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Wired for sale

The Baltimore Sun

Showers that warm to the perfect temperature while the bather is still in bed. Soft lighting that facilitates midnight trips to the bathroom. Dishwashers that can be activated from the other side of the world.

High-tech home improvements put a homeowner at ease, saving time and (sometimes) money and creating an aura of futuristic pampering. By comparison, more traditional updates can seem a little bit dull. A new granite countertop, however attractive, can't personalize a room's temperature or dim the lights at the kids' bedtime. It just kind of sits there.

But while Jetsons-era embellishments are cropping up more often in new and renovated homes, their impact on resale value is uncertain, particularly in a stagnating market.

"It's not really adding value," said David McIlvaine, an associate broker at Keller Williams who covers the Baltimore area. "What adds value is square footage, and the numbers of bathrooms," not, say, sensor-operated faucets.

On the other hand, with certain buyers, impressive built-in technology triggers "a love factor," said Mark Nash, author of 1,001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home. "You will be able to distinguish your house in a cookie-cutter neighborhood," and that can be well worth the expense.

In the long-run, upgrades such as centrally controlled lighting may be inevitable. Domesticity is going digital, said Steve Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders, which released a series of projections this year about the future of American homes.

Within a decade, the study predicted, growing numbers of upscale homes (4,000 square feet or more) will have automatic blinds and shades and voice-operated thermostats, not to mention multi-room audio systems, zoned air-conditioning (not to be confused with leaky old window units), and an array of features -- such as security systems and appliances -- that can be operated online.

Many functions will be consolidated into touch-screen control panels that are built into walls or small enough to tote around in a pants pocket along with a BlackBerry or iPod.

"You carry this panel about the size of a credit card and you can turn on anything in your kitchen with it," said Meghan Henning, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association. "Or in the morning, instead of setting your alarm, you set the drapes to open so you wake up to natural light and the sound of music playing."

The coffeemaker comes on automatically; so does the shower. And if you forget to shut off the air conditioning before leaving for the office? Just log into your home system from work.

Technology has been important in housing for more than a half-century, especially where kitchen appliances and heating and air conditioning systems are concerned.

But as work and private life have become increasingly intertwined during the past decade, office gadgetry has crept into the home.

Now, equipment such as digital cameras and automobile Global Positioning Systems dominate even our social worlds, and consumers are demanding increasingly sophisticated products tailored for stay-at-home use.

Remote fireplaces

Wired luxury is not reserved for the wealthy.

Experts surveyed for the NAHB study indicated that, during the next 10 years, remote control fireplaces may infiltrate even some average-sized homes.

The cost of various updates, and the behind-the-walls wiring that goes with them, can range from hundreds to -- in cases of awe-inspiring home theater set-ups, complete with programmable popcorn makers -- hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currently, homeowners seem willing to devote about 2 percent to 3 percent of a home's value to technology features, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research at the NAHB.

Some in the real estate business consider this money well spent.

"Whenever I list a home to sell, people want to know about the wiring, the surround-sound, the Internet in every room," said Ilene Kessler, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors and a Realtor with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia. "Smart appliances, computerized appliances, things that you can program."

But, where resale potential is concerned, others are less convinced that installing technological amenities maximizes dollars. Technological trends are much more in flux than, say, bathroom tile styles, and it's always hard to predict what will catch on.

Central air conditioning, which once seemed like an exotic indulgence, is now a standard feature in many homes, for instance, and multiple phone jacks -- formerly important to buyers -- are all but irrelevant in the cellular age. Wireless computing has made the need for broadband connections throughout a house less vital to most families, too.

Motorized blinds

In the current market, "a lot of people can get talked into motorized or electrical blinds," Nash said. "It's really something that's more of a gimmick. The problem is we are just starting to see a big wave of technology come into the home," and it's tough to tell what has staying power.

Some outcomes are more certain.

For instance, technological needs are altering home design. The home offices of old are giving way to discreet electronics cubbies, closets and lofts that will house printers and other stationary equipment as workers move with their laptops throughout the house, Nash said.

Streamlined home theaters and media rooms are taking the offices' place.

When it comes to selling technologically decked-out homes, the optimal amount of updates may vary by neighborhood and by customer, Realtors say. Young buyers demand more features and are also less likely to want to install them themselves, Nash said.

In Baltimore neighborhoods such as Federal Hill and Canton, where young, moneyed buyers flock and there are a lot of externally similar homes on the market, electronic extras -- such as a central music system that simultaneously plays different songs in different rooms -- might distinguish a property from the competition.

In general, though, pragmatism pays off when choosing features, according to Henning. For instance, lighting systems that can be operated from a central panel are catching on very quickly, in part because they dovetail with energy management and security concerns.

And more practical investments may be more likely to retain their value.

A Consumer Electronics Association study showed that homeowners who purchased home theater set-ups believed they would lose about half their investment after reselling the home.

Those homeowners who chose high-tech energy management and monitored security systems, on the other hand, thought that their investments would roughly double in value when their homes hit the market.

Of course, once you start enhancing a home it's hard to stop, particularly as more options hit the market, from televisions that swivel to follow viewers around the room to automatically lifting toilet seats.

Time for a milk run

In a few decades, some experts predict, homes will likely be able to inform an owner if his refrigerator is running low on milk, and whether his blood pressure is high.

But, even today, there are enough updates to keep buyers busy.

Jim Cheek's decked-out Parkton home is on the market. The features he's most proud of include a downstairs home theater center with multiple built-in monitors, all of which are controlled through a central computer, and a sound system that lets him play different music on the upper and lower levels of his outdoor deck.

He's a little sad to sell. But he's got big plans for his new place.

"I would do all the same things, but make it more interactive, with a security system," said Cheek, who owns a contracting company. He'd also like to include lights and air conditioning that can be monitored from outside the home.

Sure, resale value is part of his rationale. But more than anything, "I want to make sure the lights are on and everything is ready when I come home after a hard day's work."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

ONLINE RESOURCES

When it comes to loading your home with the latest and greatest tech features, the Web offers plenty of inspiration.

For commentary on cutting-edge products, check out the blog luxuryhousingtrends.com. On the right there's an archive of past entries by topic.

To browse or buy the newest gizmos, try smarthome.com. The clearance section showcases some items for less.

And for help installing more holistic systems, go to techhome.com. This site explains the possibilities and offers a search for installers by ZIP code, as well as links to other explanatory resources.

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