Securing the home front

Technology: Around the region, more residents are opting for intricate systems to protect their homes.

December 30, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Niles Morton was sitting at the kitchen table in his new Howard County home when an automated voice chirped from a small speaker near the floor: "Garage door open."

"That's my wife coming into the garage," said Morton, 38, with a grin.

The Internet company sales and marketing executive wanted to sleep well in his new home, built on a gently sloping hillside in a former horse pasture. And thanks to some of the latest security gadgets available -- and a $6,000 outlay -- sleep comes easily to Morton and his family.

"When we hear a noise downstairs, it doesn't even faze us," the self-described electronics fan said recently, promoting the "comfort factor" of such a system.

Around the Baltimore region, homeowners are buying sophisticated security systems that offer a level of protection typically found in commercial buildings. Among the features: remote-monitoring capabilities, digital cameras and infrared sensors -- even fingerprint scanners.

The result: Home systems that can cost $10,000 or more.

The trend to more elaborate systems has been fueled by several factors, including cheaper technology, a white-hot real estate market and fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In some cases, such as the Rouse Co.'s 1,800-home Fairwood community in Bowie, developers are requiring security systems in all new homes.

"They're not looking for the $99 system anymore," said John E. Grab, a salesman with Vintage Security, which has customers across Maryland and sold Morton his system.

The most expensive system that Grab recalls installing was a $28,000 unit in a 5,000-square- foot Howard County home. It featured remote camera viewing over the Internet, sensors on all windows and doors and system backups.

"Did they overdo it? To me, that's a personal choice," Grab said. "Most people would just say, `Get a dog.'"

Allan Waschak, president of Allan Homes Inc. of Columbia, said homebuyers tend to have good reasons for wanting a beefed-up security system. They're not just gadget-crazy or paranoid.

"I've got a client who works at the White House, so he needs extra security in his house," Waschak said. "He wanted cameras in his house [so] he can be at work and see anything that's going on at his front door, or at his kitchen breakfast room or in his basement. If they get through his alarm system, he can still see what's going on with his video cameras."

The size of the home -- or its location -- does not necessarily matter, said Bishop Carter, president of Chesapeake Security Alarms Inc. in Baltimore.

"You'll find that people in a $90,000 rowhouse are getting the same kind of system installed" as one in a $500,000 home, said Carter, whose company has seen growing demand in Baltimore County. "It's a high-end system. It's just in a smaller house."

The booming real estate market in recent years -- particularly in home construction -- has boosted security sales, too. Homebuyers are enticed to add such systems as their houses are being built, when wiring is easier and cheaper.

"When you have such an investment, you really do want to protect it" with a good system, said Rick Ostopowicz, spokesman for the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association in Silver Spring.

Nationwide, nearly 20 percent of homes have an electronic security system, according to the association.

Industry experts say homeowners have taken more interest in security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the escalating violence in the Middle East. Aside from the usual burglary and fire protection, such features as carbon monoxide and flooding detectors are becoming the norm.

Ostopowicz notes that the average cost of a system has fallen over the past 10 years because of the intense competition that has lowered prices for other technology products, such as personal computers. At the same time, competition among security companies in U.S. cities and suburbs is putting sophisticated systems within reach of more homeowners.

"In the past, the equipment was bulky and expensive," he said. "Today, the technology has gotten to the point where it's smaller, it's easier to handle, and it's also less expensive."

Thomas J. Dolan, vice president of security for Hunt Valley-based Dunbar Armored Inc., which also installs commercial and residential alarm systems, said residents in older homes are taking advantage of falling prices to install wireless systems. He said he is also seeing more interest in systems that incorporate "biometric" devices, such as fingerprint and eye scanners.

"As security has increased in businesses, people who are using that day in and day out are saying, `Well, how can I use that in my home?'" Dolan said. "You're seeing a migration of the technologies."

In many cases, homebuilders partner with security firms to offer systems as an option during construction. In addition to alarms, they are prewiring their homes to be ready for the Internet, faxes, telephones, cable and satellite television and home theater systems.

And developers are becoming more demanding.

In addition to its smaller Fairwood development in Bowie, Rouse is requiring security systems at its sprawling Summerlin community near Las Vegas, said company spokesman Bob Rubenkonig. Summerlin, which has about 67,000 residents, is expected to grow to 170,000.

"We see it as a holistic system because it's not just security," Rubenkonig said.

But a troublesome side effect to the proliferation of home security systems has surfaced: false alarms.

"Ninety-nine percent of all alarm activations are false," said spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn of the Howard County Police Department, whose officers respond to nearly 20,000 false alarms each year.

Several Maryland localities require homeowners and businesses to register alarm systems for a fee. In Howard, residents must register for a one-time $25 payment. After three false alarms in a year, fines start at $50 and can increase to $1,000, according to the Police Department.

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