The Media Room of Your Dreams

Ready to outfit your home with an entertainment center you can be proud of? Here's how to invest the right amount and find the right help

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Movie theater-quality home audio and video products are more affordable than they have ever been, and homeowners are jumping at the chance to convert their living room, den, or basement space into a supercharged media room. Whether you are a movie buff, sports fanatic, audiophile, or just a hedge fund king with money to burn, planning a new home media center around your tastes and budget is a lot harder than choosing between a Tom Cruise or a Humphrey Bogart flick. That's why many turn to the experts.

"Whereas before, [media rooms] were a luxury, now they are a lifestyle standard for a lot of people. Getting it done properly is important—you want a system that looks good, is easy to use, and operates when you use it," says Andy Willcox, president of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Assn. (CEDIA), an Indianapolis trade group of more than 3,000 contractors, manufacturers, distributors, and consultants in the $8 billion industry of residential electronic systems.

If you're looking for the very best in home theater design, many experts will point you to New York City-based Theo Kalomirakis, a 20-year veteran whose honors include CEDIA's 2004 lifetime achievement award and best home theater award for nine consecutive years. Theo Kalomirakis Theaters' awe-inspiring architectural designs—ranging in price from $50,000 to $18 million, and in style from 1920s-era ballrooms to futuristic space stations—have been featured in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, and House & Garden.

The 8-to-12-month process of building a state-of-the-art dedicated home theater involves many of the same steps as any other architectural design project, says James Theobald, spokesman for Theo Kalomirakis Theaters. "We start with schematic design, move through design development, and then draw up the construction documentation [the homeowner] needs to build it," he says.


  The company usually charges about $15,000 for the design, brings in builders and construction materials that cost $35,000 and up, and works with premier electronics contractors to install $50,000 to $1 million in audio and video equipment. Typically, Theo Kalomirakis Theaters designs rooms for newly constructed homes—working alongside the homebuilder—but the company has worked with existing homes on many occasions.

If you prefer everyday practicality over opulence, you can find one of many residential electronics contractors who specialize in integrated multimedia systems—those that blend into the look of your home and automate a wide variety of processes. " 'Home theater' suggests you're going to go into a room separate from your house to watch a movie," says Anson Fogel, COO/CTO of Aspen (Colo.)-based Electronic Systems Consultants. "The modern version of a home theater is you press a button, the shades come down, and your family room transforms into a media space where you can play video games, surf the Internet, work, read e-mail, watch movies, watch TV, and plug in your iPod."

For an average of about $350,000, Electronic Systems Consultants will turn your new or existing residence into a "smart house," where audio, video, temperature, lighting, and other controls throughout the home are integrated into a single easy-to-use interface. The systems typically revolve around a family room or other central space as the focal point of media activity, where there will be a surround-sound system and video projection unit that will "put to shame the video and sound reproduction you'll find in any commercial theater besides an IMAX," according to Fogel.


  If contractor offerings are out of your price range, you should give careful consideration to a do-it-yourself media room project. "You can do it all for about 30% of the cost, and you wouldn't notice the difference," says Danny Briere, co-author of Home Theater for Dummies (2nd edition; July, 2006; For Dummies).

"I respect expertise, but in my mind there are only two reasons you would hire someone to come and do [a full installation]: One, you really want to show off, or you just want to hand the whole thing over and have someone to tell you what to do—like you would do with carpenters, plumbers, etc."

But DIYers be warned: Building a professional-looking media room is not as simple as taking components out of the box and hooking up a few wires.

When Jim Millay, a photographer and homeowner in Portland, Me., decided to create a home theater out of the unused space in the basement of his condominium, he thoughtfully weighed the fair amount of construction experience he brought to the table against the expertise he would require in the form of consultants and technicians. An acoustics specialist, hired for two hours at $40 per hour, proved to be the most valuable investment he could have made: "[He told me] the biggest consideration was how much sound I wanted to keep in the room. You have to think about the room as an upside-down swimming pool, where sound is the water. If it's not insulated well, you'll have a leaky pool."


  Per the sound technician's advice, Millay applied multiple layers of moisture-resistant drywall on his walls and ceiling—a widely available material that is denser and about $2 more expensive per sheet than normal drywall. For all of his electronic components, he simply went to the local retailer—New England Hi-Fi—and purchased a $12,000 system. He paid store technicians $900 for installation. In all, Millay's media room cost about $14,750, excluding the labor he put into it—about half the minimum price you'll pay for a full-service contractor.

"I probably wouldn't have done it if I didn't think most of the value would be recouped," Millay says. "In the community we live in, people put a premium on certain amenities in the house, and a home theater is one of them."

Estimating how much resale value your new home theater will add to the home, indeed, does depend a lot on your local market, according to Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisal. "For high-end property, it's an expected amenity," he says. "It's not that it adds X amount to the value, but there's an expectation that a group of amenities like this would be included."

In some situations, overinvesting in a media room could actually decrease your home's resale potential: "If a media room was a former bedroom or it was out of proportion to the size of the property—a smallish property with a very large media room—then it would be a negative, because the cost to remove it would be what is going through the buyer's mind as opposed to [their enjoyment] of the system," Miller says.

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