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Sorting the Sizzle From the Bacon When Choosing an AV Installer

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HT-install-thumb.jpgMany of us have built our own audio/video systems; however, as home automation, 3D audio, and other complex-to-install goodies like in-wall speakers and networked fiberoptic cables become part of our lives, the time comes when it's okay to say, "Let's hire a pro." We have a resource on HomeTheaterReview.com where we list some the elite AV dealers and installers in the country, and that's always a good place to go--but beyond that, how do you really know who's good and who's not so good.

A dealer friend of mine was telling me about the new dealers in the South Florida area who are young, slick, and very much silver-tongued. They spend money on marketing materials like professional, light-controlled photography and professionally designed PowerPoint or Keynote presentations. They produce slick videos and collateral material designed to woo architects, builders, and consumers alike. It's very convincing, and it helps them earn jobs over more established installers.

But there is a problem with some (not all) of the new blood. Promising the world of total AV harmony is one thing, but delivering it is a whole other issue. It's not unheard of to see a large project get past $100,000 before somebody in the line of command (normally, it's the customer) realizes that what he or she paid for isn't what they got. This is a critical problem because coming in to fix a home automation system on which another installer made 90 percent of the profit is something that the more established installers won't even consider doing. Basically, you're asking them to take on the hardest part of the job with the least profit (if any), as well as provide the ongoing support that may or may not be profitable.

So how do you hire the right installer in today's market? Here are some questions to ask:

1. Ask your friends if they like the company that they used, assuming they have a nice system. Do they get the support that they need in the time frame that they need it?

2. Is the installer CEDIA-certified? Have they taken current classes for their chosen home automation platform, be it Crestron, Control4, or Savant?

3. How long has the firm been in business?

4. How long have they sold their chosen brand of control system?

5. What builders do they work with in the area? How many projects have they done with each of them in the past two years?

6. How many programmers do they have working for them, both on a full-time and part-time basis? How long have these programmers been working for the firm?

7. What does their online reviews look like on Yelp, Google, Angie's List, etc. Do they have a lot of reviews? If they do, that's good. Do they have any one-star reviews? If there's only a single poor review, it could be somebody trying to ding them. If they have 14 of them, you've got a bad trend. The same goes for good reviews. If they have 98 five-star reviews on Google, it's hard to fake that.

8. How is their price? The dealer that's quick to give away 20 percent discounts has just given you half of the margin on the job. That's not a good sign for the long-term success of their business, and you need them to be around not just to finish your job but to support it for years to come. On the other hand, it's perfectly okay to ask why a company's project bid is 20 percent higher than others on the same home. Have them explain the price until you understand it. Some products cost more money than others. Some firms charge more for labor than others. Some try to put huge cable allowances or large design fees into the bid. You may or may not need such design work. Always check.

Youth is badly needed in the AV industry. We need younger customers, and we need younger, more forward-thinking dealers and installers. By no means should a firm be crossed off the list just for youth. However, consumers must protect their interests when upgrading AV gear and/or making a house "smarter." These systems are only as good as the dealer who is selling, installing, and programming them--so careful consideration should be given to who you would hire to work in your home.

What elements are most important to you when picking an AV firm? Comment below.

Additional Resources
The Importance of Good AV Support at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Is Automation the New "Audiophile"? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Five Good Ideas to Lure Consumers Back Into Brick-and-Mortar AV Stores This Fall at HomeTheaterReview.com.

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