It is time for a good rant…
"You get what you paid for". We've all heard that phrase, and that is because it is almost always true. Yet sometimes the tempt of the low price, even when our gut is telling us something is fishy, overrides reason and we wind up making a choice we later regret.
When selecting a company to design, install, and service your home electronic systems (home theater, media room, home automation system, lighting control system, etc.), beware of the lowest price. You will almost always get what you paid for…a system that is overly confusing or just disappointing. You will wind up paying twice to have it done over again, and, due to poor design, it will never be as good as it could've been if done right from the getgo. We have had clients come to us time and time asking for help with systems they paid enormous sums of money for. What is a better deal? The system you paid 300k for and love or the one you paid 268k for and can't use without the help of your 14 year old son?
I'm writing this from the perspective of an audio/video professional who is often on the other end of the phone or the keyboard of a very upset person who has been "had" by some flakey 'AV guy' and wants us to take over their project. Sometimes it is by the very person that received a proposal from us a while back but was tempted by the cheaper price of a competitor.
Here is a list of things to check to help you get an accurate proposal and see if you are dealing with a reputable company:
Strictly Defined Scope of Work?
When we are told we are "waaaay more expensive" than a competitor, it 99.98% of the time due to a differing scope of work. Are you having the different audio video integration companies give you a proposal for exactly the same scope of work? If you want to get proposals from a few different companies, interview the prospective companies first, then consult with the professional you feel most comfortable with. He or she can explain (and hopefully demonstrate for you) the different systems they can install for you. Once you find what you like, be sure you are clear of what you'd like to receive a proposal for. The audio video integrator should be able to give you an 'executive summary' of your conversation to make sure that he/she understood your needs properly. Only have that clearly defined scope of work priced out. Without clearly defined needs, all sense of 'apples to apples' comparison gets thrown out the window. If the integrator would like to suggest other options beyond your scope of work, have them do it on a separate proposal.
What Are They Leaving Out?
It is common practice for sketchy audio/video firms to strip all sorts of important things out of the initial bid to give an artificially low price to win the job. Some are vital to make the system function, others are normally included items you will want and will result in a change order down the line. We were once called into a project when the homeowner was told that their pre-wire contract only included one floor of the home and the second floor would result in a change order equal to the original contract. The homeowner quickly understood why this company was half of all the other bids.
How Long Have They Been in Business?
Though not an iron-clad guarantee of quality work, at least they haven't been sued out of existence or are a fly-by-night company.
Have They Succesfully Completed Systems Like Yours?
If the systems you are thinking of installing include the brands Savant, Crestron, AMX, Control4, or Lutron, you need an experienced expert at the helm to pull it off. We often are called into projects where an A/V firm got in way over their head. The system and home was beyond their capabilities and they are faced with the decision to abandon the project and deal with litigation, cut corners to complete the project, or trudge forward and accept the fact that they are losing money. Inexperienced companies see dollar signs when they have a shot at a new, big project but rarely know how to design and bid it properly. Make sure you are hiring somebody that does homes of your caliber on a regular basis. You do not want to be somebody's guinea pig no matter how low the price.
Are They Using Subcontractors?
Ask if they use their own staff for all phases of your project. Some companies will use other contractors for the prewiring and programming phases. Also, many companies sub-out or refer to outside contractors related trades such as lighting controls, motorized shades, IT, and security. Not that this is a deal-breaker in its own, but know the difference and who is in charge of what and who to call for service.
The barrier to entry in this industry is very low. Buy a van, a ladder, a few tools, and voila!…you're in business. A slick website can be a smokescreen hiding a new company that doesn't have the experience and know-how to do a good clean job on time, let alone finish it in the first place. As mentioned before, working without a license is not unheard of in this business. A good start is looking up any perspective audio/video integrator on CEDIA's "Designer Finder" service. CEDIA stands for Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, and is a trade organization that trains audio video integrators and has a curriculum of continuing education to help ensure that audio video technicians know what they are doing and keep up with ever-changing technology.
In-House Programming Department?
This was alluded to earlier, but this is something you will not appreciate the importance of until things go pear-shaped. To make all of the many black boxes that make up today's home electronic systems (home theater, home automation, whole house music system, etc.) easy to use, at least a universal remote control if not a home control system needs to be configured to operate everything smoothly. The better systems on the market (Crestron, Savant, Control4, AMX) can be customized to varying degrees to fit your needs and add more than out-of-the-box convenience. Programming done right is magic. Done wrong it might cause you to chuck your remote through a window. Not only does the programming department of the integrator you hire need to know what he/she is doing in the first place, are they direct employees of the audio/video company you are paying? If not, this is a very important technician no longer under the direct control of the company you are paying. When a service call is needed, how long will it take and who do you call?
In-House IT Department?
Much the same as above. Today's electronics all seem to be IT-connected, and all home control ("smart home") systems are reliant on network connections. A rock-solid IT infrastructure is needed, and not only do you want the IT staff to be under the direct control of the AV company you hire, you don't want to be paying the middleman markup, either.
Licensed and Insured?
Seems like a basic qualifier, but we've seen a rather well-known integrator in Los Angeles get sued (and the integrator lost, of course) when the workmanship was subpar and the homeowner investigated and found out the company didn't have a C7 license.
A Defined Service Policy?
We all know things break, and sometimes at the worst possible times. When you call for service, who do you call? If the integrator used subcontractors for the lighting system, motorized shading, or programming, do you call those subcontractors direct? What is their response time? If you are having a big party and your video projector poops out just before the party starts, does your integrator have the staff to handle this emergency? Do they have an after hours phone number manned by a live person? These are questions you want answers to now before you get frustrated.
When deciding amongst audio video integrators for your next project, be sure to ask the above questions. You'll most likely find that the cheap price doesn't include much of the above. The more expensive companies will have much if not all of the above, but in reality you are getting VALUE for your hard-earned money. After all, if the company has been in business for a long time and regularly installs electronic systems of the scope of what you are looking for, they know what it takes to run a solid company. High-quality and highly-trained technical staff don't work for minimum wage. The necessary insurances aren't cheap, either. Ongoing training costs money, too.
A great idea is to ask to see similar installations to the one you are contemplating in a client's home. If you suddenly start getting a string of excuses, run away. An integrator should be proud of showing off their work. If you get excuses, either he/she is leaving a trail of burned clients or they haven't yet installed a similar system. This happens a lot on the larger systems that we often work on…installing a whole house integration system in a 20,000 square foot house is a LOT more involved than installing 10 systems in a 2K square foot home.
The bottom line…look for the best VALUE, not the cheapest price.
You'll be much happier in the end, and will have spent less money than hiring the cheap guy just to pay to do it over again. If you are in the process of designing a new home or remodeling, you will profit from the "Top 6 Must Know Technology Tips" whitepaper, which you can download by clicking on the box to the right.