The News & Observer, By Carlene Hempel

In their 23 years of combined experience as real-estate brokers, Laura Bates and Joanna Scales have never had to sell a house quite like this.

From the outside, the 6,200-square-foot, washed-brick traditional on Hidden Field Lane in New Hill looks like any other mansion. But open the front door, and it’s like stepping into the future: 4,000 feet of wire, an Internet connection as fast as that which powers IBM’s networks, and the ability to watch and hear what’s going on in every room, including the bathrooms, garage and patio.

The house, now on the market for $765,000, was one of the first of a new brand of luxury homes in the Triangle when Nortel Networks executive Oscar Rodriguez and his wife, Helda, had it built in the past year. Builders refer to such homes as “smart.” In other words, they can think.

“My wife and I never come home to a dark house,” says Mark Tipton, chief executive officer of Raleigh-based Smart House, a network of dealers that installs smart-home wiring and automation. “We come home, and the lights come on automatically. If you want to make sure your son’s doing his homework or your baby’s asleep, you can put the cameras in there to watch them.

Let’s say you’re vacuuming, and the telephone rings. Chances are you’re not going to hear it. One of the things a smart house can do is, the telephone rings, the lights will blink on and off.”

Computerized households began as a tool for people with disabilities. But smart houses also have become a status symbol for the other half, the super-rich living in a modern-day, Jetson-esque lifestyle. Bill Gates, for example, spent $53 million building his Xanadu, a fully rigged smart house with bath water that never gets cold and computerized wall art that metamorphoses into a new image every day.

It wasn’t until the last two years that the technology made its way into the mainstream. And in the not-so-distant future, smart wiring and automation will be as standard as phone jacks and cable hookups, according to Parks Associates, a Dallas-based research firm that tracks technology trends. In fact, “Smart Homes for Dummies,” the newest addition to IDG Books’ omnipresent “For Dummies” series, is hitting bookstores this week.

“Some of my clients in the past year, they work for companies like Cisco and IBM, and they’re already real hip to this communication stuff and they want their homes wired accordingly,” says Cary custom-home builder Rex Bost, who has put up eight houses this year. Only one, a $1.4 million home in the Cary Preston subdivision, is smart. Next year, he’ll build six homes with smart wiring in the $500,000-to-$800,000 range. After that, he says, everything he builds will have brains.

Squirt guns vs. fire hydrants: What makes a house smart isn’t so much the whizbang gadgets a homeowner puts in it as the wiring that runs through the walls, the behind-the-scenes nervous system that can power today’s gizmos and, more importantly, whatever tomorrow’s may be. The smart-house community has its own language. Each house gets 100-megabit “category 5” structured voice/data telephone wiring, as opposed to the standard, 10-megabit “category 3” stuff that most houses have. Most smart homes also use RG 6 cable, which allows for digital satellite capability, instead of the old standard RG 5 cable, which transmits signals via analog.

“Standard wire is like a squirt gun; category 5 is like a garden hose; and RG 6 cable is like a fire hydrant,” explains Chuck Templeton, options manager for Centex Homes in the Raleigh division.