Enjoying outdoor space year-round: 12 tips for getting decked

Designing the ideal deck is a bit more daunting than it seems. Go too understated and it may look like a dock. Go overboard, and it will look like the architectural equivalent of wearing cocktail attire to a backyard barbecue. But we can help.


Because we are fortunate in this area to be able to enjoy outdoor living almost year-round, I offer a dozen considerations to get you started on designing or remodeling the deck of your dreams.

1. Rules and regs. Familiarize yourself with your city’s regulations to find out what you can legally do. Your deck designer and builder will most likely need to apply for a deck permit requiring scale drawings of the framing plan and possibly an elevation to ensure that your deck will be safe and meet structural code requirements. Materials, fasteners, footings, railings, stairs and ledger boards will all need to be addressed.

2. Living the life. Is private reflection, an intimate dinner or drinks by the fire pit how you roll? Do you occasionally throw a large party or do you regularly entertain the masses? Essentially, you need to ask yourself what ages of people will use the deck, how, and how often. Whatever the answers, be clear about your needs. Think in terms of must-haves and like-to-haves and determine what your budget and space will allow.

3. In the zone. In all likelihood, your deck will accommodate a range of activities: some frequently, some occasionally. Establish zones or rooms for relaxing, dining, cooking and so forth. Designing a deck is not unlike designing an interior space with an open floor plan. Be sure to leave plenty of room for traffic flow around and through these areas. For instance, diners should be able to comfortably pull their chairs back from the table without hitting a railing and be able to circulate around the table comfortably.

4. Be materialistic. When choosing materials, be realistic about your willingness to engage in proper maintenance. Treated lumber or cedar is the most affordable, but requires power washing and, ideally, sealing. Exotic woods are rich-looking, but more expensive. Composites, PVC and the like are more expensive, but offer virtually maintenance-free longevity.

5. Size matters. The scale of your deck in relation to your home, especially, but also your yard, is critically important for a cohesive look. Some experts advise that your deck should be no larger than 20 percent of your home’s footprint. But it depends on several factors including how the deck is broken up with furnishings and such, its shape and its design. Manipulating the angle of the boards – vertically, diagonally, horizontally or in combination – can help break up the space and define zones. A bi- or even trilevel deck, or one with repeated angles, curves or bump-outs helps avoid that aircraft-carrier feel of too large an expanse.

6. Free range. If you enjoy grilling – a lot – an outdoor kitchen, complete with a wood-fired brick pizza oven, may be a must-have. But a simple grill, perhaps on a bump-out, may suffice. On the other hand, if your kitchen is conveniently located near your deck, you may prefer to cook – and possible even serve – food indoors and dine outside. Grills and decks go together like beans and slaw, but a nice gas grill that sits under its cover unused is an expensive piece of sculpture.


7. Cover up. Depending on the orientation of your deck and the trees on your property, the sun’s rays may or may not be an issue. But if you and the sun have different ideas about compatibility, design a portion of your deck to offer shade, either full – rendering it a covered porch – or partial, with, say, a pergola. How far apart the rafters are spaced and whether it is planted with a climbing vine determine how much sunlight penetrates.

8. Room with a view. Many of us enjoy our decks because of the view it provides into our yards or the surrounding landscape. But the view from inside the house out to the deck is also important for visual harmony. As you choose a design and furnishings, ensure that the view from the inside out is enhanced and unobstructed. Some strategies to help open up the view include a stepped-down design and a cable or tempered-glass railing system. If you choose a sleek contemporary cable system, be sure it won’t rust.

9. Stay connected. Visually and, often, functionally, decks provide a transition between house and yard. To ensure that the transition is smooth, consider not only the style of the deck and furnishings, but what lies beyond. Typically, decks, especially small ones, should reflect the style of the home. Larger decks, or those with more than one level, often look attractive if they become more natural or organic as they move away from the house. Where any deck meets the yard, a patio, pavers, stones or brick create a handsome transition.

