Last Updated: August 5, 2016

You're lying in bed, in that hazy time-has-stopped state when, with a jolt, you can't remember if you've locked the front door. Wouldn't it be great to just throw the deadbolt, right from your phone?

You don't have to be Bill and Melinda Gates to set-up or afford a remote-controlled smart home that can warm your house before you walk through the front door, or turn the locks from your pre-REM state. Nor do you need to pay a contractor to install an expensive and complicated system.

A home Wi-Fi network, a smartphone and some inexpensive smart home accessories are all you need to remotely activate or schedule your lights on and off, raise or lower window shades, make coffee or remotely control a myriad number of tasks around the house.

Smart home gear puts you in complete control of your castle whether you are home or far away, for far less money than you'd think. The only challenge? Deciding where to begin.

Understanding the Basics

A dizzying array of smart gadgets and systems with varying levels of sophistication, connectivity standards and interoperability options are on the market today.

Smart gear connects wirelessly to your phone and to each other through multiple protocols: Via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC (near field communication), and also through smart home-specific wireless network standards ZigBee and Z-Wave. (To learn more about these wireless protocols, check out our article From B to Z: How Your Smart Home Speaks Wireless.)

Retailers including Lowe's and The Home Depot also have their own proprietary smart home systems with devices that operate on some or all of these wireless connectivity standards. Familiar brands including ADT, AT&T, Belkin and Honeywell? They also support their own standards, as do a variety of cable TV suppliers including Comcast and Time Warner.

Even your smartphone maker is getting into act, from Apple's iPhone-specific HomeKit control platform to a similarly-proposed Google platform for Android called Thread. (Read our review of HomeKit here.) You can stick within one branded ecosystem, letting you control all your connected devices from a single app. Or you can mix-and-match through multiple control apps.

Depending on your comfort level, you may want to start with one device or buy a pre-packaged starter kit that includes multiple smart devices. The whole idea is to grow your own smart home system that meets your individual needs, at your convenience, on your particular timetable and within your own budget.

Let There Be Light

Let's start with a table lamp, that you'd like to turn on or off remotely. Maybe you want to appear as if you're home when you're not – the cheapest anti-theft system still yet devised.

Step One: Just plug the lamp into a $60 smart wall jack that plugs into a standard AC outlet.

Step Two: Add the jack to your home WiFi network via a smartphone app.

Step Three: Done. Now that table lamp is completely controllable from home or away. It can even be set to automatically go on and off at a preset time, or even when it senses you're a mile away from home.

Greeting The Guests When You're Not Home

Say you're still at work when a weekend guest shows up at your house. Greet them remotely via a video doorbell, remotely unlock the door to let them in, monitor what they're doing via a smart security camera – even converse with them.

This scenario? Possible, today, for less than $700. Add remote lighting and remote thermostat control and we're still talking about a price point for less than $1,000.

This single scenario is simply scratching the smart home surface. Here at GearBrain, we'll help you navigate these often fragmented and confusing smart home offerings with descriptions and reviews to help you make your home your connected castle.

If you need help installing a home automation system, you can visit HomeAdvisor.com to find a trusted local professional.