DIY Home Automation Guide for Beginners

If you wish there was more time in the day, home automation can help. Once it’s set up, simple voice commands or mobile app finger taps keep the ball rolling.

Whether you're looking for your first smart device, expanding your collection, or making your devices cooperate, here are four steps for smart home beginners to leap into home automation. Before you know it, you’ll be living in a twenty-first-century smart home.

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What is a smart home?

There’s no tried-and-true definition of a smart home. Generally, a smart home uses smart devices to automate and control household functions—often through mobile apps and voice commands. Smart homes have four benefits that save money and time: convenience, security, entertainment, and energy efficiency.


Getting started with home automation


1. Choose your first smart device

There are thousands of ways to automate your home—making it easy to go overboard on smart devices you don’t need. We suggest starting slowly with one or two smart devices before gradually adding more.

Top smart home device factors to consider

  • Cost: You can buy smart devices on almost any budget. Decide where your limits lie.
  • Setup: Stick to intuitive smart devices that match your skill level—some electrical devices (like smart thermostats and smart outlets) require more technical skills to set up than others.
  • Lifestyle: Everyone is different, so the smart gadget your neighbor swears by might not work for you. See our section on a balanced smart home for basic lifestyle categories.
  • Research: Before buying, read customer opinions, buyers guides, and independent reviews. You don't need to do as much research as us (that's our job), but different perspectives always help.

Devices for starting a smart home

Below, we highlight some of our favorite products for smart home beginners that are easy to use, affordable, or too good to pass up.

We also include links to relevant comparisons of the best smart home products and possible combinations of devices to help you choose your next smart product.

Smart speaker

A smart speaker is probably the best way to start automating your home. They work using voice commands, which are useful for setting timers, playing music and podcasts, and controlling other smart home products. At around $50, the Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) is an affordable smart speaker that uses Amazon's Alexa smart home platform. And it supports hundreds of devices.

What to pair with your smart speaker

  • A smart light bulb to turn off at bedtime—no more leaving the warm covers to hit a light switch
  • A smart lock to check if the front door is secure
  • A smart thermostat to prepare your home office for work

Smart light bulb

Smart light bulbs are one of the cheapest and easiest ways to start automating your home. While we like multicolor light bulbs for their flexibility, we think the Philips Hue White A19 LED Smart Bulb is a good starting point (for around $15). It's easy to schedule and dim using a mobile app or your voice. It doesn't support multiple colors but is an affordable option from one of the best smart home brands.

What to pair with your smart light bulb

  • A garage door opener to activate your lights when you come home
  • A smart speaker to dim the lights before bedtime
  • A video doorbell to use the light bulb as a notification that a visitor's walking up the front steps

Smart plug

Smart plugs are budget-friendly, easy to use, and turn virtually any appliance or electronic into a smart device. After setup, you can use an app to set timers and schedule lights. The Wemo Mini (about $25) has a compact size that won't block the other outlet. Wemo also has an away mode to make it look like you're home, even when you're on vacation.

What to pair with your smart plug

  • Smart speakers to control your favorite lamp
  • Smart thermostats to control a fan
  • Smart light switches to control light fixtures and lamps simultaneously

Smart thermostat

A smart thermostat boosts your home's comfort and energy efficiency. For example, it can shift your house’s temperatures higher or lower during periods of low activity (like when you're asleep or away). Our favorite smart thermostat is the Nest Learning Thermostat (about $250) because it learns your preferred temperature settings and programs itself.

What to pair with your smart thermostat

  • Smart plugs to turn on fans during heating/cooling cycles
  • Temperature sensors to monitor other rooms
  • Smoke and CO detectors to disable equipment during an emergency

Video doorbell

Video doorbells are essentially security cameras for your porch. They allow you to see and speak with visitors at your door without opening it. Our top doorbell camera pick is the Ring Video Doorbell (about $100), which is incredibly affordable and works using either a rechargeable battery or existing doorbell wiring.

What to pair with your video doorbell

  • A smart lock to let in friends and family
  • Smart lighting to improve safety and security
  • A smart display to show a live feed of the porch

Smart lock

A smart lock can arm and disarm a security system, track when guests enter and exit, and eliminate the need to hide a spare key near your door. You can also remotely unlock it to free up a hand while carrying groceries. We like the Schlage Encode (about $250) for its durable construction and built-in keypad that allows you to give out guest codes.

What to pair with your smart lock

  • Garage door opener to alert smart lock to lock the front door when you leave
  • Smart lighting to activate when you're on vacation to make it look like someone's home
  • A security system that disarms when you unlock the door

Security camera

Security camera

While a security camera's primary goal is to record events in and around your home, they can also act as a video intercom thanks to two-way audio. The Arlo Pro 4 (about $200) is one of our favorite security cameras because it boasts excellent video quality and is compatible with tons of smart home devices.

What to pair with your security camera

  • Sensors to activate the camera automatically when a door or window opens
  • Smart speaker to play the sound of dogs barking when the camera detects motion
  • Smart light switch to activate the camera when you turn on exterior house lights at night

2. Choose your smart home platform

The biggest dilemma in the smart home is which platform to use. Using a single platform, your devices can talk to each other and you can control them in a central place.

This allows you to manage everything remotely through an app on your smartphone, computer, or voice control using digital assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri.

Light Bulb
What is a smart hub?

