Sunday, September 20

Energy efficiency considerations for homebuyers

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Dear Pat: I recently became a real estate agent, and several of my clients have been asking about the energy efficiency of the homes I show them. Do you have any suggestions about energy-related questions my clients should consider before they purchase homes? — Sharon

Dear Sharon: It’s great to hear that you want to help inform your clients. Many homebuyers do not consider energy costs (such as electricity, gas and propane), which are significant expenses for any home. The average home costs approximately $2,000 in energy expenses per year. Think about how much money that is over the life of the home!

Your clients’ preferences for the kinds of homes they want to buy can have a strong influence on energy performance. For example, the size of a home is one of the most important factors that will determine energy costs. As square footage increases, so do lighting requirements and, more importantly, the burden on heating and cooling equipment.

A home’s insulation levels will significantly impact heating and cooling needs. Photo credit: Matthew G. Bisanz

In general, newer homes have better energy performance due to advancements in building codes, but buying a new home does not guarantee efficiency. Building codes are not always enforced, and a minimum-code home is not nearly as efficient as one built to higher standards. For example, if energy efficiency or green features are high priorities for your clients, look for homes that have ENERGY STAR, Built Green or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.

Newer manufactured homes are typically much more efficient than older ones but do not have to meet the same energy code requirements of site-built homes. Residents of manufactured homes spend about 70 percent more on energy per square foot of living space than residents of site-built homes. Manufactured homes built after 1994 or that have earned an ENERGY STAR label exhibit superior energy performance.

Once a client is interested in a specific home, one of the first considerations should be how the energy performance of that home compares to similar houses. Although you may request electricity, natural gas or propane bills from the sell-ers so that your clients can estimate how much it will cost to heat and cool the home annually, this is not a precise measure of home energy performance. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index is like a “miles per gallon” rating for a home that allows consumers to compare dwellings based on energy performance, similar to the way consumers can comparison-shop for cars. A certified RESNET Home Energy Rater will need to inspect the home and develop a HERS rating. This process can be done during the inspection, or you can request a HERS rating from the seller.

Although many homebuyers focus on energy features that have the strongest impact on the aesthetics of the home — windows, lighting, etc. — it’s the hidden systems like appliances that most affect energy performance. Heating and cooling systems account for about half of a home’s energy use and are costly to replace. Here are a couple of questions homebuyers should consider about heating and cooling:

  • How old is the heating system? If the home’s system is more than 10 years old, it may be necessary to replace it in the near-term.
  • What is the seasonal energy-efficiency rating (SEER)? Find out the SEER for the home’s air-conditioning system. If the air conditioner has a SEER of less than 8, you will likely want to replace it.

A home’s building envelope insulates the interior from the outdoor environment and includes features like doors, walls and the roof. A compromised building envelope can contribute to higher heating and cooling costs. R-value is the thermal resistance measurement used for insulation, indicating resistance to heat flow. You may want to learn about the recommended R-value for homes in your region so you will have a general sense about the quality of a home’s building envelope.

If clients determine energy investments are necessary in a home they are considering, it can be helpful to call your local electric cooperative. Many electric co-ops can assist with energy audits and offer incentives for energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment.


About Author

Partick J. Keegan

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. He brings over 30 years of energy-related experience at the local, state, national, international, and non-profit level. His experience spans residential and commercial energy efficiency and renewables.

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