You’re buying a new house. You’re thrilled and relieved. But if you’re like most new-home buyers, you’re also confused. What, exactly, do you really need to know — and how hard is it to find out?

Stage front and center on your “need-to-know list” is the price. That is easy to find out.

But the sale price represents only the first-time cost. How about the lifetime cost?
That’s harder to calculate, especially since you may not be familiar with this term.

As you might expect, the lifetime cost includes your mortgage payments, property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. It also includes the estimated cost for utilities, maintenance (repainting for example) and replacement of various “body parts” as they wear out.

While most new-home buyers rarely take the lifetime cost into account, it is a routine consideration for many, if not most, institutions, commercial enterprises and government agencies, as they begin to plan a new building that they expect to occupy for the next 30 to 50 years.

As a result, these building owners often specify materials that cost more initially but last significantly longer. Though nothing lasts forever, this strategy avoids the costs incurred in replacing cheaper but inferior materials several times during the years these building owners will be occupying the structure. This long-term perspective also puts a premium on materials and building details that increase energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

However, when the person constructing the building plans to sell it at completion instead of occupying it, the perspective and calculations are different. The first-time cost becomes a paramount consideration. This situation describes a production home builder. To attract as many buyers as possible to a given project, the builder wants a base price that is as low as possible while still covering land and construction costs and producing a profit. Materials are selected accordingly.

Buyers for their part want the most space for the lowest price. Because they assume they won’t live there for more than seven or eight years, they figure that the lifetime cost and replacement issue is not their problem.

But it will be for the next owners, who will pay the cost of the replacement parts and, unless they’re very handy, the labor cost to install them. If they adopt a similar strategy, they’ll end up replacing the same body part again or handing it off to the next owners, as their seller did to them.

For an individual homeowner, this is penny wise and pound foolish. Using a more durable product initially will save money in the long run, especially since many buyers end up staying in their new house longer than they anticipated when they bought it.

From a societal standpoint, this strategy is also a shortsighted waste of money and resources — what environmentalist Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of “Plan B 2.0,” described as an unfortunate consequence of our buy-it, use-it, throw-it-away, and buy-a-new-one mentality.

If you decide to take the high road here and use materials that are more durable and more expensive, how do you calculate their lifetime cost for the new house that you are contemplating?

If you’re working with an architect and a custom builder, estimating the replacement cost of the many body parts will be relatively easy. Every material will be specified, and durability will be a central factor as you choose between this higher-priced and longer-lasting item or that lower-priced and shorter-lasting one.

But, if you’re working with a production builder, it may be harder to get information on the durability of the materials he is using and their associated lifetime cost. Detailed specs, which the builder determines, are not routinely given out.

However, you can get a general idea by asking about the products used in the building envelope. They’re the ones that generally wear out first because they are subjected to the weather 24/7. The builder should be willing to give you specific product information, including the brand name, item number, and warranty information for the roofing, windows and siding. If the builder offers upgrades for these, you’ll need that product information as well.

Studying this material will help, but you also need to know how these products perform on a real house in your climate, which can have an enormous effect on their durability. For a candid assessment and some idea of the replacement cost, ask the staff at the local building-supply stores patronized by home builders in your area and at specialized suppliers of materials such as roofing.

The first-time and lifetime costs of materials are not the only cost considerations. There can be an environmental cost, or as Brown characterized it, “the environmental truth.”

For example, home builders routinely use vinyl for windows, siding, flooring, plumbing pipes, and a host of other applications because it is generally lower priced and durable. But, unbeknownst to most homeowners, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, another name for vinyl, is not an environmentally benign material.

At every step of the PVC production lifecycle, hazardous byproducts are formed, including organochlorines and dioxin, which is so toxic that even an infinitesimally small doses (in the low parts per trillion) can damage human health, explained Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network. A partial list of the toxic effects of these PVC byproducts includes cancer, reproductive impairment, impaired child development and birth defects.

The byproducts of PVC production are also highly persistent in the environment — that is, they degrade very slowly. Carried by water and wind currents, they have blanketed the globe, exposing virtually every mammal and person on earth, Walsh said. Our tissues contain dioxin that we have ingested simply by breathing air, drinking water and eating food, specifically animal products. People who work in the plants manufacturing PVC and its component parts, as well as those who live near these plants, have higher exposures, he added.

Alternatives for most PVC building products are readily available, though typically the nonvinyl product has a higher first-time cost, Walsh said.

But PVC building products will not disappear from the home-building arena anytime soon. The United States Building Green Council (USGBC) spent the last five years studying the pros and cons of four categories of PVC use: piping, siding, flooring and windows.

The study was prompted by a question concerning the USGBC’s Leadership In Energy and Environmental Design program, commonly called LEED, a nationally recognized green building rating system.

The question raised: Should a LEED credit be given for avoiding the use of PVC?

The Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee’s answer: No. TSAC found that when they compared the impacts on human health and the environment of the PVC product in each category with several widely used alternatives, the alternatives were also problematic. Flooring was the only category in which the group concluded that cork and linoleum are preferable to sheet vinyl and vinyl floor tiles, two commonly used flooring products.

Scott Horst, a Boulder, Colo.-based building materials life-cycle assessment expert and chair of the USGBC PVC task force, acknowledged that the group’s findings were controversial.

The group also concluded that a focus on the impacts of these building materials rather than the materials themselves would have been more useful, Horst said. Almost every durable building material can have a negative impact, he pointed out. The critical question for policy makers and consumers to decide is which negative impacts matter most: producing acid rain, contributing to global warming, or harming human health?

Drawing an analogy to a tasty and creamy ice cream cone, Horst asked which is worse — lots of calories or an excessive amount of fat?

A sensible answer is less of both, way fewer calories and far less fat. Looping back to the PVC issue, consumers and policy makers should push for building products that have a minimal effect on human health and on the environment.

Consumers and policy makers might be even more insistent about PVC products if they knew that PVC is not unique or irreplaceable and that other plastic polymers can be substituted for PVC in many cases, Walsh said.

At the very least, when new-home buyers consider the lifetime costs to build their dream house, the environmental cost of the materials they are considering should be factored in.

Further information:

Healthy Building Network, www.healthybuilding.net

“Environmental Impacts of Polyvinyl Chloride Building Materials,” by Joe Thornton. This is a free pdf download at the Healthy Building Network.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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