Lights! Camera! Action! Creating a high-quality home theater is not the extravagance it once was and is certainly not just for movie moguls. For less than the cost of a good used car – or the monthly payment of a new car lease — you can obtain a top-quality home theater system, professionally installed, that will enrich and enliven your evenings for years to come.
This article provides 10 useful tips to help you develop a workable plan for your new home theater system, how to find a qualified home theater installer, get a fair price, and have years of trouble-free service.
1. Define What You Want
Before starting any home theater project, carefully evaluate what you want done. Take the time to list exactly what qualities your home theater should have and what you want a contractor to do. Speak with your family about expectations for use. For example, you might want a dedicated theater room to escape, the “fortress of solitude”.
Your family, on the other hand, might prefer a multi-function media room where everyone can meet and be entertained. Here are some questions to ask yourself (and your family) before you buy:
- Will your “theater” room be used for multi-tasking entertaining or single purpose?
- What will you primarily watch: movies, sports, TV sitcoms, or variety/entertainment?
- Are you especially impressed (or indifferent) to good quality sound systems?
- Do you have frequent guests for parties, “movie nights” or sporting events?
- Do you want speakers to be out on display or hidden in the walls?
- Are you easy-going or inflexible in your decorating tastes? For example, would you be willing to put in dark-fabric walls and sound deadening panels to perfect the acoustics in a room?
- Do you want to use existing furniture or would you consider specialized home theater seating?
- Do you want to consider expanding your project to include convenience features like automating your home with lighting controls, alarm and security systems, outdoor lighting, or central vacuum systems?
Finally, educate yourself about the technology of sight and sound: you don’t have to be an expert in buzzwords like THX, Dolby HD, HDMI, DLP or the rest of the alphabet, but you should know a bit about the pros and cons of a plasma or LCD flat panel display vs. a front projector. Try visiting informational websites such as www.hometheatermag.com or www.electronichouse.com to get familiar with choices and topics, but avoid getting fixated on a single brand or technology just yet. The more you know in advance about the scope and scale of your project and prices of the gear, the better prepared you are when you meet with an installer.
Taking your time at the start of a project to focus your choices increases the odds that you will be satisfied with the end result.
2. Define Where You Want It
It might seem obvious, but think about where you want to install your home theater. For example, some people want to convert a basement into a theater room. Others have a specialized den, spare bedroom, family room, even a garage. You’ll want not only a home theater installer/integrator, but perhaps a home improvement contractor to discuss structural elements such as walls, carpeting, electrical and or plumbing issues.
3. Set a Budget Range, not a Limit
Set a working budget range for your project, but don’t lock yourself in to a specific figure just yet. Next, consider how you will pay for the project: cash on hand or financing. Unless you are buying a relatively inexpensive system, most people finance part of their home theater project with a home equity line of credit or financing plan.
There is no “average” price for a home theater, but most people spend at least $10,000 and it is not unusual to spend $35,000 for a good-quality front projection home theater room with top-quality components and custom features. These budgets sound expensive but not if you go out to the movies once or twice a month. These days, dinner and a movie plus a babysitter could cost you $150, about equal to a monthly payment on a home theater system.
It is important to be flexible about your budget to accommodate one or two additional items (or to trade-off and remove items). At this point you want to know your comfort level for spending.
4. Find a Local Expert Installer
While you might be great at programming the remote, you are probably lousy at hiding the wires. Or you might be an accomplished carpenter but get overwhelmed by the myriad choices for home theater display technology. Relax and find a professional.
This pre-selection and pre-assembly process, better known as “integration,” is crucial to having a great home theater. The best installers have years of experience in working with systems and making them work. Home theater pros have a rare blend of essential skills: equal parts computer programmer, carpenter, AV “geek” and acoustic designer. The best ones can add value by pre-selecting the systems that provide the best overall result and provide years of enjoyment.
Dealer locators on manufacturer’s websites are the most obvious way consumers find installers, but these sites list only installers or resellers of a single brand. One site that assures objectivity and choices is www.allhometheaters.com, a web database that lists virtually ALL home theater and home automation specialists in the US and Canada. The site lets you search by project category AND by proximity to your home zip code. All listings include phone numbers and city/State. Some enhanced listings feature valuable discount coupons, web links, and project “samples” showing completed work. The site also features a cool CAD-style room layout software (free) that allows you to generate professionally looking drawings of your theater room.
5. The Interview Process
Meet with multiple installers in person (your place or theirs) to make sure there is a mutual understanding about what needs to be done. Chemistry is as important as price and skill.
Answers to the following questions reveal a lot about the professional you wish to hire:
- How long have they have been in business?
- Will your project require a permit?
- Have they done similar projects in your community?
- Are they available to do the work as described?
- What changes to the project “concept” would they recommend if budget were doubled? Halved?
- What guarantees do they offer?
- Will they service broken equipment?
- How do they get involved in warranty issues?
Ask if they can finish the work in your time frame and how long they have been in business. Get copies of proof that they are licensed, bonded, and covered by workers’ compensation and liability insurance.
Make sure to get references of satisfied customers and check them out. For bigger projects, ask to interview satisfied customers to verify job satisfaction. If you can, try to get references from banks, suppliers, and subcontractors to make sure the prospective contractors are financially reliable.
