems that mesh with their lifestyles; a family with a pet, for example, shouldn't install a motion detector. Whatever system they choose, Josh Brown recommends that residents also get heat sensors and smoke detectors, because more homes have fires than burglaries. "From my standpoint," he says, "the most important thing to protect is your life."
Elizabeth Chang is a copy editor in The Post's Outlook section.