How Smart is your Home? (Part 1)

Today, many people are talking about smart homes. The term "smart home" is used to describe a residence that has one or more appliance, programmable lighting system, thermostat, TV, computer, entertainment system, security device, and camera system that provides its homeowner with additional comfort, security, energy efficiency and/or increased convenience.

As a real estate agent who sees hundreds of homes a year, I believe smart home technology is still in its teenager stage of development. Meaning, it’s definitely headed somewhere, but it doesn’t know what it’ll be when it grows up. Some smart home products seem downright silly. Yes, I’m talking about Samsung’s refrigerator with cameras inside so you can see how much milk you have while still at the grocery. Other smart home products are incredibly useful, like my Nest thermostat that saves me more than $1000 each year by efficiently managing my air conditioning usage.

Over the coming months, I’ll look at several of the smart technologies available for your home. I’ll start by investigating smart locks.

With smart locks, many companies are now trying to re-invent the traditional key. By allowing people to type in a numeric combination or use their smartphones, a door can be opened sans key. In either case, a battery-driven mechanism turns the lock.

Among others, I tested the August Smart Lock that quickly and easily installed on my existing deadbolt in about five minutes. The product smartly replaces only your thumbturn (not your whole lock mechanism) and literally does the turn of the lock with a little motor.

You can still manually lock the door by spinning the outer rim of the product. August Smart Lock uses Bluetooth to function, either by communicating with a smartphone or with a $79 keypad that you mount outside your door.

At first blush, the product seemed quite useful. With an iPhone (it also works with Android), all I had to do was ask Siri to “lock the door” and it would comply. However, once outside of Bluetooth range (about 50 feet at my home), the device reports it can’t do anything. So, in many cases, this smart product was actually quite dumb.

At $199, it happens to be one of the best smart locks out there. However, to truly make it useful, you need another $79 add-on (called August Connect) to allow the Smart Lock to become Internet-connected. At that point, having spent nearly $300, you could lock or unlock your door from anywhere in the world.

So the question that begs to be asked is why would I want or need a smart lock? and I really don’t think there is a compelling answer. Yes, it’s cool, but most people don’t need to do more than a traditional lock-and-key setup.

Sure, the auto-lock & unlock feature which tracks when you leave or come back to your home seems smart and convenient, but in my testing it failed to work about 5% of the time. The fact that you can give a guest ‘digital keys’ and limit when they can use them sounds interesting; but, I’m not running a hotel and it requires those guests to download the app and register with some personal information before they can operate the lock. Yuck.

Here are a few other things I discovered as possible issues. If your door has two deadbolts, you need two smart locks! If your door’s deadbolt doesn’t align without you pushing a bit on the door, this product will fail to engage. If you have auto-unlock enabled and a criminal engages you at or near your door, the door will unfortunately be unlocked, making you easy pickings.

As much as I’d like to recommend the August Smart Lock (because it is the best of the bunch), I don’t think smart locks are a compelling product category. There are better smart home products for you to use…and we’ll explore them in my upcoming blog posts.