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How I made my home smart on a budget (and how you can, too)

If a salesperson comes to your door charging you thousands of dollars for a smart home experience, feel free to kindly instruct them to kick rocks.
maria-diaz
Written by Maria Diaz, Staff Writer on
Yellow miniature model house and pink ceramic piggy bank on white line balanced on black and white woman's finger, blue background.

You can create the perfect balancing act between your savings and your home. 

Image: PM Images via Getty Images

How to make a smart home on a budget

A smart home sounds like an expensive thing, right? Though at one point it was, the reality is that that is no longer the case. Gone are the days where making your home smarter meant shelling out thousands of dollars, getting a professional installer to set up everything, and then likely paying hundreds a month to keep up a subscription service.

A tight budget is no longer an obstacle to getting smart devices -- with thousands of smart products available for sale, you're sure to find some in your budget.

Also: The two smart devices I will never install in my house

My family moved into a home with no smart capabilities that bordered between fixer-upper and money pit earlier this year. We started from scratch and made a list of what we envisioned for our smart home. This helped us get started and stay in a budget because, again, money pit.

1. Make a list

Thinking through what you want your smart home to look like is essential to getting it done. When you envision your smart home, think about what you will need, how you'll use it, what kind of automations you want to run, if any, and even what brands and systems you like. 

What you'll need and how you'll use it

You don't need every smart gadget out in the market. Prioritize. If a security system is a priority, add it; if a video doorbell isn't, then don't add it just because you feel like you should. Also, consider what home automation system you prefer (HomeKit, Alexa, Google Home, Home Assistant, etc.). This will likely determine what brands of products you can buy down the line.

Also: The 4 best smart hubs: Get smart about home control

An example of a starter list of smart home devices could look something like this:

  • A hub (something to run your smart home on).
  • Three to five smart light bulbs.
  • Three to five smart plugs and outlets.
  • Video doorbell.
  • Indoor and outdoor cameras.
  • Three to five motion sensors.
  • Smart lock.
  • Smart thermostat.

2. Decide whether you want subscription services

Personally, I don't like buying smart home subscriptions; it's an additional monthly expense that I'd rather avoid. 

When considering the actual devices to add to your home, read the fine print. Many brands like Ring, Wyze, Blink, and more, offer a subscription for access to the full range of their devices' features. 

Determine which features are available without a subscription to decide if those are enough for you, or whether you're comfortable paying the monthly subscription charges for features you want. If not, look for alternatives with no subscription required, like Eufy.

Closeup image of female customer paying for service subscription with credit card
Image: DragonImages via iStock / Getty Images Plus

Here are just a few smart home brands that either don't require a subscription or offer subscription-free options:

3. Look for deals, but don't fall for bundles

Though this sounds like a pretty basic recommendation, looking out for good deals can end up saving you hundreds of dollars in your smart home journey. 

For example, we keep lists on Amazon with the smart devices we want to add to our home. This makes it easy to watch for any deals on the big days: Prime Day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and around holidays. Of course, ZDNET is always on the lookout for the best deals as well

Be mindful of what deals make sense, however. If you want a home security system and find a bundle with everything you need plus a few cameras that require a monthly subscription, it might not make sense for you in the long run. Choose bundles carefully with only the items you need and that fit with how you will use them.

What I got for my smart home on a budget

When we moved into our current home, we knew that security was a top priority, but we also wanted the convenience of controlling devices from our iPhones or Apple Watches. That being said, buying a home in 2022 is not for the faint of heart, so we had to stick to a strict budget. Here's a list of what we decided to start with a few months ago to make our 1999 home smart:

HomePod mini

Top view of a HomePod mini on a wooden surface.

Top view of a HomePod mini.

Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

We wanted a consistent ecosystem and, since my husband sold his soul to Apple (though he won't admit it), we decided to buy a HomePod mini to use HomeKit. 

Personally, I can't say I had a preference of a HomePod versus an Echo, Google Nest, or SmartThings in our home, but it just ended up making the most sense to maintain consistency since we're already surrounded by Apple products. We also really like how much Apple values their customers' data privacy and security, so an Apple home just came together for us. 

The HomePod mini is the hub where all the smart devices meet, so we can control them through Apple's Home app. It also doubles as a pretty good quality speaker, though that feature is mostly occupied by whatever the latest animated movie soundtrack my kids happen to be fans of. 

