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DIY smart home: Here’s how to get started

DIY smart home
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When my family and I quarantined together during pandemic, it became clear our condo’s galley kitchen needed a major facelift to keep up with our housebound lifestyle. It hasn’t been renovated since being built in the 1980s, and one by one, appliances and fixtures were giving out. 

After making do with bad lighting, a shoddy sink basin and a dishwasher that sounds like a bulldozer, we decided it's time to bring our kitchen into the 21st century — and we wanted to do it ourselves. I might not have the eye for finishes like my mom or knowledge of power tools like my dad, but there is something I have to offer: experience with smart home devices.

Every week, I'm revealing the upgrades that will raise our home’s IQ. While remodeling the kitchen is the central project, I’m using the opportunity to outfit the larger living area with the latest smart home technology. My ultimate goal is to create an automated, accessible and affordable IoT space. Here's how it's going so far:

Why I’m skipping ‘smart’ kitchen appliances

More and more of the best refrigeratorsbest electric ranges and best dishwashers offer smart features, which lets you control them from your phone or with a smart assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant. But I'm sticking to dumb appliances, and maybe you should, too.

Why I chose Alexa over Google Assistant

I spend a lot of time with both Alexa and Google Assistant to stay up-to-date with the best Alexa skills and best Google Assistant skills. However, I committed to one assistant for setting up routines and enabling hands-free controls. Read why that assistant is Alexa.

Why I’m using smart switches instead of smart lights

Both the best smart lights bulbs and best smart switches offer a number of benefits to anyone looking to raise their home’s IQ. Here are the pros and cons of each, and why I've opted for smart switches, even though they're harder to install.

Why I bought a wine fridge — and you should, too

A wine fridge offers special benefits to any wine drinker, from the casual sipper to the total oenophile. It’s not ‘smart’ in the sense that it has Alexa built in, but with features like customizable temperature zones, LED lightning, child locks, vibration control and more, a wine fridge is a smart investment.

What’s a neutral wire and what do to if you don’t have one

While I knew of electrical compatibility issues with older houses, I hadn’t considered whether mine had the proper wiring in place before ordering new smart switches. Here's what I learned in the process.

Why I chose this smart thermostat under $100

The best smart thermostats are among the most useful IoT products for managing energy consumption, elevating smart home routines and simply creating a comfortable environment in your home. While Nest on Ecobee models lead the pack in terms of features, there are affordable alternatives that offer everything my home needs.

Why I chose the Echo Show over Google Nest Hub

Smart displays are visual vehicles for Amazon and Google’s voice assistants. Between compatibility with voice commands and manual controls within the interface, a smart display can act as a one-stop smart home remote. You can use it to turn on your smart lights, manage routines and check your video doorbell. Most support calling and drop-in or intercom features, too.

Here's how you can save thousands

In this installment, I helped a reader price out the difference between a professional smart home system and a DIY one. They were quoted $6,000 to smarten up their rental property — I showed them how they can save thousands doing it themselves.

Do you need a smart home hub?

With dozens of smart home devices, you could risk complicating routines and automations with multiple apps and users. That's why a smart home hub makes sense for me. But does it for you?

This Alexa smart faucet is the coolest smart home device I’ve ever used

Not only do smart faucets help regulate water flow to kitchens and bathroom sinks, but they pack motion sensors and pair with Alexa or Google Assistant so you can control them with your voice, too. Here's what it's like using one in my home.

This genius control center is the smart home gadget I’ve been waiting for

My new touchscreen smart switch is awesome, even though setting it up isn't easy. Here's all the features the Brilliant Smart Home System brings to my space.

Why I got a smart water leak detector — and you should, too. 

A smart water leak detector gives me peace of mind that my house isn't flooding while I'm away — but it has other uses, too.

DIY smart home

Don't mind the mess: Here's peak inside my condo's galley kitchen. We've already begun dissembling the cabinets and making way for demolition. (Image credit: Future)

Stay tuned for more coverage of the best smart light bulbs, best video doorbells, and more. I’ll also show you how simple (or not) it is to install any of the best smart thermostats or best smart locks on your own.

Throughout this series, I'm disclosing hacks I’ve picked up on in my time as a smart home writer, especially ones that should simplify things for my parents when I’m not around to ask Alexa to change the light scene on their behalf. 

E-mail me at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com or leave a comment below with anything you’d like to see me cover in these series of DIY smart home stories, whether it’s a how-to or buying decision you’re struggling to make. Be sure to check out my guides to the best smart home devices (and best cheap smart home devices) while you’re at it.

We’ll update this page as new DIY smart home installments are published. Bookmark it for the latest reports from the demolition site — err, I mean, my kitchen. 

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.