10. Let there be light. Since, especially during the work week, many of us are only able to enjoy our decks at night, be sure to provide adequate lighting for ambiance, tasks and safety. Choose from under-rail lighting, string lights, well lights, stair lights, cordless fixtures and more.

11. Upstanding. We tend to think of decks as floors, but it is often the upright elements that create the most visual impact. Today’s market boasts an almost overwhelming range of railing styles from rustic to highly refined. Take your time, do your research – look at lots of photos – and pick the perfect railing for your application. If your deck is significantly raised, your skirting can be simple vertical or horizontal boards or something more decorative to complement the style of the home. Be careful, though, not to choose something overly busy, as it will provide an unwanted distraction and create an unintended focal point.

12. Decorate rich. Think function, comfort, style and longevity when choosing outdoor furnishings. As with decorating any space, choose a color palette and style – preferably ones that complements your home – and stick with it. Define areas with indoor-outdoor rugs and soften with occasional tables – ceramic garden stools are nice because they can provide extra seating for small folks – and incorporate indoor-outdoor pillows and potted plants. For upholstered furniture, invest in furniture covers and perhaps a decorative bench with an open-close top in which to store it. If you have to retrieve and return covers to a shed or garage that isn’t conveniently located, you won’t use them.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to http://www.vbhomesliving.com.


Want a better closet? Here’s how to get started.

You might think that efficient, highly functional, and beautiful custom closet design begins with space planning. But you would be wrong. It begins with a purge.

Most people have clothing and other items tucked – or stuffed – into their closets that they haven’t touched in a year or more. Donate or discard all of those out-of-style, unneeded and unwanted items before you begin the closet design process. In doing so, you will best understand not only how many items you have, but what types. Even if your result is a few steps down from a boutique or haberdashery style space – for which we advocate – an accurate “audit” of what needs to fit back into the closet is the only way to plan a space tailored to your needs, whether you are designing a walk-in or reach-in closet.

Consider making a built in “hutch” the centerpiece of your new closet, complete with drawers, a catch-all surface on top, and shelves or cubbies above to save space in the bedroom by eliminating the need for a dresser. Then build out from there, thinking in terms of zones, especially if two people share the closet – or might in the future – and designing from the floor to the ceiling to make use of every square inch. No closet ever had too much storage space.
Closet Picture

Decide what might be better folded or rolled, like sweaters and T-shirts – clothing made of fabrics that can stretch and become misshapen – and even jeans and shorts. Allot adjustable shelves – and maybe some handy rollouts. These could be cubbies or deep drawers. For ease of retrieval, it is best that folded items are not stacked more than 5 feet tall. The top shelves of your closet are the ideal place for bins that hold less frequently used items like luggage, totes and shoe bags for travel, or seasonal items like bathing suits.

Drawers with clear acrylic fronts make it easy to see what is inside, but may also contribute to visual clutter. Figure out which matters more to you and choose accordingly. Shallow drawers are nice for hosiery, underclothes and nightclothes, though some people prefer an open bin or basket on a shelf for quick retrieval of these items, especially, socks.

Those slanted shelves designed especially for shoes are not the most practical, adaptable or space-saving design. We recommend flat adjustable shelves to accommodate shoes of different heel and platform heights, as well as booties and boots. Save the most space by turning each pair heel to toe. Other items requiring shelf space that you might want to stash in your closet include linens and pillows for the adjacent bedroom and bath.

Clothing on hangers takes up the most space, but is, obviously, a necessity. Measure the width of your hanging clothes to determine exactly how much space you will require. Be sure to include long hanging space – usually some 18-24 inches in width – for women’s dresses. Consider hanging coats in a foyer or mudroom.

Most everything else can be double hung, but it is still a good idea to make sure that rods are adjustable. In a walk-in closet, hanging clothing can be concealed behind doors for a very upscale look. Just keep in mind that they will take up more space and, unless the area is expansive, could lend a closed-in feel. For the neatest, tidiest and most cohesive look even without doors, decide on one type of hanger – plastic, wood, or velvet; not wire! – and stick with it.