A smart hub is traditionally a device which controls other devices through protocols like Z-Wave and Zigbee. Although this type of tangible hub still exists (Samsung SmartThings), it's becoming more common to see virtual hubs that link accounts of different Wi-Fi devices over the internet (Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT).

While you want to maximize your devices' compatibility with each other, you won't find a single smart home system that works with everything. For now, your best bet is to use devices that work with multiple smart home platforms.

Six smart home ecosystems worth checking out

Amazon AlexaApple HomeKitGoogle AssistantIFTTTZ-Wave Zigbee
HubAmazon Echo speakers and displaysApple HomePod speakersGoogle Nest speakers and displaysCloudSmart hubs Smart hubs
Standout featureSpeaker selectionUser experienceVideo servicesCompatibility with servicesSensor selection Sensor selection
Compatible products
Checklist
Do I need a hub for my smart home?

Not always. But hubs can be useful for managing a large number of devices—particularly ones that use Z-Wave and Zigbee. Hubs are also great for reducing the number of Wi-Fi devices on your home network if they're slowing down your internet connection.

Take a look at our room-by-room guide for inspiration on how you can create your automated home.

3. Connect more devices

Once you sample what a smart home can offer, it's hard to resist adding more devices. As you do, consider these four categories to achieve balance: control, entertainment, security, and utilities. These categories can help turn your tech daydreams into a smart home that's helpful and uniquely yours.

Device type
Common devices
Control, convenience, and automationSmart speaker, smart display, remote control, smart plug, smart lighting, garage door opener, smart hub
EntertainmentSmart speaker, smart display, TV streaming stick
Security and safetySecurity system, security camera, security sensor, smart lock, video doorbell, smoke and CO detector, siren
Utilities and energySmart thermostat, smart lighting, smart plug, smart sprinkler, water leak detector, sensor

As you add more goodies to your smart home, you can create more routines and automations with your existing gear.

4. Create routines and automations

A smart home's ultimate goal is devices working together to streamline your day. There are two ways to make your devices work for you: routines and automations.

Routines

Routines group device functions together under a single command—some companies call them scenes or shortcuts. This allows you to change multiple settings at once to skip the burdensome and slow process of using manual controls one by one on a smartphone app or smart speaker.

Scenes and routines are useful in two ways:

  • To control multiple settings on a single device. For example, adjust a smart bulb to the right brightness and color to set the mood as you curl up with a good book.
  • To control multiple settings across a group of devices. A good example would be playing music from your smart speaker, increasing the brightness of lights, and turning down the thermostat for an exercise session.

While the process for creating routines, scenes, and shortcuts varies slightly from app to app, the steps are often universally easy:

  1. Find out where the app allows you to create routines.
  2. Select the device(s) you want to control.
  3. Adjust the device settings to your liking.
  4. Give the routine a simple or memorable name—especially helpful if you plan to activate it using a smart speaker.
  5. Try out your new routine to see if it's working correctly.

Automations

Automations use a cause/effect structure that allows devices to react automatically to changing conditions in your home. While they have a longer setup process and require more critical thinking than routines, they're the pinnacle of smart home convenience.

Setting up an automation consists of two parts: choosing what activates the system and specifying how the system reacts. Here are some common triggers and actions you can mix and match in most smart home systems:

If this happens
Then do this
ScheduleControl a device
Voice or app commandActivate a routine
Device or system status changesChange system mode
Your location changes (geofencing)Send a notification or message
  • Setting a schedule allows you to control when devices turn on/off during the day. It's handy for predictable events like waking up and going to bed.
  • Voice and app commands are the most common ways to activate routines. They're helpful for manually starting devices on demand, like when you want more light in the kitchen.
  • Status changes allow the system to react to different stimuli. These are especially great for security since they can tell a sensor to send a notification or sound an alarm when there's activity.
  • Geofencing allows the system to change settings based on your location. This is useful for preparing an empty house for your arrival after work or locking up when you go to the store.
Light Bulb
Automatic night light

One of my favorite automations is a night light that uses a color smart bulb and a motion sensor. I created a routine where the motion sensor turns the light on at a dim orange setting to avoid blinding me when I walk down the stairs. This triggers a second routine: the light turns off when there's no motion for two minutes. Both routines start working when I tell my Google home assistant that it's bedtime and turns off automatically at sunrise.

FAQ

Homes vary in size and layout, so it's difficult to put an exact cost on a DIY home automation system. Depending on the devices you choose, expect to spend $500–$2,000 on smart home equipment.

The interconnected nature of smart home technology means there's always a chance that someone can hack into your equipment. You can minimize threats by sticking with trusted manufacturers, using strong passwords, and setting up two-factor authentication if available. Check out our guide to protecting your smart home from hacking for more tips.

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Disclaimers

*Amazon.com list price as of 02/23/2021 at 3:06 p.m. (MT). Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. Safewise.com utilizes paid Amazon links.

Certain content that appears on this site comes from Amazon. This content is provided “as is” and is subject to change or removal at any time.

†Google, Google Nest, Google Assistant, and other related marks are trademarks of Google LLC.

John Carlsen
Written by
John Carlsen
John is a technology journalist specializing in smart home devices, security cameras, and home security systems. He has over eight years of experience researching, testing, and reviewing the latest tech—he was the Smart Home Editor for Top Ten Reviews and wrote for ASecureLife before joining SafeWise as a Staff Writer in 2020. John holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications, Journalism emphasis from Utah Valley University. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, photography, cooking, and starting countless DIY projects he has yet to complete.

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