Given the ceaseless environmental drumbeat we hear, it seems practically un-American not to want to green-up the old homestead these days.
On the other hand, it also would seem practically un-American to be a big-ticket spender, given the current state of the economy.
But sustainable living doesn’t always have major dollar signs attached to it, according to its advocates. And beyond monthly utility savings, even modest green-related investments can pay off when it comes time to sell the house, they say. That’s because a growing number of consumers equate "green" with "good."
"It doesn’t matter which consumer survey you look at, there’s something on the order of 20 percent of the market that will only buy green," said John Stovall, an executive with EcoBroker, an Evergreen, Colo., company that trains real estate agents to help clients find and market homes with environmentally friendly features.
Another 25 percent will at least look at such features, meaning that green considerations now affect nearly half of today’s homebuyers, he said.
But Stovall says the time to be thinking green is early in your ownership of the house, in order to maximize energy savings. Then, at sale time, utility savings become a marketing tool, he said.
"Literally, you should be able to lay out (to a prospective buyer) the before-and-after utility bills," he said. "It turns into something you can brag about."
But houses are complex organisms, and going green can seem daunting.
"Most homeowners are clueless where to start," said David Johnston, a Boulder, Colo., homebuilding-industry consultant whose company, What’s Working Inc., specializes in green building techniques.
Both Johnston and Stovall recommend getting an energy audit to measure a home’s consumption and to pinpoint areas to improve. …CONTINUED
Some do-it-yourself audits can be found online. Professional audits (one source for firms is at energystar.gov) typically cost $400 or so, Stovall said.
The audit helps develop priorities, he said. "It will give you some idea how much something might cost and how much you might save, based on the energy rates in your own area."
Johnston said that even without an audit, homeowners can make strides by attacking leaks — keeping hot or cold air exactly where you want by eliminating infiltration around doors, windows, etc.
"Caulking, weather stripping and sealing, it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of all," he said. "Anything that penetrates the envelope of the building is fair game, and it can be 20 percent of your heat loss."
He said a $1,000 budget to battle air loss could cut heating and cooling costs in an average house by 20 to 30 percent.
Start in the basement or crawlspace, he said. "Look where all the pipes, ducts and vents go through the floor, and look for daylight. A case of caulk and some weather stripping and spray foam will go a long way" toward blocking air infiltration, Johnston said.
Then, wrap insulation around hot-water pipes. Add a pre-cut "jacket" to insulate the water heater, he advised.
Next, head for the attic. Even if it has insulation, it might not be saving you much money if it’s the ubiquitous fiberglass that’s been there for quite a while, Johnston said. As fiberglass insulation ages, it loses its R-value, a measure of thermal resistance, he said. Minimally, you can improve its efficiency by adding another layer of batting over the old, he said.
However, he recommends hiring an insulation company to remove the old stuff with a professional-grade vacuum for $300 to $400, he said.
Then go to work sealing spots where air could escape through plumbing vents, furnace flues, etc. Johnston said. He said recessed, can-type lighting fixtures are notorious for heat loss and should either be replaced by surface lighting or by cans designed to accommodate insulation. …CONTINUED
After sealing, then re-insulate, he said. His preference is for dry-blown cellulose because he says it’s denser and doesn’t lose its R-value.
Stovall said in areas where water conservation is a particular issue, homeowners looking for eco-friendly gestures should consider their own yards.
"Watering your lawn costs a bunch of money," he said. "A home that has more efficient landscaping — that’s a selling point, no question, and we see it as something that’s advertised. Use drought-tolerant plants and try to cut down the volume of Kentucky bluegrass, he said.
"The landscaping itself can help retain rain and make it soak in, not run off," he said.
Even paint can be an eco-selling point, he said. Walls painted with low- or non-VOC formulations — that is, with little or no "volatile organic compounds" emitted as gases — are easier on the lungs and may matter to some buyers.
"It can differentiate your house when it comes to indoor air quality," which can be a concern for buyers with allergies or asthma, Stovall said. He said those buyers may also gravitate toward homes with hard-surface floors (think: bamboo or other sustainable woods) or natural carpeting, also to avoid VOCs.
Differentiation in this market is the key, and a homeowner who has made even modest energy-minded improvements ought to be able to capitalize on them at sale time, Stovall said.
"If, say, you’re able to point out to a buyer that you have an Energy Star-rated water heater, when that buyer goes to the next house, I guarantee you they’re going to look at that house’s water heater," he said. "And they’re going to remember your house."
Mary Umberger is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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