An array of other closet accessories is available, and one can easily get carried away. One that is practical, though, is a pull-out belt/tie rack. Another that we really like is the pull-out hamper located in the bottom section of double hung space. If two people share a closet, each person ideally will have his or her own hamper or, even better, a pair of them for separating different fabrics. We favor the bag-style that can be unhooked from its sliders and taken to the laundry room.

If your closet offers enough wall space – including behind a swing door – where anything built out will not work, many women, especially, like a rail-type system with hooks for jewelry, scarves, hats and the like. Being able to see all of your jewelry hanging over hooks or in organdy bags suspended from hooks means it is likely to get worn more often.

Lighting is as important in the well-designed closet as it is in a kitchen and bath. If you can accommodate natural lighting from a window, we highly recommend it, though some fabrics can fade in direct sunlight. Because you lose storage space on window walls, we find that the space beneath windows is the ideal spot for bench seating for putting shoes on and taking them off. A small sturdy bench that doubles as a kind of movable step stool is nice for retrieving items up high.

But you will also need overhead lighting, which can be as stylish as you choose; just make sure it is bright and not behind you, or your body will cast shadows on what you are trying to see. Opt for a cool type of bulb, as incandescent light fixtures can cause heat to build, and all of that fabric in an enclosed space can become a fire hazard.

Other considerations for your closet, if space allows, include a television, radio, flip-down ironing board, full-length mirror from which you can stand back about 3 feet, and wastebasket for laundry tags and bags, receipts left in your pockets, and the like. Closets can be difficult spaces in which to vacuum, but area rugs underfoot can feel nice.

By keeping these guidelines in mind, your closet may become the best room in your home.

If you have a question on building, remodeling, or designing your dream closet, please email me at chris@ vbhomesliving.com.

Virginia Beach native and James Madison University graduate Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council. Contact Ettel at Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to www.vbhomesliving.com.

2018: VB Homes helps Complete 11th House Project for the Virginia Beach Education Foundation


On June 4th, 2018 VB Homes (in partner with the City of Virginia Beach Education Foundation and other local businesses) helped celebrate the 11th house project built by Virginia Beach students. We are honored to have participated and are proud of the students’ successful accomplishment. This home will be up for sale in the Fall of 2018 located at 1905 Evar Place, Virginia Beach, VA. For more information regarding this exciting project, visit the Virginia Beach Education Foundation website http://www.vbef.org/house/index.asp

North End House for Sale

Our remodeled spec home is now up for sale! This updated brick ranch is located at 55th Street and Myrtle Avenue has an open concept with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. Contact Chas Ferguson or Larry Blum to schedule a showing at 757-416-8280. #wholehouseremodel #remodelproject #northend #virginiabeach #brickranch #vbhomes

Getting your garage in gear

Last month’s column featured 10 spring-cleaning tips for improving your home’s curb appeal. This month I offer 10 tips for improving the appearance and function of what can easily become the most unsightly room in your home: the garage.

A transitional space between indoors and out, garages can quickly become catchall spaces. That, coupled with the fact that debris is liable to blow in every time you open your garage door, means that garages are often dusty and dirty. Hopefully, these tips will help you get your garage in gear – even if there is currently no space in it for your car.



1. First, downsize. It’s not the most fun task, but it sure feels good when you are finished. Give away, throw away and donate anything that you have not used or repaired in the last year.

2. If your garage is still too crowded to move through it and work in it comfortably, consider a shed to hold larger items like bikes, wheelbarrows and the like.

3. Determine what you need to be able to store and/or accomplish in your garage and establish zones for each. Placement is key; if you want a potting shed in your garage, locate it near a door to the exterior.

4. If your garage is quite full, look up. Maybe you can hang bikes from ceiling-mounted racks or hoist them overhead on a pulley system. Or perhaps you can also install ceiling-mounted racks that install above garage doors for those infrequently used items such as holiday decorations. Be sure you hit studs when attaching these types of systems.