Contact your local Better Business Bureau and state consumer protection office to find out if any complaints have been filed against the contractor or their companies.
6. Understand the “After-Sale” Services
An often overlooked aspect of any professional installation job is who pays if the system breaks? The old saying “the service doesn’t stop after the sale” is appropriate yet few people – buyer and seller – are willing to talk about it!
Realistically most installers will return once or twice to make (free) service calls if they feel you are legitimately having difficulties that were caused by poor installation. After that, most installers will not be willing to make house calls unless you pay. There are some exceptions, of course, but you should ask before, not after, you sign the work order.
Talk to the installer frankly about what typically goes wrong with the home theater systems you are considering. Most solid state electronics and speakers work fine, but custom-programmed control systems can have software bugs. Wires become dislodged. Batteries die. Plasmas sometimes have bad pixels or burned images. Projector lamps burn out after several thousand hours of use.
Here’s some questions you should ask before you sign a contract:
- “If my system breaks, who will do the repairs? Specifically, who will come to my home?”
- “If you can’t fix it, who is responsible to uninstall it, pack it up and ship it back to the repair center or the factory? If that happens, who pays shipping?
- Who comes back to my house when the system is fixed to reinstall it?
- “Are these services all guaranteed and in writing?
The real purpose of asking these uncomfortable yet vital questions up front is that you will see the true colors of the installer. Do they dismiss away your concerns (a bad sign), talk about their hourly labor rate and extended warranties (not as bad a sign), or use the opportunity to discuss real-world issues and how they handle them. (actually a good sign). Will they proudly point to their written service guarantee (a very good sign) or simply give you an extra 10% discount if you sign up today (usually a bad sign).
7. Get it in Writing
Once you have a clear picture of what you want, be sure to get written estimates from the installer based on the same plans and specifications for proper comparison.
After you pick an installer, agree upon a written contract. Be sure that your plans are thought out thoroughly. Charges for change orders and extras add up very quickly. The final payment should not be made until the job has passed final inspection. The contract should include at least the following:
- Both of your names, addresses and specific details of the work to be performed.
- Specifics of materials to be used, including color, model, size, brand name and product.
- Start and estimated completion dates.
- Details on when and how payments will be made.
Don’t be rushed into signing quickly. Take your time to make a decision and get a second opinion before you sign anything. Any genuinely good deal will still be there tomorrow.
8. Use the Internet for Research, Not for Purchase
This is perhaps the most controversial piece of advice. The internet is a terrific resource for educating yourself about technology options. However, a decent home theater system is not a “do-it-yourself” kind of project. You should avoid buying on line unless you also know that your installer will accept responsibility for installing it. Be careful. Most installers won’t install products they don’t sell.
Your Internet research should give you a fair approximation for costs. Feel free to use that information to negotiate a fair price with an installer BEFORE the contract is signed. However, avoid the temptation of trying to win further price concessions by asking your dealer for “price matching” a low-ball price AFTER you’ve agreed to a price. You will certainly create ill-will with your installer when your real objective is to create a smooth, professional partnership focused on a terrific home theater system.
9. Accepting MSRP as a “Fair” Price
When you deal with a professional installer, yes, you will likely pay “retail” for the electronic equipment, speakers and displays you buy. This is in stark contrast to the low, low prices you see on the Internet. This is not a bad thing, and no, you are not a dummy for paying “retail”. Here’s why.
First, many better brands won’t sell to any dealer that sells at a deep discount or sells via the Internet. If you can buy it “on-line,” chances are the manufacturer is trying to move quantity, not quality.
Second, most reputable brands aren’t sold via on-line sites, so most Internet prices you may see are actually pure fiction. When you go to buy, your first choice is out of stock, but *surprise*, the merchant has a “great” deal on a second-class brand. Don’t fall for this classic bait-and-switch tactic.
Third, excessive discounting and wide-spread distribution (brands seen ONLY on-line) may be an indication that the manufacturer is focused on selling volume for little or no profit and, therefore, may have less money/people available for service, warranty and repairs. You’ll get a “great” deal on line only to find that spare parts are expensive, the warranty policies are cheap and hostile, and obtaining service is like pulling teeth.
Finally, like other major “appliances” in your home, home theater systems are somewhat complicated to install. Equipment prices are only about half the total value of a project, the remainder being integration/installation and service. When evaluating bids, keep in mind the value of these extra services. Full-service dealers often include these services in the price, which will save you money in the long run vs. an on-line deal.
10. How to Pay for It:
First, unless you have done work with the installer before, it is a good idea never to pre-pay for all the work. Some dealers legitimately ask for a 50% deposit which they use to purchase equipment and begin designs. Be wary about paying more of a down payment.
Second, if the job is rather extensive (taking more than a month), it is not unreasonable for an installer to ask for staggered payments.
Third, you should withhold a small amount — say 10% — until the project is “complete.” Be considerate, however, about the definition of “complete.” If the original estimate and project have been completed, the installer deserves payment in full for a job well done.
Choosing the perfect home theater installer can appear to be a daunting task. But with a little research. Industry know-how, and common sense, you can have the home theater of your dreams and be assured the dream will last for years to come!