Smart home technologies: As luxury amenities, are they ready for prime time?

Jim Gallant
| 6 min. read
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Published on February 18, 2015

This is the second article in a series about how “smart home” (or “connected home”) technology is poised to bring a whole new world of convenience to homeowners and tenants.

In our last post, we looked at smart home technologies and their potential as luxury amenities for attracting gadget-loving tenants.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, manufacturers showed off new smart home devices that automate household routines and chores and allow remote control using smartphone apps. Devices included everything from self-watering planters and systems that detect leaky pipes to appliances large (refrigerators, washers, and dryers) and small (coffee makers, toasters, and bathroom scales).

To help people easily control these gadgets over a home wireless network or the Internet, tech titans like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, and retailers like Staples, have developed their own smart home networks.

These companies are also scooping up device makers as partners in a battle to become the top dog in the smart home space. The stakes are huge:  the winners hope to gain a foothold into consumers’ homes to sell more of their own and their partners’ products.

With so many new devices available and several major companies joining the connected home network fray, consumers have lots of choices, but the wealth of options has a downside.

Battle of the smart home network standards

Picking a smart home network to invest in is a challenge because each network speaks its own language and requires its own hardware (a “hub”) and smartphone app. When consumers hear about a new, must-have gadget or appliance, before buying it, they’ll have to check if it can connect to their chosen smart home network.

If the device isn’t supported, the consumer will have to buy an additional hub and download its companion app. This means more equipment and cables to clutter the home and more apps to juggle. As a result, choosing the “right” smart home network remains a bit of a gamble until a universal network standard emerges that lets most devices and apps on the market talk with each other.

Take this example, in which a network provider like Staples and a partner that makes devices like Logitech have a tiff and break up. The results? Consumers could be locked out of using their favorite Logitech devices on their network, making them not only less convenient but possibly obsolete.

In another scenario, a handful of major players end up dominating the connected home network market in the way Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) have with smartphones.

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“It’s not hard to imagine a future where an Apple or a Microsoft pushes a home OS upgrade and all of a sudden your kitchen no longer supports your old smart fridge,” tech journalist Matt Honan said on WIRED.com.

When will an open standard that supports the entire universe of smart home devices be available? It took about 14 years before most manufacturers adopted WiFi, the standard for connecting printers and computers to wireless home networks, so the chances of an open standard emerging in 2015 are slim.

Evil refrigerators and security problems

Just like home computers and corporate networks, connected home devices and networks are vulnerable to cyberattack. Last year, hackers blasted out 750,000 spam emails by controlling a “thing-net” made up of more than 100,000 devices, including “televisions, home entertainment centers and at least one refrigerator,” according to the Star Tribune.

In Washington, Congress is training its sights on security breaches of networked devices. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is pushing automakers to adopt a security and safety rating system to protect consumers from hackers looking to steal their personal information or seize control of their cars.

Congress also is investigating devices like Google’s Nest thermostat that “learn” how to best serve home dwellers by collecting data on their preferences and habits. Lawmakers fear hackers not only could use such data for identity theft, but also for home invasions. Criminals could hack smart door locks or figure out when residents are away by analyzing the patterns of their smart lighting systems.

To buy or not to buy?

With the lack of a universal standard for smart home networks and devices, as well as potential security issues, it may pay to watch the dust settle before going all-in with connected home systems as amenities to attract tenants.

But if you’re an early adopter or have the budget to push the envelope with new marketing tactics, here are a few suggestions:

  • Shop around — Follow engadget.com and cnet (both free) or Consumer Reports (by subscription) to read reviews and stay on top of the latest developments. Take a look at a network platform like Staples Connect. With its smartphone app, Connect lets you easily look up the more than 150 devices it supports. You may find that Staples Connect or another system offers more than enough utility and convenience to audition it at your own home or office.
  • Try out it with one unit — If you rent luxury apartments or homes, install Staples’ or another company’s network in a unit or two, advertise its availability, and check out the response. Additionally, you could reduce the cost of the network and devices you pass along to tenants in exchange for their feedback, which could help in deciding whether to install connected home tech in more units.
  • Start simply — Try some of the less expensive approaches of other property managers, who have eased into smart home technology by offering single-purpose networks, like SONOS wireless audio systems, which cost several hundred dollars. Or offer free WiFi in common areas of your buildings or a keyless system like Okidokeys to ensure tenants don’t get locked out at 3 a.m. (and call you for help).
  • Attract families — Try targeting families with kids, whose lives are all about being connected. Mike Harris, founder of Zonoff, which makes the network software and app for Staples Connect, said, “Our demographics isn’t selling to a bunch of 22-year-olds who live in apartments. We’re selling to regular people with kids and regular houses.”

Are you using smart home technology to attract tenants? What are your residents’ favorite gadgets? Tell us all about them in the comments section below.

Read more on Property Management Trends
Jim Gallant
Jim Gallant

Jim Galant is a freelance writer from Boston, MA.

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