5. Also look down. Epoxy paint is popular among homeowners as a floor covering to resist stains and chemicals. To ensure that the paint will stick, you will need to power wash the floor and then apply an etching product before painting if a drop of water beads on the floor. As an alternative, rubber floor tiles are also popular: They hide a lot of wear, are comfortable underfoot and provide sound insulation.

6. Closed cabinets are nice for garage spaces because the doors keep out dust and debris. However, if that is not an option, clear bins with lids stored on open shelves is the next best option. Clear bins prevent the need for labeling and relabeling as the contents change.

7. Most homeowners find some kind of work surface, like a workbench, to be almost a required feature of their garage. Pegboard above puts tools and other supplies within easy reach. While you are at it, a potting bench also is nice.

8. New garage doors can be expensive, but if your home came with solid garage doors, replacing them with windowed doors will transform a dank and foreboding space into a light-infused work space. They can also dramatically enhance the appearance of your home from the exterior, as there are many stylish designs on the market nowadays.

9. The bare bulb mounted high on the ceiling of most garages is not adequate for all that goes on in these hardworking spaces. As in a kitchen, task lighting will make your garage a far more functional, safe and satisfying place to be.

10. Air temperature is another factor that contributes to your garage’s functionality. A ceiling-mounted, gas-fired, forced-air unit is sometimes desirable in winter, and a cooling unit – say a window unit or a portable AC unit – is helpful in summer if you spend many hours in your garage. Check with an expert, as ventilation and safety are key.

As you transform your garage, feel free to reach out with questions – and with solutions – that have worked for you at chris@vbhomesliving.com.


Spring cleaning: Clean up your curb-appeal act

Even though the weather of late might make us think otherwise, spring is here and with its arrival comes the urge to “spring clean.” But let’s not think only in terms of scrubbing and dusting, but also cleaning up your act in terms of curb appeal.

It has been said that “first impressions last.” So regardless of whether you are selling your home or planning on living in it for years to come, a clean, fresh, cared-for appearance from the street will attract buyers. It also makes coming home a more pleasant experience.

Curb appeal encompasses everything that can be seen from the curb: your driveway, landscaping, walkway and facade, including the front entrance. Even your roof. To help you be more objective, snap a photo of your house from the street and study it to determine what could be spiffed up. That ladder that you’ve been meaning to put away is hard to ignore in a digital image, but easy to walk past with an “I’ll get to that tomorrow.” Be sure to take a look during the day and in the evening, as different aspects will stand out, depending on lighting conditions.



As you analyze your photos, use this 10-step curb-appeal checklist:

1. Clean any surface that looks dirty, dingy, discolored or streaked. Sweep away cobwebs and all of the debris that gets caught in them. Pressure washing makes surfaces sparkle. And make sure your gutters aren’t growing gardens of their own.

2. Add some polish. Repaint trim that is chipped, peeling or discolored, consider changing the color of your front door, and add a nice, unfaded welcome mat.

3. Repair and replace anything that isn’t in ship-shape condition: shingles that are missing from the roof, louvers that are missing from shutters, pickets that are missing from fences and more.

4. Declutter. Relocate old flower pots, ladders and even bicycles strewn about the front porch and lawn.

5. Change out house numbers, mailboxes, planters, front-door hardware and even bigger ticket items, like garage doors, that aren’t stylish and attractive. Maybe add wooden trim details under the peaks of your roofline. Is your home contemporary, traditional or transitional? Choose styles that create either pleasing cohesion or contrast. And be sure the scale is right for your home; if too small, the additions look more like cheap clutter than substantial statements.

6. Repair your driveway or sidewalk if cracked. This can be expensive, but can make all the difference in ridding your home of an unkempt appearance. If you don’t mind spending the money, consider changing out your ho-hum walkway for one made of stone or brick to add style and charm.

