Safe at Home

Jun 11 2012

Security Technology Gets Tougher as Usage Gets Easier

By Iyna Bort Caruso

San Francisco real estate broker Arthur Sharif of Sotheby's International Realty–San Francisco Brokerage can all but trace the evolution of home security in the estates he sells. "I love older homes and the security measures they used for hiding things." Jewelry, guns, even alcohol during Prohibition were routinely secreted in wall safes and concealed by mirrors and paintings. "I guess a hundred years ago that was considered pretty cool technology."

What a difference a millennium makes.

Today, whole-home automation integrates security, energy and comfort into one centrally controlled system. You can not only keep a watchful eye out for intruders, but also monitor children, elderly relatives and caretakers for peace of mind. What's more, the same system manages appliances, climate, lights and entertainment for added ease and convenience.

Home security has been reconceived and engineered to be proactive rather than passive. It monitors, senses, triggers, engages, warns and communicates, all of it on the homeowner's terms. Standard systems set off a burglar alarm once a breach has been detected. New systems offer perimeter protection incorporating discreet visual monitoring and live audio warnings that deter criminals from entering the property. Even minor activity is tracked around the clock through interactive technology. More advanced systems use vehicle detection sensors and thermal imaging surveillance.

Buyers in the high-end home market don't just ask for it, "they expect it," says Sharif. "If you're in the $6 million and above price range, it's expected that every home is going to have very sophisticated wiring."

The security may be sophisticated, but the functionality is getting easier. There was a time not long ago when homeowners didn't engage their security systems because they were just too complicated. That's changed. Now the technology is controlled through smartphones and tablets. Consumers have mastered the learning curve of mobile devices, which, in turn, has fueled growth in home automation adoption and usage, according to Jay Kenny, vice president of, a provider of interactive home security and monitoring technology. The company reports that 75 percent of its customer base now logs on via mobile apps. Homeowners can get text messages alerting them to the comings and goings on their properties. More sophisticated systems recognize activity patterns that can help owners make smarter decisions about security and energy usage settings. "The message is that consumers should be able to get all this new value out of their security systems," says Kenny. "In the past, it was really a passive system, just waiting for something to happen. But now that you get all this active information out of it, there's value every day."

Interactive security technology is popular in the vacation home market, though sometimes for intruders of a different kind. "People who come from urban settings are accustomed to being concerned about intruders, whereas here in Colorado, you're more likely to have a deer or coyote come onto your property," says Bill Fandel of Peaks Sotheby's International Realty in Telluride. "Security would alert motion detectors to the fact that a bear is in your trash or out on your deck. If your kids are out there or you're planning to walk the dog, that's a major concern."

The larger the home or compound, the more sophisticated the system is likely to be. Remote camera monitoring and control capabilities are important selling features in the secondary market. "If you have a primary home in San Francisco and a vacation home in Telluride, you can check on snowfall. You can make sure the radiant heat is working in the driveway for guests and that there isn't any ice building up on the decks," Fandel says. "For people who have substantial investments and live in other locations, having cameras throughout a property that can be monitored remotely is a plus."

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to a home security system. Very often it's a housekeeper or even a houseguest at the helm of the controls, so a system needs to be engineered for the individuals who will be using it. And, of course, a security plan must be built to match the need. Estates that have high value collections, such as art, wine, furs or antiques, for instance, may require an independently controlled security system for an additional layer of protection, known as partitioning, explains Ralph Sevinor, of Wayne Alarm Systems in Lynn, Mass. The cost for a comprehensive integrated security and automation system can run well into six figures, plus monitoring fees, which can range from $50 to $500 per month.

Like all technology, home automation evolves rapidly. What was state-of-the-art a decade ago may be outmoded today. Security systems should be reviewed at three- to five-year intervals for upgrades or modifications, either because the technology has improved or an owner's security needs have changed, such as having a child or acquiring a valuable new asset. "Unfortunately, when someone purchases a special collection, word gets out very quickly," Sevinor says.