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Smart Home

An Apple smart home, made to order

Apple has partnered with home builders to offer new houses with Apple HomeKit products preinstalled. Are buyers lining up?

James Martin/CNET

For US residential property developer and homebuilder KB Home, the biggest threat to business isn't other builders. It's resale. "We're always differentiating against or compared to resale homes," said Jacob Atalla, KB's vice president of sustainability. "And this adds one additional layer of differentiation."

By "this," Atalla is referring to technology, specifically a partnership with Apple's iOS smart home platform, HomeKit. KB is one of a small list of builders along with Lennar and Brookfield Residential to include smart home products as part of the home design process. Want smart window shades? You pick the style and KB will handle the install for you -- before you move in.

Touring KB's gorgeous $1 million model home in San Jose, California, it's easy to fall in love with the idea. But how much do homebuyers really care about smart technology? And what if you aren't an iPhone user?

DIY smart devices, installed for you

App-enabled thermostats, connected lighting, Bluetooth locks and other DIY devices have helped shift the collective understanding of what a smart home is. You don't have to have $50,000 lying around for a custom professional installation. You need a couple hundred bucks, a screwdriver and a hour or two over the weekend.

But the smart home isn't always that simple. Competing platforms, different networking languages and configuration headaches can make the "do-it-yourself" smart home pretty overwhelming. That's especially true if you want to setup multiple devices in multiple rooms.

Enter: KB Home. Instead of buying (or building) a home and then adding in smart tech later, KB shows potential customers the possibilities for a "move-in-ready" smart home.

Here's how the process works:

  • Visit a KB model home
  • Choose a lot and a floor plan
  • Select your design preferences, from the color of your kitchen cabinets to the smart devices you'd like
  • Put down a deposit and wait a few months for KB to build your home

The limitations of HomeKit

The process sounds straightforward, but you can't pick just any smart home device when you work with KB. Most of the products in KB homes are compatible with Apple HomeKit.

Apple HomeKit is a software platform that gives iPhone customers control over multiple compatible devices from the iOS 10 Home app. Siri can also be used locally to adjust the thermostat, turn a light on or off, lock or unlock a door and even control multiple products at once. Add in an Apple TV at home, and you can use Siri to turn on your front porch light remotely -- even if you're thousands of miles away.

KB was using Lutron shades and other products that now work with HomeKit long before Apple announced its smart home platform in June 2014. The problem back then, Atalla explained, was that you had to bounce around to a bunch of different apps to access your devices. HomeKit changed that with the Home app -- and Siri voice control.

The following smart home devices, all on display at KB's Promenade at Communications Hill development in San Jose, are accessible via the Home app:

KB has residential developments in seven US states, as well as the metro DC area, but Promenade is one of just two KB communities that currently offers optional smart home upgrades. Atalla told me their goal is to eventually expand to other locations.

No more stubbed toes: KB will install color-changing Philips Hue light strips under your bathroom vanity.

James Martin/CNET

Connected home curators

KB isn't against providing products from other platforms. For Atalla, it's all about offering "best of breed" products and letting customers choose from among them.

"We're similar to the curators of the best of chocolate bars," Atalla explained. "We'll give customers the foundation, the great chocolate cocoa bean, then ask them, 'Do you want it with caramel, do you want it with peanuts?' and so on. The chocolate bar wrapper is really the top-level ecosystem, the Amazon Echo Dot or Siri, and it depends on the customer and what they feel comfortable with."

Still, everything they offer -- aside from Amazon Alexa speakers -- is compatible with HomeKit. So while Philips Hue LEDs, Lutron light switches and Ecobee3 thermostats might work with Amazon Alexa, they also work with HomeKit.

What does that mean for Android homebuyers? Atalla has an Android phone and explained that an Apple TV is an important point of access, particularly for folks without iPhones. You can use the Apple TV remote to control your HomeKit products, but since it will only work within Bluetooth range, it isn't nearly as convenient as having access directly on your phone, and it won't work at all for remote access.

Are KB smart homes selling?

Home prices at KB's Promenade development start in the "low millions," but Atalla told me price doesn't matter when it comes to the smart home technology they offer. Companies like Apple have helped "democratize" smart tech, so it's much less expensive to add to a home than it used to be, Atalla explained. Because of that, KB plans to make its smart home upgrades available to their customers in Texas, North Carolina and other states, where homes sell in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

But how are people responding to KB's smart home options today? Atalla said adoption is currently between 10 and 30 percent of customers, but that it varies based on the technology. Lighting is the most popular product category, with thermostats and security devices following behind that.

Buying a smart home

While most of KB's customers still aren't including smart home tech as part of their construction plan, connected devices really can help a home stand out. That's what Carl Horton, a realtor with Semonin Realtors in Louisville, Kentucky, thinks at least.

Not only has he personally outfitted his home with Philips Hue LEDs and an adaptive Carrier HVAC system, Horton thinks smart tech can help make a home more appealing to potential buyers. "It's a really wise investment for my clients because it gives you a competitive edge, a feature that other homes don't have," he explained. At the same, he couldn't say definitively that someone would get their money back after a smart upgrade.

His advice? Make the smart improvements that matter to you, let them act as a "marketing feature" when it's time to sell and hope for the best. KB of course has other goals -- to encourage folks to buy new constructions rather than resale homes. Either way, it sounds like smart home technology is becoming increasingly important to the real estate market and companies like KB are at the forefront of that trend.