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Should You Hire a Pro to Smarten Your Home?

A man is frazzled after apparently shocking himself with wires.
Uh-oh!

As smart-home platforms like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Apple’s HomeKit, and Samsung’s SmartThings have matured, it’s now entirely possible to set up a robust smart-home system all by yourself. The downside? Doing it yourself can still be a tremendous pain in the ass. Cameras need to be mounted, thermostats have to be installed, and smart locks require you to tug out your old, non-smart deadbolt before they can be installed. Beyond the physical installation, there’s also the struggle of getting all your disparate devices and services talking to each other; you don’t want to lay out for a smart home if it means juggling ten different apps before you go to bed each night. Luckily, there’s a rapidly growing number of professionals happy to help you get your smart home up and running — for a price.

Here are some questions to consider and things to keep in mind as you ponder whether to call in a pro to help you get a smart home up and running.

How handy are you?

If the thought of pulling out light-switch plates and determining whether you have neutral wires installed fills you with trepidation, you may want to consult a pro. You can certainly get many smart-home installs without being Bob Vila, but a robust home-automation solution will require some hands-on installation work and the right mixture of intermediate electrician skills and IT know-how to ensure everything is running smoothly.

What’s your budget?

If you’re considering hiring a smart-home installer, realize up front that it will likely cost much more than if you went on a smart-home shopping spree at your local Home Depot or Best Buy. Including labor, you’re likely looking at a budget that’s going to be more like a home-improvement project, and less like buying an Amazon Echo and a few smart light bulbs.

A low-end install — a smart TV, a good audio setup, some smart lighting, and a universal remote to control everything — can cost “$3,000 to $5,000, and just set up the living room,” says Jason Madlin, an installer and co-founder of Smart Spaces Group in New York City. A more ambitious project can easily run into five or six figures. The price of smart-home tech is dropping every day, but like nearly every home-improvement project, it’s easy to spend a lot. Before you make your first phone call, have a firm idea of the maximum amount you can spend.

What exactly do you want to do in your home?

Maybe you want a security-focused setup that lets you keep an eye on your home when you’re not around, or make sure your kids are getting home from school each day. You may be more interested in making your home handle heating and cooling more efficiently. Or you may just want a home-entertainment setup where your shades automatically lower and your lights dim when you start up a Netflix binge session. Or maybe all of the above. Before approaching a professional, try to have a good sense of what in your home you’d like to make smarter.

A visit to a local smart-home showroom floor can also be helpful. Many installers have a retail-space setup you can tour to get an idea of what exactly you can accomplish, and in major metro areas like New York City, many smart-home manufacturers will have showrooms as well. A visit with them can give you both a sense of what’s possible, and help you figure out what pain points you want to address.

If you do decide to use a pro, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.

Learn the basics

“A dream customer, for me, is a well-educated client,” says Todd Puma, owner of home-installation company the Source Home Theater. “Setting expectations for them is easier, and you can have a better conversation with them.” This doesn’t mean you need to come in with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things smart home. But it can be helpful to have a general sense of what a professional will likely be offering you.

One major advantage a professional can offer is a central controller system, which will allow for extremely robust integration of nearly any device, sensor, or input you can think of. “We offer something different from Best Buy approach where you buy all these separately branded products,” says Madlin. “You buy a shade from Lutron, and you set up an app for that. Then you get some Phillips Hue lighting, and you set up an app for that. Then you decide to get a Nest camera and a Nest thermostat, and there’s an app that controls that. Then there’s one for your television and your receiver, and before you know it you’ve five or six apps or five or six physical remote controls.” A central control system means you only have to interact with one app.

The three main brands (and the ones a professional will likely recommend) are Control4, Savant, and Crestron. Control4 will be the easiest on your wallet, and requires a bit less time for an installer to program. Savant has a beautiful user interface — it’s designed to appeal to Apple fans — but will cost a bit more. And Crestron is the gold standard of home automation, allowing for tremendous flexibility, but will also require a greater budget and time to get right.

Get multiple bids

Much the same as if you were thinking about putting in new flooring or countertops, it’s a good idea to have at least two or three professionals come by and look at your home. The home-automation trade group CEDIA can help you find qualified professionals in your area, and make sure the installers have insurance (helpful if they’re going to start going into your home’s walls) and proper licensing. When talking to a potential installer, talk to them to see if they’ve done jobs similar to what you want in the past. Ideally, you want to find someone with plenty of experience working in a home like yours, especially if your house or apartment is older. Let someone else’s walls serve as a chance for on-the-job training.

But the real reason to get multiple bids is to find someone you click with. “You want someone who you really feel like they know what they’re talking about. They understand your needs and aren’t trying to sell you more than you need. And they’re going to support when the technology needs support,” says Dave Pedigo, vice-president of emerging technologies at CEDIA. “Sometimes technology doesn’t work. Find a person or company that you’d be happy to work with over a long-term basis.” Whether you end up satisfied with your smart home won’t come down to what devices you use; it’ll be how well your installer designs a solution that fits into the rhythms of your home and meets you where you want to be.

Understand what drives the price up

The two things that can turn a relatively cheap smart-home-installation job into a pricey one are components and scope. Components are the things you want installed; if you opt for high-end McIntosh speakers, you’re going to pay more. Scope covers questions like how many rooms you want to work on, how many different systems you want to get working together, and how well you want everything integrated. A good smart-home installer is going to sell you components largely at cost; what you pay for is labor. “It’s the knowledge and the experience they have,” says Pedigo. “Same as a doctor or an auto mechanic: they’ve been trained, they’ve learned, and you’re paying for their experience.”

Again, working with someone you feel comfortable having a conversation with is key here. If your budget has some flexibility, consider asking for a low, medium, and high bid, to get a sense of what your money can do. Or, consider a more long-term approach. “We’re doing a project right now where the client said they wanted everything.” says Jason Madlin of SmartSpaces. “We presented that and they said, ‘No, we can’t do that right now,’ so we ended up breaking it into three phases. If the client gets on to phase two and three in the future, great. If not, they’ve got a great foundation.”

The bottom line

A professionally installed smart home is going to be a different beast than what most of us can cook up on our own, unless you’ve already spent a lot of time digging into the difference between ZigBee and Z-Wave (or just really dig creating your own IFTTT recipes). But don’t feel like you have to jump right into an expensive contract; first see if a smart home is even something you want to do. “Our members work with a lot of clients who come to them after putting in something like an Alexa or a Nest thermostat,” says Pedigio. A professional can be the next step after you’ve determined you want more than what consumer products can offer.

At the end of the day, you don’t need to bring in a pro to get a fair amount of security, comfort, entertainment, or convenience from a smart home. But if the idea of doing a bunch of work to set up systems that will ostensibly mean less work for you isn’t appealing, or you want a cohesive, holistic approach in an area of tech that remains incredibly fractured on the consumer level, a professional installer may be right for you.

Should You Hire a Pro to Smarten Your Home?