Angie Zarrillo moved into her first house this year, a fixer-upper built in 1923 in Independence, Mo., with hardwood floors and a breakfast nook. So far, the handiest tool for renovations hasn’t come from a kitchen drawer or the garage, but inside her purse.
Zarrillo uses mobile applications on her smartphone to select paint colors, discover ways to rework flea market furniture and learn quick fixes to common household challenges.
“I type in a problem and find an answer,” said Zarrillo, a high school family and consumer science teacher. “For example, ‘How do you clean paintbrushes?’” Solution from the app: a simple mix of water and dish soap with a picture of Dawn detergent.
Michael Gillingham-Ryan, founder of the blog Apartment Therapy, says home-related apps have changed since they were new to the scene three or so years ago.
“They’ve always had a fun factor, and the promise was good, but now they deliver on it,” he said. For example, using your phone as a level to hang pictures or to do woodworking has moved beyond gimmick to functional. “The iHandy Carpenter app is really like a pocket Swiss Army knife of measuring tools.”
The other innovation that has affected home-related apps is the tablet computer, introduced two years ago with the iPad. The screen is larger than a phone’s, yet the computer is lightweight enough to be easily portable, the better for looking at floor plans and color palettes on the go. Nearly one of every five adults in the U.S. now has a tablet computer, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
The increasing popularity of tablet computers has coincided with the rise of home-design photo library sites and their apps. Zarrillo’s favorite is Pinterest, which lets users “pin” images from the Web onto virtual bulletin boards.
“It organizes me,” Zarrillo said. “When I’m out shopping estate sales or whatever I can look at it and get ideas for unusual pieces I spot.”
Pinterest comprises a smattering of categories, including recipes and memorable quotes – think online scrapbook. Interior designer Laura McCroskey of Kansas City, Mo., prefers the app Houzz because it’s professional-looking and focuses solely on home design. Houzz includes a library of more than 625,000 images submitted by architects and designers that users can browse by style (Asian, contemporary, eclectic, Mediterranean, modern, traditional and tropical) and by room – everything from bathrooms to wine cellars. Users can create idea books for remodeling or building their dream home.
“It’s a great communications tool for me and my clients,” McCroskey said.
Houzz users also can search by city. Some of McCroskey’s clients have found her through Houzz, where rooms she has designed have been added to users’ photo libraries. A little boy’s nursery she designed has been added to 9,720 idea books.
McCroskey also uses DecorPad, focused solely on home design and with room-by-room searching capabilities like Houzz, but in a fun layout similar to Pinterest.
There’s room for opportunity in home-related apps because more people are buying smartphones. Consider the stats of 2012: Nearly half (46 percent) of American adults are smartphone users, according to Pew research. And smartphone owners are more prevalent than owners of more basic mobile phones.
Gillingham-Ryan says apps that allow you to control things at home while you’re at work is a category open for innovation.
“For years we’ve heard that we’ll all be able to preheat the oven and so on through apps,” Gillingham-Ryan said. “It seems like that’s been slow to come.”
Home design apps can be useful and fun
We asked Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founder and president of the home-design blog Apartment Therapy, for his take on home-related apps.
Description: Called the “Wikipedia of interior and exterior design” by CNN, Houzz has a huge database of home design ideas, with more than 500,000 high-resolution photos. Browse photos by style, room and location and save them to your virtual idea book – it’s the equivalent of clipping design magazines for a scrapbook – making ideas easier to search, save and share. You can save your photos for on-the-go access.
Maxwell’s take: “It’s a site that’s grown really fast and it’s really useful. However, there’s not much character to it.”
Description: It uses a phone’s camera to place furniture in your home on screen in real time. It features 240 furniture pieces, as well as the ability to change the size, color and placement of each item for full customization. uDecore also has the option to change flooring to tiles or hardwood or to add a rug.
Maxwell’s take: “It’s useful. Floor planning apps can get complicated quickly. This one, not so much.”
MY MEASURES AND DIMENSIONS
Description: For technical facts and figures, this app doesn’t play around. Take a picture of furniture or living space and highlight the dimensions you need. This app is perfect for when you’re out and about and need to double check your home’s facts when you’re in the hardware, furniture or appliance store.
Maxwell’s take: “This is great. It helps you avoid mistakes and return trips. It even measures nooks and crannies.”
Description: Point your Windows Phone camera and snap colors that surround you to find their RGB and hexadecimal matches, which are helpful for designers of all categories. When looking for the perfect tone for room accents, save colors for later that strike your fancy.
Maxwell’s take: “I like color apps from paint companies too. Yes, they’re marketing tools, but they do interesting things and they’re free. Chip It! by Sherwin-Williams lets you photograph a rug or something, and then it will create a palette of paint chips.” FENG SHUI KUA FINDER
Description: Feng Shui is the popular spiritual art of home decor, which promotes the creed that a good home layout brings peace, health and prosperity in your everyday life. In finding the Earth’s polarity and energy flow, you will be able to find the optimal placement of furniture. The Feng Shui Kua Finder app makes it easier for beginners to jump in by inputting the data surrounding their living space and in return receiving data back that are easy to digest.
Maxwell’s take: “I think this is fun but actually useful, too.”
Description: Check on your family, your home, your stuff right from the palm of your hand. VueZone lets you remotely take a glimpse into the other parts of your life from anywhere.
Price: VueZone Mobile requires a subscription to VueZone Premier or Elite service plan, starting at $50 per year. Some features require VueZone motion detection cameras, which start at $100.
Maxwell’s take: “You can check on your garden while you’re on vacation. You can see whether you left the lights on. These are the kinds of apps I thought we’d see more of by now.”Stacy Downs, The Kansas City Star