IN MANY AREAS OF THE country, a rudimentary residential burglar alarm system has become essential to maintaining a household. This should come as no surprise to home builders, who have been incorporating such systems into their projects for years, particularly in urban and suburban locales. What may surprise builders, however, is that the need and demand for these systems is growing in areas formerly thought to be safe enough to leave doors unlocked.

A quick look at the preliminary crime statistics developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirms that although the number of reported burglaries nationwide declined 1.4 percent in 2004, it was up, sometimes significantly, in numerous exurban and semi-rural areas. Iowa, for example, saw increases varying from 17 percent to 35 percent. The increases are occurring in the same areas in which new home development is booming.

According to a 2004 survey (the most recent data available) by CEDIA, the Custom Electronics Designers and Installers Association, its members anticipate 36 percent growth in sales of security products, which would make security the fastest-growing segment of their business. A security system is fast becoming a necessary feature in new home construction.

DUMB NO MORE But a security system, as it has traditionally been known—that is, a perimeter intrusion system with detectors for motion, glass breakage, carbon monoxide, and smoke, linked to sirens and a central monitoring station—is rapidly growing obsolete. In the digital home, the system must be able to interface with a host of other home-management systems. And it should provide not only protection for the homeowner's belongings, but for the homeowner's family as well. The good news is that prices for these systems are falling rapidly, and although they are still considerably more expensive to install than earlier, ‘dumb' alarms, they can accomplish far more. To a prospective home buyer, that may mean the promise of a peace of mind that can provide the final incentive to make the purchase.

“You're seeing more of the builders looking for differentiation,” says Al Lizza, director of marketing for residential systems at Syosset, N.Y.-based Honeywell Security and Custom Electronics, which is the parent company for the Ademco line of security products. Sophisticated security systems, he contends, will provide a major point of difference.

“It just seems like a logical progression,” Lizza continues. “If I'm interested in a new property, I want to protect it. I'm protecting my stuff. The area that I think is growing and becoming a major decision point is personal protection. What about air quality, carbon monoxide, fire? Can I be informed? Can I know when my kids come home and who they are with when I am in my office? It's about protecting people instead of just property.”

NICKLE DEFENSE Such a system is not as expensive as one might think. According to Lizza, prices can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a rudimentary intrusion system to upwards of $6,000 for one capable of interconnecting with HVAC, lighting, and video systems. More exotic elements, such as fingerprint-recognition locksets that not only eliminate the need for keys but make a computer record of the date and time of every authorized entry, will add to the costs. Similarly, propertywide perimeter intrusion systems can add thousands to the price, depending, of course, on the size of the property. The benefits of more sophisticated systems are, however, compelling.

“The trend is to be able to provide data to other systems in the home and to be able to react. We call it real-world integration,” says Lizza. “It talks to HVAC. If it senses carbon monoxide, it can tell the HVAC to turn on blowers. If it senses smoke, it tells HVAC to shut them off.”

This technology represents a melding of security systems with information technology. It thus presupposes that the home has been wired with structured cable, which allows various systems to communicate over the CAT 5-wired network. Honeywell just introduced what it calls its ICM (Intranet Communication Module) unit, which will put the security system in touch with every other system in the home that has an IP address, including lighting systems. (Honeywell is designed to work seamlessly with lighting systems from Lutron Electronics of Coopersburg, Pa.) In the case of an intrusion, the network will know to switch on every light in and around the home. “It is literally plug and play,” Lizza says. “Once you plug it into the network, the systems know each other.”

BLACK BOX The applications of these systems are limited only by imagination. With relatively low-cost digital video cameras installed around the home, the homeowner can access live video feeds remotely, which could allow a check-in on the kids or a visual scan in response to an alarm. These cameras also can provide a video record—if connected to a hard drive—that police can use to identify and apprehend an intruder. They can report to a homeowner if any area of the home has been entered without authorization. From anywhere there is Internet access, a homeowner can learn which lights are on and operate them remotely as a situation may require. They also will allow the answering of a knock on the door, remotely, without the visitor knowing whether the owner is in the home or off skiing in Gstaad.