- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

If homeowners in the District are relying on anything to assuage fears about the city’s so-called crime wave, it isn’t electronic security systems.

“You would be amazed at the number of people who have alarm systems at home but don’t use them,” says Michael Tubbs, a Realtor in Coldwell Banker’s Capitol Hill office.

When marketing a new listing, he and partners Linda Pettie and Johanna Baker are apt to note the presence of an alarm system on a list of a particular property’s features — but they’ll include a note that says the system is not currently being monitored.

Because of Washington’s hard-to-shake reputation as a city blighted by crime, someone moving here from another state might be more inclined to ask about an alarm system than would a buyer moving from elsewhere in the city or out to the suburbs, Mr. Tubbs says.

Nevertheless, a home alarm system is not the selling point a renovated kitchen or a parking spot is, several real estate agents agree. Far from it.

Customers buying homes in the area usually don’t ask about security systems, says Todd Bissey, a Realtor with John C. Formant Real Estate Inc. If a home includes one, the buyer often lets it go unmonitored rather than pay $30 to $60 per month to have it monitored.

In addition, security companies often charge $100 to $150 to activate an account.

However, in condominium buildings, a different kind of security — electronic entry systems that control who may enter a building in the absence of a doorman — are pretty much the de facto standard, says Stan Bissey, Todd Bissey’s business partner and father.

Built-in alarm systems in single-family homes do not “label a questionable neighborhood,” Stan Bissey says. “There are several things that a security system does now, such as furnish a smoke detector that signals a call to your service [if smoke is detected]” and monitor any opening of the doors and windows in your home.

“I put one in not because of my own neighborhood’s reputation, but because of my being away so much,” says Stan Bissey, who lives in Rockville. “It reduces uneasiness.”

About 20 percent of homes in the United States have security systems, says Richard Stewart, business development manager for security at ONteriors, a San Diego-based company that outfits new homes with digital features ranging from security systems to remote-controlled blinds.

Mr. Stewart says certain markets — such as Houston and Tampa, Fla. — are seeing demand for indoor-outdoor cameras, digital video recorders and around-the-clock monitoring.

“Today’s security setups are much more elaborate than the burglar alarm systems of the past,” he says.

The higher the price of a home, the more likely it is that it will have a security system.

A 2000 consumer home security survey conducted by SDM, a trade magazine for security sales professionals, and Interlogix, a manufacturer of security technologies, reported that 40 percent of homes valued at $300,000 and more had a security system installed.

It also found that almost 22 percent of homes in the South had security systems in 2000 as compared with 18 percent in the Northeast and 13 percent in the North Central region of the United States.

The survey did not discern the percentage of homes that had activated those systems.

If the anecdotal evidence points to anything, it’s that homeowners in the District, Maryland and Virginia tend to put more faith in unorthodox alarms.

“I have a very vocal dog,” says Meredith Binder, a veterinarian who lives in a 16-unit condo building in Northeast. “If I didn’t have the dog, [security systems] would factor in more” in her decision to buy in the city.

“My old apartment had an alarm system,” Dr. Binder says. “It was really annoying; it was always saying, ‘Door is ajar’ and stuff like that. I never set it.”

Nevertheless, on a rare day when she took her dog to work with her, the apartment was burglarized; the thief carted away her DVD player and a fake Louis Vuitton bag.

“And he drank my orange juice,” she says with a chuckle.

The deductible on Dr. Binder’s renter’s insurance was not met, so she was forced to absorb the cost of replacing the items.

Despite that break-in, she chose not to activate her new condominum’s alarm system when she moved in, reasoning that the locked front doors of both the building and her unit, her location on the third floor of the building, and her barking dog offered sufficient security.

Caryn Fox, who moved to her Clifton home in 2002 as a single mother with preschool twins, says she puts more weight on motion-detecting lights than in alarm systems that are activated only when a would-be intruder has penetrated the house.

“I think a bright light shining on someone would be the first line of defense,” she says.

Ms. Fox also says her location makes her feel secure. “We’re in a cul-de-sac, kind of tucked back in the neighborhood,” she says.

Like Ms. Binder, Ms. Fox moved to this house from another one that had an alarm system installed. “I don’t think it worked,” she says.

In another similarity, Ms. Fox says she “absolutely” feels safer with a dog in the house, referring to Bailey, a black-and-white mutt she raised from puppyhood.

“Some people seem inherently afraid of the dog,” she says. “He is truly my alarm system.”

Mr. Tubbs, who moved to the District in 1964, repeats a recent comment from an ironworker who was removing window bars from neighboring homes as confirmation of his belief that home security is less of an issue nowadays.

“He said he gets more orders for take-aways than anything else,” Mr. Tubbs says.

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