Tips for Buying an Energy Efficient House

An energy-efficient house in British Columbia. (Photo: pnwra/Flickr)Buying an energy efficient home can be a great investment that will save you money on energy costs in the long term in addition to increasing the resale value of your home, when you’re ready to move on. With increasing consumer awareness of environmental issues, it’s growing much easier to find energy efficient homes, but it helps to be armored with some tips before you set out on your home buying journey. Savvy buyers can find the perfect house for their needs and negotiate the best deals.

If you’re using a real estate agent, look for one who has experience with green homes. Some may have attended certification programs on green real estate, while others simply have experience based on previous home sales and the community in general. As you conduct interviews to find the right real estate agent for you, ask about prior experience, the kinds of homes on the market, and recommendations the agent may have for you.

Be aware that energy efficient homes can come with some immediate cash benefits for buyers. Some may qualify for special mortgages. If a home isn’t quite as energy efficient as you like but it has promise, you may qualify for assistance with modifications to increase its efficiency. Ask your real estate agent about these options and make sure to factor them in as you look at homes for sale; a high sticker price might be mitigated by long-term energy savings and immediate rebates designed to encourage green home purchases.

Some homes may be certified by independent or government agencies to indicate that they’re energy efficient. Some examples include Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for homes, EnergyStar, and the Passive House Standard. If a home is certified, ask to see the documentation, as it will provide specific information about how well the house performed in testing and what the standards of the certification are. Uncertified homes aren’t necessarily a bad buy; you’ll just need to perform a more careful evaluation.

An energy efficient home should be designed with the local environment in mind to maximize efficiency. The thermal envelope, which protects the home from the elements, should include insulated windows, high R-value insulation, and appropriate measures to limit cracks and drafts. These all help the home stay hot in the winter and cool in the summer, and reduce the amount of energy that needs to be spent on heating and cooling. You can request an energy audit to determine how much heat is lost and where the primary sites of heat loss are located.

Another factor to consider is the location of the home, not just in the old real estate sense of “location, location, location,” but its literal position on the lot. The home should take advantage of prevailing climate and environmental conditions; for example, a row of windows facing south to catch the sun would be a good thing, while the same set of windows on the north are not desirable. Landscaped lots also tend to be more energy efficient, especially if they contain mature trees and shrubs which act as a heat sink to control temperatures around your home, as long as they’re not too close. A looming tree can cast a shadow on the home and make it difficult to heat in the winter.

Smaller homes tend to be more energy efficient, which is another thing to consider. If you’re willing to scale down to a smaller lifestyle, your home will be less costly to run.

You should also look at the heating and cooling systems to see what’s been installed. These systems come with ratings that provide information about how much energy is required to run them. A well-insulated home should require less energy to heat and cool overall, and the best systems will be designed to work with the home to get the maximum returns. Appliances are another issue; some are more efficient than others, and could be costly to replace. Others may be certified through energy efficiency programs, which can make them very appealing.

As you look at potential energy efficient homes, remember that you don’t have to live with what you buy. You could make modifications such as a remodel or appliance switch out. A certified home in your preferred neighborhood might be out of your price range, but it’s possible you could buy a home that needs some work for much less, and you could use tax credits and other incentives to perform the work it would need to be more efficient. Your real estate agent can provide specific advice on the best modification decisions for your needs.

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