What Kind of Smarthome Gadgets Can I Use If I Rent an Apartment?

Upgrading to a smart home used to be exclusively the realm of homeowners. If you couldn’t run cables, replace switch boxes, or install expensive wall units, you had to live with dumb lights. With newer smart home gadgets, however, you can upgrade parts of your apartment—even without your landlord’s approval in some cases.

The world of smarthome gadgets is a complicated one for renters, because laws vary from state to state. To make matters more confusing, specific landlords and apartment complexes can set their own rules for what you are—and are not—allowed to change. We’ll give you general guidelines in this post, but always check with your landlord before you make any major or permanent modifications.

Start Small With Smart Lights, Sensors, and Voice Assistants

Most rentals have rules about changing fixtures, messing with the electrical wiring, or changing locks. We’ll come back to those later, but fortunately you don’t need your landlord’s permission to change a light bulb or plug an Amazon Echo into the wall. If you want to dip your toes into the smart gadget waters, this is a good place to start. Here are a few examples of devices anyone can easily set up, even without your landlord’s permission:

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Unless you have a weirdly strict landlord, you can use any of these in most apartments, condos, or rental houses. You also don’t need too much technical knowledge to set them up.

Move Up to Thermostats and Wall Switches, With Permission From Your Landlord

Any time you have to mess around with wiring, you need to know your landlord’s policy up front. Landlords are legally responsible for ensuring that every fixture in the home is safe and conforms to building codes. For some landlords, it’s easier to simply forbid tenants from making any modifications. Others may allow you to make upgrades as long as you get permission first. If you’re not sure what’s allowed, check your lease and talk to your landlord.

If you get permission to make minor modifications to your rental, you can expand your smart gadget options to include a few more categories:

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Getting permission from your landlord to make modifications is the first step, but you should still be wary about doing any of your own installations. When you move out, you’ll need to return everything to the condition you found it in. If you don’t install your gadget properly, you could end up creating a hazardous situation for future residents. Some landlords may be okay with smart switches or thermostats, but be sure to have a thorough conversation with your landlord about exactly how you’ll install them first.

Also, remember that you’ll need access to the circuit breakers in your home to turn them off while installing. Generally, tenants have a legal right to 24/7 access to circuit breaker panels, but this varies by state. Some circuits may be easier to access than others. If you’re going to mess around with the wiring on a light switch or thermostat, be sure you’re able to cut the power to the entire circuit before you proceed.

Smart Locks and Security Cameras Probably Won’t Work, But You Can Ask

For renters, getting a smart lock or security system is closer to the “never gonna happen” end of the spectrum, but depending on your circumstances, you might be able to swing it. Once again, you’ll have to talk to your landlord. You also need to make sure you preserve your landlord’s right of entry.

Generally, landlords are allowed to enter your rental unit at all times. While state laws differ on when landlords are allowed to exercise that right (for example, in most states, landlords have to offer sufficient advanced notice or request permission before entering), you can’t change the locks and prevent them from entering entirely without running afoul of the law. In other words, if you want to install a smart lock that changes the keys—or one that doesn’t use keys at all—you could be violating the law.

However, there are some smart locks you may be able to use (with permission). For example, the August Smart Lock only replaces the inside knob on a deadbolt. It still uses the regular keys and the lock appears exactly the same from the outside. A landlord may be more amenable to something like this, since they’ll still be able to use their key to get in and it won’t replace the existing lock.

Beyond the lock, security systems may also be harder to pull off. Smart cameras like the Nest Cam Outdoor require cables to run outside. Even totally wireless cameras like the Arlo Pro need mounting plates. You may have permission to make holes in the walls inside your apartment, but you might not be allowed to mount things outside.

On top of this, if you live in a gated apartment complex or in a place that already has on-site security, setting up your own system may be overkill and can even backfire. One of the most important ways to protect your home from thieves is to take away their incentive to rob you. If you’re the only person in the complex with a security camera and a smart lock on their door, it screams “I’ve got stuff worth stealing! Come rob me!” These devices also won’t stop someone from smashing your window.

Finally, remember that the most common type of burglary is going to come not from clever career thieves, but from male teenagers who live within a couple miles of your home. They’re punks, not pros. Depending on where you rent, it may be easier to coordinate with the rental company’s security, rather than trying to build your own security system in an apartment complex.

Overall, renters these days have a pretty good selection when it comes to smart home gadgets. You may not be able to run wires through every room of the house, or replace every light switch with a fancy internet-connected gadget, but you can still make your house just a little bit magic.