I'VE BEEN HAVING THESE DREAMS LATELY WHERE I'M COOKING three-bean chili on a Saturday afternoon, listening to the latest Robert Randolph CD over speakers in the kitchen. Or we're on a safari in Africa, we've left the kids home with a sitter, and I call the home network from a cell phone to literally see what's going on. Or it's Thursday, and I realize that I missed the latest episode of “Two and a Half Men,” then I remember that my computer conveniently recorded it for me.

Yes, I've been dreaming of a digital lifestyle, where all my digital files conveniently reside on one honking hard drive, one satisfying touch just a remote control away. With that same remote (in some dreams, it's a touch screen), I can also change the lighting, temperature, and security levels in my house.

For builders, I realize, this dream of a digital home has been quite different. It's the homeowner calling at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday to say he can't turn off the lights because his home network is infected by a virus. It's some teenage “low-voltage” installer fishing around in the walls hooking up a $20,000 system that no one else knows how to operate. It's your purchasing agent spending a week to track down some vendor who has mysteriously moved to Amarillo.

Two Dreams, One Reality I'm here to report some good news: The market is moving toward convergence, which in builder terms means there are finally some attractively priced, reliable, digital home systems on the market with reputable companies standing behind them and a system of installers in place. Both builders and buyers can sleep happily.

Consider that Sony now sells a home entertainment package for just $1,000 per room that allows you to ship audio around the home; and it's only $2,000 per room for a distributed home entertainment system. For about $2,500, you can buy a system from Leviton that will serve audio, video, and photo files all over the house. And as our tech editor Steve Zurier reports in this month's issue, the biggest digital daddy of them all, Microsoft, offers a new Media Center PC for $1,400 that will automate the home and route digital pictures, music, and video from room to room.

Catch-Up Time Builders have come a long way in a hurry. Surveys done by the Consumer Electronics Association show that nearly 60 percent of new homes in 2003 were built with structured wiring. A majority of builders now offer monitored security, distributed audio, and home theater systems. And nearly half sell automated lighting control, home automation, and energy management systems.

These findings line up with surveys done by the Internet Home Alliance, which found that the most popular tech items among new-home buyers and shoppers are pre-wired cable or satellite and home security systems. The Alliance also found that 53 percent of new-home consumers are interested in rolling the cost of new technology into their mortgage, though that interest was largely confined to home infrastructure—pre-wiring for cable or satellite TV, structured wiring, and multi-zone HVAC.

There's no doubt that digital home technology is on an upward trajectory. This gear is an important way to differentiate new homes from their chief competitors—the resale. Now that the price is reasonable, qualified installers are in place, and national manufacturers are standing behind the deal, every builder should take a look.

Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director
e-mail: bthompson@hanleywood.com