Photo courtesy Magnolia Design Centers
While home entertainment is a prime selling aspect of the Best Buy Magnolia Design Centers, saving money and protecting the assets are growing in importance. Solar panels are among products displayed in the centers.

The trouble began in 1978 when RadioShack and Sears started shelving X-10 products. Back then, when a new house cost $54,800 and the average income was $17,000, things got very dicey very fast. Combine the then popularity of the VCR with Bob Vila of This Old House and, quicker than you can say Best Buy or Home Depot, it was a do-it-yourself (DIY) world.

Today, the curse is the Web. Even that started in 1978 with the first computer bulletin board in Chicago. Now there are hundreds of Web sites offering the good, the bad and the ugly of DIY home automation. The average Joe and Jane can download video on installing Cat 5 and play it over and over until they get it right or call in a professional.

But one word of warning, as a well-known, Web-based home automation DIYer writes: “I am not a professional, nor am I an expert. I am a tinkerer with a soldering iron, some Web design skills, and a sincere desire to be able to turn my lights on by yelling at the ceiling.”

No doubt, there is room for both DIY and professionally designed and installed home systems. However, when it comes to more than just plug and play, homeowners may very well have a fool for an installer if they do it themselves, especially for higher end needs.

Best Buy realized that when it bought Magnolia HiFi in 2001 and turned it into a store-inside-a-store concept that’s a next step home theater operation, and then also added, one step higher, the Magnolia Design Centers. It’s one of the largest CEDIA member firms and a total approach to home systems that includes in-house designers and installers. Joe and Jane can still buy a theater in a box from Best Buy but, often triggered by their income, they can sit down in a cushy Magnolia chair with a glass of Chardonnay and work with a designer to create a home theater, local area computer network or solar panel off-the-grid hook-up.

Overall, with DIY, “the problem comes when you step outside the bounds of completely normal. But what is normal?” says Frederick Ampel, president and principal, Technology Visions Analytics, Overland Park, Kan. A home systems designer and industry consultant, Ampel points out that complexity gets, well, complex. “Most home jobs are not in new construction and are not prewired. The older the house the harder it is.”

He agrees that there are levels of projects. But, while “Cat 5 may look simple, it is not. There are literally endless options.” As compared to DIY, professionals have a wealth of training with the most capable moving up the food chain to the firms handling the newer technologies more often. “The retailers don’t know acoustics, room design, seating placement. They don’t sell those products so how would they know?”

David Jasak at AV Design Associates, Austin, Texas, a CEDIA certified professional designer and registered outreach instructor, warns that “there is a difference between a truly qualified integration company and somebody who says that they’re qualified.” He encourages homeowners to find a skilled one that will perform above expectations. Ironically, professionals such as Jasak may know lifestyle needs of a client better than the client, based on experience and knowledge of technology solutions. It’s a hard DIY pill to swallow. “Often I meet with the architect and the builder as well as the homeowner and come up with a concept.” There are the basics at the high end – lighting, security with video surveillance and pool protection. “But it is integration that shows off the skills of the professional.” He sees advances in standards from the makers of equipment as one of the key elements in future-proofing home systems.

Manufacturers, who often play both the DIY and professional tracks, believe in the value of the installing experts. According to Greg Rhoades, associate director of marketing for HAI, “The biggest advantage when using professional services is just that ¬¬– professionalism.” The homeowner is getting a quality installer who is insured, has a true background in the field, and can find a solution for needs that fits the budget.

Rhoades adds, “Likely, these installers have been trained for the specific equipment. Additionally, they have the field knowledge that consumers lack, saving time and frustration. Instructions can often be tricky or misleading, but the professional installer has likely been exposed to the issues beforehand. 
They also might have exclusive or premium access to technical support centers, allowing for problems to be properly and quickly remedied. The multi-faceted knowledge professional dealers have gained by selling, installing and servicing equipment simply cannot be challenged.”

Similar to folks buying a VCR in the late 1970s to view their cherished copy of Saturday Night Fever, today’s door opener for Best Buy Magnolia Design Center customers is home entertainment, says Steve Delp, chief operating officer of Magnolia. But that is an opportunity to talk about security and home energy management. “Saving money and providing a common user interface in the home are important goals,” Delp says.