Video doorbell

Eufy wireless video doorbell
Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

This was a must for us, as we used to only have a security camera at our old front door for years. But when we moved to a new place, we knew we wanted to upgrade to a video doorbell, without paying a monthly fee to use it.

Because we wanted to go for a doorbell without a subscription, we decided on this Eufy wireless doorbell. Since it is battery-powered, we didn't have to fuss with wiring. This Eufy bundle includes the Eufy Homebase, which works as the basis of our home security system.

Eufy has since released a newer model with dual cameras, which looks pretty interesting and something I'd add to our home, if I didn't have one already.

Smart lock

Yale Lock on a door.
Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

We wanted to replace the front door's deadbolt with a smart lock so we could view when it was locked and unlocked, but we also wanted to completely do away with keys.

Review: Yale Assure Lock SL: Never get locked out again

A Yale Assure Lock SL with a HomeKit module checked the boxes for us. It's completely keyless, so you can unlock it with a code or through your phone, and it will alert you with push notifications whenever it's unlocked or locked, as well as auto-lock after a set amount of time. 

You can also program up to 25 different entry codes for dog walkers, babysitters, kids, roommates, guests, or anyone else, and view who accessed your home and when on the Yale app.

Also: How to unlock the Yale Assure Lock SL when the batteries die

Security System 

The keypad of the Eufy Security system on a wall.

The keypad for our Eufy Security system.

Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

If you want to add a security system, you can keep it under budget by beginning with the bare minimum, and you can save more by choosing a bundle to get started. For us, we wanted a motion sensor in the living room, one in the kitchen area where the backdoor is, and one towards the front door area. Many motion sensors need a hub to work, but there are quite a few options that don't require one.

We ultimately decided on the Eufy Security system because it's available without monthly fees or subscriptions, though there is an option to add 24/7 Protection Service from Eufy.

Consider that motion sensors can also go beyond home security: depending on the sensors you buy, you can set up automations to run when motion is detected, like turn on a floodlight when a sensor detects motion, for example. 

Cameras

Wyze cam at home.

This little Wyze cam has weathered a few storms. Literally.

Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

For security purposes, I prefer having cameras inside and outside of the house over motion detectors. A simple sensor to trigger an alarm is great, but then you're left wondering what actually set off the motion detector. 

We already had three Wyze cams in our previous home, which made it even easier to stay under budget, but Wyze cams are already pretty affordable and often on sale. They're also readily compatible with Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT. 

We don't pay for a subscription service for our Wyze cams, so they only detect motion and send a push notification. We can view the live stream or scrub the timeline to view playback. A subscription for Cam Plus would include recording unlimited full motion when detected and can filter alerts by recognizing if it detects people, packages, pets, or vehicles.

Smart garage opener

Midsection of teenage boy entering pin in smart phone while unlocking garage - stock photo
Image: Maskot via Getty Images

This was more of a necessity than anything else, but the perks have made it well worth it. As I mentioned above, the house we bought at the beginning of 2022 was more of a money pit than a fixer upper, and part of that was that it needed both a new garage door and an opener. 

Since one of the first things we did when we moved in was replacing this, we decided to go with a smart garage door opener and got a Chamberlain opener that we could control with the myQ app. Though you can't add myQ to HomeKit because they're not compatible, we added it with Homebridge to control it through Apple's Home app. 

The door opener works seamlessly with a full-function wall control and the included remotes, so there's no actual need to use the Wi-Fi capability. However, I can't tell you how life-changing it's been being able to control the garage from my phone and check if the door was left open or not, and I do mean life-changing. We're a forgetful bunch here, and we'd often leave our house and drive back around just to see if we left the garage door open. Very often. 

Though I don't use it, myQ lets Prime members sign up for Amazon Key to get in-garage delivery of their Amazon packages, as an effort to dodge porch pirates.

Honorable mentions

Hugolog Door Lock
Image: Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Because we wanted to stay to a strict budget, we decided to skip the smart lock on the door that leads from our kitchen to the garage. Instead, we got a Hugolog door lock, so we could skip the keys but keep the peace of mind of knowing it locks behind us every time. 

The Blink camera lineup against a wall.

The Blink camera lineup.

Blink

A Blink camera is also a very affordable alternative to the Wyze cam. In my experience, however, I haven't found them to be as reliable as the Wyze cams in that they have randomly gone off our network a couple times. We use ours as a pet cam for the time being and it's been great for our pup. They can be used for live view and motion alerts without a subscription, though purchasing a subscription or a Sync Module 2 adds the video recording capability.

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