7. Spruce up your planting beds with fresh mulch for crisp and clean contrast, and be sure to plant for year-round interest. But don’t add needed color with artificial plants; they look, well, artificial. Prune overgrown trees and shrubs, and replace any plants that aren’t performing well.

8. Replace any dead plants in containers and flower boxes. Nothing says, “I don’t care” quite like scraggly potted plants or empty pots. If you don’t have flower boxes, consider adding them in a style compatible with your home. Not all flower boxes are “cottage-y.”

9. Treat your windows to window treatments that create a neat and tidy look from the exterior.They need not be identical, but they should look balanced.

10. Replace any broken or missing outdoor lighting fixtures in the landscape or on the house. If they are outdated, switch them out for something that’s more current and correctly scaled to add interest, depth and even drama. If they are leaning this way or that, straighten them so they’ll look uniform.

So there you have my checklist. Share your “top 10” curb-appeal ideas with me at chris@vbhomesliving.com.

Shed light, not tears: Build a better garden shed

If your lifestyle demands a bit more storage outside of your house and garage, you are in need of either a good purge or a good shed.

Seriously, many homeowners, especially those who want to actually park their cars in their garages, need an additional workshop space or spot for lawn and garden tools and equipment, bicycles, pool and patio paraphernalia, and other outdoor-related possessions. If a metal or vinyl prefab utility shed suits your needs and your budget, any home improvement center will have several from which to choose. But if you are looking to go a more custom route to add character to your outdoor space, please keep reading.

DIYers are in luck, as there are many tool shed kits and plans available. But regardless of whether you choose to do it yourself or hire a contractor, options abound for sheds that are not just functional but visually appealing. These small outbuildings – usually at least 6-by-6-foot – are best placed where conveniently accessed , not visible from the street, and where they avoid blocking sight lines or access to other parts of the property. To avoid overwhelming your property, depending on its acreage, of course, you might not want to build too much larger than an 8-by-10 or 10-by-12-foot structure.

Corners of yards often work well for placement, but avoid low-lying areas, as drainage can become an issue. A dry, level area slightly elevated from the surrounding terrain is ideal. If drainage poses a concern, surrounding the shed with a bed of gravel or even building the shed on top of gravel is wise.

Sometimes gravel-filled trenches with pressure-treated 6-by-6’s to which the joists are attached are all the foundation that is needed. Other times, a floor built more like a deck with footings, posts and a wood frame is desirable, or even a concrete slab. If your shed is large, say, more than 200 square feet, foundations become a bit of a different ballgame requiring permanent foundations that extend down to the frost line. Clearance of some 3 feet around the shed keep it exposed to air and sunlight, which can help avoid issues with moisture and mildew.


Before becoming married to a location – or even to a shed, for that matter – check building and zoning codes, as there are regulations about size, property line setback and more. Before you call, have a general size for your structure in mind so that the information you obtain is specific to your project. Similarly, homeowners’ associations often have their own sets of rules and guidelines, so be sure your plans are in compliance to avoid conflict and potentially costly redos.

In terms of style, your shed certainly need not mimic the architecture of your home, but it should at least be complementary to your house and the surrounding neighborhood. That is easily achieved typically in one of several ways: mimicking your home’s roof profile – pitch, hip, gambrel, etc.; replicating roofing and siding materials; repeating colors, not only of siding and roof but of the door and trim; adding windows, including dormers; and incorporating other architectural features like columns, brackets and cupolas, maybe even a weathervane. Incorporating recycled materials and architectural salvage can really infuse your shed with charm.

Homey touches like a covered porch, a lamp and/or sconces, and a walkway are not only appealing, but practical. Fencing, potted plants, trellises with climbing vines (with room for air circulation), and other foundational type plantings help integrate the structure into its setting. Bird baths and feeders, “yard art” and decorative wall-mounted objects, door mats and furnishings – maybe even a gravel, brick, or paver patio – add the finishing touches.

