For today's do-it-yourselfer, a well-designed smartphone app can be as essential as a hammer and a box of nails. We tested dozens of apps created to help you find lumber, get organized, match paint colors, and more, and settled on the 10 best to save you time and money.
For today's handy homeowner, a well-designed smartphone app can be as essential as a hammer and a box of nails. Still, like hand tools, some apps are total clunkers that waste more time than they save. I dug into more than 50 applications created to help DIYers design, renovate, automate, and maintain their homes and gardens. After all the testing was complete, I deleted the duds. Here are the ones that I kept on my phone.
If you're planning to remodel, it's not enough to have a vague idea of how you want the results to look. You need concrete examples to crystallize your plans and communicate your ideas.
Before renovating our home in Brooklyn, N.Y., my wife and I relied on the Houzz Interior Design Ideas app (/, free) for tips. It features more than 11 million photos of professionally designed interiors and exteriors. It's like having access to a massive scrapbook. Its true power, though, comes from the roughly 40 million monthly users, who tag photos with descriptions, comments, and questions to create a highly searchable index. Want to know how a dark-colored hardwood floor looks against stark white cabinets? Simply search those terms and then browse hundreds of real-life examples. Clip images you like to a custom album, called an Ideabook. Thanks to Houzz's social integration, my wife and I could join conversations about countertop materials and faucet designs.
Choosing a paint color can be a terrifying experience. What's described as Summer Cornfield on a sample chip can look more like Toddler's Vomit once the paint dries. Luckily, all major paint brands have an app to help homeowners select the right shade—and smartphones add extra functionality, thanks to their ability to process images.
Take a picture of a color you like, whether it's a painted wall in a neighbor's house or a rug in a department store, and upload it for analysis. After you've pinpointed the exact hue, the app not only matches it to something in the manufacturer's palette, but also suggests complementary colors. The Behr ColorSmart app (/, free) lets you preview colors within generic room images as well as calculate how much paint you'll need.
Forget something? Constant trips to the hardware store kill productivity. Get your shopping list right the first time by building it as you work through project details. The Home Depot app (iPhone/Android, free) is a typical shopping app but with extra tools for the homeowner. Its voice recognition is surprisingly accurate: Tell it what you need and then add the item to your list. You can also scan the bar code of a product you have but need to replace, such as an empty can of spray paint. My favorite feature lets me either ship the items to my home or pick them up, prepaid, at my local Home Depot, which eliminates needless pacing of the aisles on a busy Saturday. Lowe's has a similar app (iPhone/Android, free), with an impressive library of how-to videos, but it lacks Home Depot's handy Toolbox, which includes a unit converter, a nut-and-bolt finder, and a utility for determining the correct amount of drywall, flooring, insulation, or paint for your project.
There are literally hundreds of species of wood, each with unique colors, textures, and physical properties. If you're building a pergola, what's the best choice? For trips to the lumberyard, I use the Woodshop Widget (iPhone/Android, $3.99), a suite of simple but powerful utilities. The board-foot calculator lets me accurately price hardwood, which is sold in volume units of 1 x 12 x 12 inches. I can also compare different woods based on hardness and how much they're likely to shrink and distort in my climate—key info if a project requires stability over appearance. The app lacks a visual wood identifier, though. For that I use I.D. Wood (iPhone/Android, $4.99), which is loaded with more than 200 images.
I'm skeptical of apps that promise measuring tapes, protractors, levels, and plumb bobs. They rely chiefly on your phone's built-in accelerometer, meaning they need to be calibrated first. Additionally, the small size of a typical smartphone limits its accuracy. If you must have a quick-and-dirty app to handle these tasks, iHandy Carpenter (iPhone/Android, $1.99) has the most complete set of tools. Otherwise, take approximate measurements by eyeballing them or employing anthropometric standards. For accurate, usable numbers, grab a tape measure and a torpedo level. Smartphones are, however, well-suited for complex calculations. Many free apps offer fraction calculators or unit converters. For serious projects, the Construction Master Pro (iPhone/Android, $19.99) is loaded with all the features of the ubiquitous hardware version but for one-quarter of the cost. It handles conversions and fractions, as well as trigonometry, roofing, stairbuilding, and other layout functions.
I like to think I can fix anything, but I'm never too proud to call a professional when I'm out of my depth. I needed a licensed electrician to fix the shoddy wiring in my yard, so I tried the HomeAdvisor Mobile app (iPhone/Android, free). HomeAdvisor (formerly known as ServiceMagic) connects homeowners with local professionals such as electricians, carpenters, and plumbers—all of whom have passed criminal and financial background checks. To get my job started, I used my phone to snap pictures of the project: a faulty outlet, some nonfunctioning light fixtures, and details of where power feeds my yard from the basement. I added notes to the images, archived them in the app's job folder, and then uploaded the project details to HomeAdvisor. Within an hour, three electricians had called to schedule a price quote at my home. Each had glowing user reviews, which admittedly made me a bit suspicious, but by the weekend I had three bids, ranging from palatable to absurd. Ultimately, I was satisfied with the electrician I chose. A similar app, Redbeacon (iPhone/Android, free), allows users to upload videos too. However, Redbeacon requires that professionals quote a price before visiting the home. In my experience, that can lead to inaccurate bids. Tradespeople can't fully understand the idiosyncrasies of a project without seeing it in person, so they might pad the quote to protect themselves against unexpected issues. Or they might bid low to win the job and then try to increase the price after seeing firsthand what's actually involved.
All modern home automation and security systems have a dedicated—and usually free—app that allows you to control lights, monitor video feeds, adjust room climates, water the lawn, and even unlock doors, in real time, from anywhere in the world. For the DIYer, the Insteon app (iPhone/Andorid, free) is part of a plug-and-play system that grows with the homeowner's needs. Add outlets, thermostats, sensors, lightbulbs, and video cameras as required, and then control them remotely with the app. You can also automate everything on a schedule. If you have a spare video-equipped iPhone lying around, turn it into a security camera with the Presence app (iPhone, free). As the father of an infant, I plan to repurpose my iPhone 3GS into a low-profile nanny cam that I can monitor from my desk.
It can take a few seasons to know whether your garden is a success. Eden Garden (iPhone, $1.99), however, can eliminate some of the guesswork. Begin by uploading an image of your yard, and scale it to size. Then search for decorative plants by name, height, hardiness zone, color, blooming season, sun exposure, or type, and place them in your virtual landscape. You can even toggle through the seasons to find out exactly when your azalea's blooms will clash with those of your bird's-eye primrose.
Our home has three owners, and we all help maintain it. That means everything from servicing the heating system to inspecting the roof for leaks. To track who has done what, we use POJO's Home Maintenance app (iPhone, $4.99). It seems overpriced considering its bare-bones interface and routine functionality, but it's worth the cost of a sandwich knowing we'll avoid a catastrophe, such as a rotten roof deck. The app archives what's been serviced and alerts us when a task is due. We can also upload photos of recent repairs and store the information of the service professionals we hired. To keep us all on the same page, we synchronize our data over Wi-Fi.