I built a champagne smart home on a beer money budget

Nine smart speakers and displays, 33 smart bulbs and plugs, less than $500 spent.

Sienna Parmelee

I have been dreaming of having a smart home since I was 12 years old. Now, it’s finally my reality. There’s a pretty common misconception that to build a smart home, you need to be using Apple HomeKit and buy all of the brand name products to have a successful smart home experience. In fact, that’s one of the worst ways to do it.

I went down the Google Home track. It’s compatible with a huge range of devices, the voice commands are natural, the assistant is very good with general knowledge questions and the app is a whole heck of a lot more intuitive than the Alexa app.

As for bulbs, I was a lot less worried about the brand of bulb than the app that the bulb works with. While some bulbs, like Phillips Hue, have their bulb, their app and all of the smart home integration handled all by one company: Phillips. However, the system I chose was a no-name bulb company that utilized a standard Wi-Fi bulb format and the standard catch-all app: Smart Life.

This approach does not limit me for the future, either. Because this app is quite open-source, I can add things as I need them. For instance, I eventually want to install smart light switches. This will negate the issue of the light not being controllable remotely when the switch is off. I also want to install smart water sensors so I can be notified if my basement starts to flood and smart gas sensors to be notified of a gas leak.

All of these things can come in time because of the Smart Life platform I chose. All of these things can be added as you go, nothing is set in stone. 

I also don’t need to have my phone littered with apps to manage my smart home. Google Home for the speakers, displays and TVs, Ring for the doorbell (which we’ll touch on later) and Smart Life for everything else.

Getting down to brass tax, what this all cost me. Smart speakers and displays are a dime a dozen these days. So many people get them for free on a daily basis that eBay collects them like an unkept field keeps dandelions. You can consistently get three packs of the Google Home Minis or Nest Minis for the price of one or pick one up by itself for 60% off. In terms of the displays, most stores have these on sale quite consistently. I picked my first Nest Hub display up at WalMart for 50% off and then displays two and three on eBay for 70% off each.

These speakers are kind of like cable boxes in a way, there isn’t a whole lot that can wrong with them over time. They sit in one location, rarely touched and remotely interacted with and there’s no battery to degrade. The only thing that happens is newer generations just get faster and more features. Since the old ones don’t really “break”, building a smart home on a budget that much easier.

In terms of bulbs, honestly, I just picked bulbs that were compatible with the Google Assistant and my bulb sockets. They turned out to be “Smart WiFi Light Bulbs” by EVER Lighting. A four pack was just under $20, and I needed 24 to light my entire apartment. All in all, 24 off brand bulbs cost me just about $120 whereas if I went with Phillips Hue, lighting my home would have cost me a mind boggling $1,200. Quite literally 10 times more expensive.

The smart plugs were the same exact story. Same company, same pricing model, I needed eight, so that ran me just about $35.

Finally, my doorbell was the only outlier. I ended up going with Ring, even though it’s quite incompatible with my smart home. It still works, I just don’t get to enjoy features like seeing the camera preview on my smart displays and TVs. However, I chose Ring because of the style of bell they offered.

Instead of having to presently mount a doorbell on my rental, I was able to take out my peep hole and just slide the doorbell right in. This adds an extra layer of security while allowing us to communicate with people even while we’re not at home.

My grand total for my hodge-podge smart home came to just under $500. If I built this on a standardized platform like Apple HomeKit, it would have cost me a mind-bending $3,000 to achieve a similar, yet feature-stripped set-up with less flexibility and a more complicated bridge hub setup.

While my setup is by no means perfect, the occasional bulb may need a second to rejoin the network or the wrong Google Home will hear your command and then not be able to contextualize it, it works for me.

That’s the beauty of the way I went. I can build my smart home just for me. You may just want bulbs that can be different temperatures of white and not need a video doorbell because you live in a locked building. Sweet, your entire set up just got cheaper because you don’t need bulbs that can handle all color or need a doorbell. Oh, you already have a fire stick and some Echoes, sweet, that’ll still work.

While it may take a little more research to determine compatibility, building your own smart home can be incredibly fun and affordable.