On the inside, most sheds are highly utilitarian with unfinished framing and enough shelving, pegboards, hooks and bins to hold whatever needs held. Electrical outlets are a nice extra, especially if your shed is going to be used as a workshop but also in case you need extra lighting or, perhaps, a fan. Plumbing may or may not be a luxury, as a utility sink may be necessary for the function of your shed.

If your riding lawn mower will be housed in the shed and your shed is elevated, you will need a ramp. Both hinged and sliding doors work well in sheds, but if using the former, be sure to allow for the narrowed opening that hinges create so that your mower, wheelbarrow and other larger items fit through.

Photos of impossibly inventive and attractive sheds are rife on the internet. Peruse as many as you can so that you achieve the shed of your dreams from the get-go. Though sheds are one of the least expensive structures you can erect on your property, you still want to get it right the first time.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to www.vbhomesliving.com.

These kitchen storage solutions can be incorporated into existing space, a remodel or new construction

The hardest- working room in your home often presents the most storage challenges, but also the most storage opportunities.

We are all familiar with the flip-down drawer below the kitchen sink for sponges and scrubbers, or appliance garages, but here I offer about a dozen additional options you may not have considered. Each can be incorporated into your existing kitchen, a remodel or new construction. Some are definitely DIY-appropriate, while you might prefer to hire a contractor for others. As with most home improvements, a comprehensive – rather than piecemeal – plan conceived in conjunction with someone with some degree of expertise is the smartest approach.

When we think about storage, there are both concealed and visible options. Homeowners have to decide how much of the latter they can tolerate and then try to build in as much of the former as possible to manage the rest.

Concealed storage Of the concealed variety, drawers, cabinets and pantries are the workhorses of most kitchens, with open shelving gaining popularity today. Most homeowners have long stored stacks of plates in upper cabinets, but folks are realizing that heavy plates are more easily lifted up than lifted down. This is where large lower drawers come into play. Consider inserting a movable peg system into a deep drawer to securely accommodate stacks of plates with varying diameters.

Similarly practical are deep drawers for pots with integrated rollouts in the upper portion to hold lids or flatter items, like trivets or even potholders. Another deep-drawer system for pots includes a partition at the back to hold the lids.

Lazy Susans are often installed in corners to make use of that deep under-counter space, but you might consider corner drawers instead. Though the shape of these drawers results in a pair of triangular-shaped compartments in the front, small items like spice jars fit there nicely. And these drawers’ narrow width and extra depth is generally welcome.

In regard to virtually all drawers and cabinets, one word comes to mind: retractable. Retractable shelves, baskets and the like dramatically increase the functionality of these spaces. For upper cabinets, consider pull-downs so that items in the back are easily reachable.

We don’t typically think about seating in relation to storage, but seating does take up valuable real estate in a kitchen eating area, like a bar or island. Why not consider vintage-style swivel stools that tuck out of sight when not in use but easily rotate into place as needed?

A simple solution is to store some items in an adjacent area like a breakfast room, dining room or even living space. But what about the stairs? While most people who live in two-story homes have already made use of their under-stair storage space, usually in the form of a closet, many people have not considered converting the bottom few stairs to drawers. Someone with building expertise should take on this task, as the strength and stability of the stairs must not be compromised. It would be so handy to store flatter items like trays, cutting boards, baking sheets or place mats in these stair drawers, since, in many homes, they are located near the kitchen and dining room.


Visible storage One of the sleekest visible storage solutions is a kitchen rail system. Generally stainless steel, this type of system may not be appropriate for all styles of kitchens, but it places within easy reach frequently used tools and other items. This frees up drawer, cabinet and counter space . Depending on the system, which is typically installed beneath upper cabinets or floating shelving, homeowners can choose between a highly functional and handsome range of components to mix and match with their rails and brackets: mini-shelves, cylindrical utensil holders, rectangular compartments, herb pots and much more.

