Selling a Home with Extensive IoT

by R. Preston McAfee, November, 2021

It used to be that when you closed on a house, you got a set of keys. Sometimes you would get a list of service providers like phone, trash, water and power, and their phone numbers. But how do you transfer a house that has extensive IoT?

Over the years, I've added automation and WiFi control to the sprinklers, blinds, lights, thermostats, and leak detectors. I installed eleven security cameras, monitored by a program that runs on a PC, and put solar panels on the roof that are monitored through an ethernet connection. There is a door that can be opened by an app or a keypad. I put in a semi-professional Ubiquiti WiFi mesh network, which requires occasional updating through a PC. There is a Mohu Leaf antenna that provides high definition TV signals to the home network. Finally there is a security system that also has a wired ethernet connection as well as a cellular connection if the internet is down. I'm an early adopter, so the blinds are Hunter Douglas generation 1, which still work but are not supported by home hubs, and similarly the sprinker control is Rachio generation 1, which has better support but is missing some features.

We decided to move, so I'm selling a house with all this IoT. How do you transfer IoT to a new buyer? Some of it I could just rip out, but a buyer has to be able to open the blinds and pause the sprinklers when it rains.

Most of these functions are tied to an email address, so my first move was to create a new email address for the house that I can provide to the buyer, who can then change the password. Then I set about changing the user name and password for all of these devices, and for some services like termite inspection that are not part of my IoT but should go to the buyers. Every single service -- and there are 27 of them on my list for the new owners -- had a different process for changing usernames, passwords and emails. A couple of services, like YoLink, make it impossible to change the username on an account. Yolink makes great leak detectors -- I recommend them -- but this part was frustrating.

But just changing ownership doesn't make it possible for a new owner to operate the system. Moreover, the system itself depends on having a PC to record video and update the access points when needed, and something like a home hub to operate the system conveniently.

Digression: I don't use a home hub. None of the home hubs support my blinds and sprinklers directly, but can be tricked into doing so using IFTTT. But IFTTT adds additional complexity. Moreover, I am concerned that these home hubs are listening too much. So my solution instead was to deploy an old cell phone with the IoT apps on it. That way there is no ambient listening, and easy control through the native apps. Older cell phones have a negligible resale value and yet a 2014 cell phone is about 50X more powerful than needed for operating IoT apps. So rather than install a home hub, I left a cell phone on a stand that can operate the IoT easily and intuitively. The real estate agent can open the blinds and show the prospective buyer the ease of monitoring security cameras on this phone.

I have several older PCs and tried to set up the worst of these -- a third generation I3 with 8 GB of RAM -- but it turned out to be too weak to monitor the security cameras. It was a painful process to ascertain that the PC was inadequate because it only glitched when three or more cameras were recording simultaneously. So in the end I've left a sixth generation HP desktop with a Core I5, 12GB of RAM, a TB SSD and a decent video card in the house for the next owners. Sellers ask about $500 on eBay for such a PC, which seems a bit high to me. I use Chrome Remote Desktop to access the machine. That way I don't need to physically access the PC to use it. Chrome remote desktop works great (disclosure: I work for Google). It is important to edit the BIOS to set the computer to turn on when power is restored, and to set both chrome and chrome remote desktop to run automatically, so that the PC operation survives a power failure or a Windows update. Moreover it is important to hide the PC that monitors the security cameras, so that even if thieves break in and steal the PC, their images have already been uploaded to the internet.

Setting up the PC wasn't too arduous because I am pretty good about storing software programs with a text file containing passwords and setup information, a relic of Windows 98, which often required reinstalling the operating system and all the software. But that too took a fair bit of time as I had to first wipe the computer so that none of its history could be recovered.

Accessing the security cameras remotely -- something I want to be able to do while the house in on the market -- requires having a router provide access to a program on that PC on a particular port. This requires leaving the router in the house, too. In the end the only way to make it possible for a buyer to recover the system is to leave it in a functioning state, which means a modem, router, access points and a controlling PC. Leaving it in a functioning state also means that when something fails -- as it inevitably will -- the new owners have a hope of trouble-shooting it.

Yet another issue is that I had made our office the hub of the IoT system, and I had a modem, router, a 24 port switch, and a VOIP box there. But our office has a bathroom and closet, making it a bedroom, and for selling purposes, one can't assume the next users will use it as an office. So all of that equipment had to be moved to a new location, which in my case meant crawling around the crawlspace under the house to reroute fourteen ethernet cables and one coax cable. I moved the internet hub of the house to the basement. Three quarters of the cables wouldn't reach so I bought a dozen new ones, but just extended a couple particularly hard to replace ones. Similarly, in both the family room and our bedroom, I had a switch and a few connections. I managed to move all the stuff in the bedroom (antenna and an access point) to the attic, and move the family room switch, which ran blinds and a security camera, to the basement.

Over the years, the Hunter Douglas blinds have given me the most trouble of any IoT device. Twice individual blinds quit responding and needed a service call. To HD's credit, the blinds are warrantied for life and the parts were free. To their debt, I had to pay $75 for the service call because of some dispute between the installer and HD. The blinds occasionally need to be reset and rediscovered. Moreover, the box that talks to the blinds is supposed to cover half a house but actually must be in the same room as the blinds, which I discovered the hard way after I moved it into the basement, 15 feet away. It worked for a while but then lost blinds and I found out the hard way that the only solution was to keep the box, which needs power and ethernet, near the blinds.

I have 22 lights controlled with TP-Link Kasa switches or plugs. These all had to be reset and rediscovered to attach them to the new owner. It only takes about three minutes each, but still, it would have been nice if that could be done inside the Kasa app.

I created two documents about the working of the house -- a public document and a separate document with all the usernames, passwords, apps and website information. This document includes the regular service people -- phone, internet, electric, trash, sprinklers, lawn mowing, water, security monitoring and termite -- as well as all the login information on the IoT system.