For those who don’t mind a somewhat fuller look, shelves above windows or doorways can create a great deal of storage space for both decorative and functional items.

If cabinet space is limited, but floor space is less so, an attractive lidded or unlidded basket might be the ideal place to stand up cutting and bread boards. Keep in mind that if you have a pet who sheds, fur may collect in or around the basket.

If pantry space is also limited, consider decanting your herbs and spices into small magnetic canisters and adhering them to the side of your fridge, assuming one side is open and conveniently located to your stove or food preparation area.

And speaking of counters, one of our favorite uncommon solutions is a countertop with an integrated bowl or seamless depression in the surface of the counter meant to prevent eggs and other round fruits and vegetables from rolling off the counter.

Another is a cutting board with a hole positioned over a receptacle so that trimmings can easily be swept into the waste bin, and conveniently removed.

Hopefully, some of these ideas may solve some of your stickiest storage issues.

If you have a question about building, remodeling or storage solutions – or have a storage solution you would like to share – please send them to me at chris@vbhomesliving.com.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, go to www.vbhomesliving.com.

Be smart about smartifying your home – it can get complicated

Ever since homes started getting smarter, “smart” has referred to rapidly evolving technological options for controlling virtually all of the systems in your home. Who thought, even five years ago, that we would be talking to an inanimate object named Alexa – and she would respond?

At its simplest, a “smart” product is one with an internet connection (in order to receive commands and software updates) that you can control with your phone or tablet or through a central hub (automation controller or bridge). These devices perform at least one of three functions: They sense, process and/or respond.

Today’s smart home is all about app-controlled gadgets accessible remotely from your phone that give you more convenient control over the following: appliances (e.g. coffee makers), entertainment ( TV streaming devices), HVAC ( energy-saving thermostats), lighting ( smart bulbs and switches), security ( locking mechanisms, indoor/outdoor cameras with motion detection, two-way communication) and various storage capabilities. They also offer either self- or subscription-monitored smoke detectors and alarms), smart power outlets, pet and elder care (e.g. pet feeding), and even cleaning and maintenance (e.g. robotic vacuuming and mowing).

But raising your home’s IQ isn’t as straightforward as you might hope. Choosing a platform like Apple HomeKit, Google Home or Samsung SmartThings may be the most straightforward approach to creating a home automation network – either fully automated or semi-autonomous – that interfaces with smartphones and tablets while linking devices together.

These and other similar platforms are, essentially, kits with a number of compatible devices. At least in theory, proprietary devices made by the same manufacturer should happily communicate with each other because they use the same wireless standard or, at least, understand different protocols (WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave and more). However, most smart devices will work independently.

Smart homes can offer TV displays that’s hidden by a mirror.

The benefit of buying single platform-compatible devices is that they can all be controlled from one hub and one app, rather than from multiple hubs and apps. A hub should be able to bring together signals from different devices, allowing them to be controlled by the hub’s app when the hub is connected to the home’s network via WiFi or wired network connection.

Do your research and read the fine print. Frustration with the inability of proprietary devices made by different manufacturers to communicate with each other is leading other manufacturers to produce gadgets that work with all smart home platforms. The up- and downsides? While new partnerships and integrations are continually being added, devices can quickly become outdated.

The bottom line? Don’t lose your phone. Seriously, be smart about smartifying your home.

Before you connect, be clear about your needs related to tasks and routines, prioritize them, start with a few high-priority basics, choose a platform that supports as many of them as possible, and base future buying decisions accordingly. Avoid bewildering yourself and overcomplicating things if you don’t have to. And if a device or capability doesn’t make your home safer, save money, save time or increase enjoyment of your home, it may not be a smart choice for you.

Getting started can seem overwhelming and, while much of the technology is considered do-it-yourself, you might prefer to hire a professional to help you navigate this brave new world.

If you have a question on building, remodelingor raising your home’s IQ, please send them to chris@vbhomesliving.com.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact Chris@vbhomesliving.com or go to www.vbhomesliving.com.