Looking to buy a home soon? Consider environmental issues associated with your next house purchase and you’ll not only be doing good for the planet, but you could save a bunch of cash over the long term. Aside from the savings, a green home can even make you money!
Green homes are water and energy efficient homes. With water and energy costs set to only increase, it makes good sense to consider not only the purchase price of a residence, but the ongoing costs as well.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve had increasing questions and comments from realtors around the world who have an interest in selling green homes – the savvy realtor knows that this is a booming area. So that’s a step, finding a green realtor.
Once you have your green realtor in tow, or even if you decide to just undertake the search on your own, here’s a list points to consider along with links to further reading – and some workarounds if an aspect isn’t yet a feature of a home you’ve fallen in love with.
Depending on the country you’re in, energy/environmental certification programs may be in place; so one of the first questions to ask is if the home has any sort of certification and then research further on what the certification means. Researching is important as some certifications sound impressive, but for all practical purposes mean very little.
Urban sprawl is a major contributing factor to travel related emissions. In some areas, a car is needed just to nip down to the store to pick up some milk. When evaluating a home, also take into account surrounding amenities and services – shopping, schools, parklands and public transport. A cheap “green” home could become mighty expensive over time through travel related issues.
Location is also important in terms of potential threats from activities of others in the area in terms of contamination and even noise pollution – what sort of industry is occurring close by?
The way a house is positioned on a block of land will also play a role in how much energy it consumes. For example, if the longest part of the house faces the afternoon summer sun, this could boost energy costs in cooling your new home. If you’ve found an otherwise perfect house, this issue can be mitigated by planting deciduous trees around affected areas that will block sunlight over summer, but allow it through over winter.
A grid connected solar power system is a great feature, but even if the home doesn’t have solar power, as long as it has the right aspect and sufficient roof space for solar panels; one can be added later. Renewable energy rebates are making solar power systems so much more affordable these days. However, if you are considering adding solar power at a later point, if you are in the northern hemisphere there should be sufficient roof space with an unshaded southerly aspect and in the southern hemisphere, a north facing roof is best. Also check to see when rebate programs expire, so you know if you’ll have enough time to benefit. Unfortunately though, governments often quote an intended end date, but the program finishes sooner due to popularity.
There are still millions of houses without roof insulation and an uninsulated home is one big energy sucker. Not all insulation is created equal too, so it’s important to find out how efficient and earth friendly it is. The roof space isn’t the only area that should be insulated; ultra-green homes have earth friendly insulation in the walls too.
If a house you have your eye on doesn’t have insulation, check with local/state/federal authorities about insulation rebates as these are sometimes on offer.
Over winter a great deal of heat escapes windows and in summer, glass lets it in. Windows play a big role in energy costs for heating and cooling a home. Double glazed windows are great for reducing heat gain or loss; but if the house doesn’t have that feature, you can always consider blackout curtains.
I’m astounded by the number of new houses being built without wall insulation that also don’t have eaves; particularly in areas that get very hot over summer. The presence of eaves helps reduce the amount of sun hitting the walls during summer, while still usually allowing for exposure during the winter when you may need it.
Not always relevant depending on the climate, but where air conditioners are required you need to ensure the home has the right kind. For instance, an evaporative air conditioner in a humid climate will be of little use. An old air conditioner may also not be very energy efficient, so check on power consumption (wattage should be stated on the unit) and its general state of maintenance.
Incandescent bulbs are miniature space heaters. Most of the energy used by the old style bulbs is converted into light, not heat. If the house you’re looking at uses this style of lighting, inside or out – factor in the costs of CFL or LED bulb replacements.
Taps and showerheads
Low flow showerheads and aerator taps can reduce a household’s water consumption considerably. If these aren’t present, it’s just another cost you’ll need to factor in; although fittings are quite cheap these days.
Older toilets contribute to an estimated third of all water consumed in the average home; so check to see if the system has a low water use/dual flush feature. If it doesn’t, you may not need to replace it, but just add some form of displacement to the cistern, such as a container filled with water.
Hot water systems
Electric hot water systems are major electricity suckers, contributing around 20% towards the carbon emissions impact of a home if the electricity supply originates from coal fired power generation. In some areas, they are now being phased out.
A gas boosted solar hot water system or heat pump can save up to 70% on your water heating costs! Again, if a solar hot water system isn’t present on the home, you can add one at a future date, but ensure you’ll have the roof space for the collector and correct aspect to gain maximum efficiency. There may also be rebates available for the installation – but check on program expiry dates.
If you do find you’re stuck with an electric water heater for a while, a heater blanket may help to conserve energy and also make sure any piping is properly lagged.
Construction materials and carpets
Some houses are constructed with materials that make them toxic or present future potential health hazards. For example, older homes may have asbestos present in roofing material. While it’s not such a problem while it is in good repair, once work needs to be done on it, or it needs to be removed, it can get quite expensive due to special processes required and disposal of the waste.
New carpeting, depending on its type, may be off-gassing formaldehyde (a carcinogen). Formaldehyde may also be present in high levels due to glues, particle board and other plastics. Formaldehyde can be hard to avoid in modern homes, but some are worse than others.
A freshly painted home is a great thing to look at, but can harbor some dangers. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint can continue to be emitted for some time after the paint has dried. Some VOCs are known to cause cancer in humans and animals. Common symptoms of exposure are ear, eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness. There are some low VOC paints around, so if the home was recently painted, see if you can find out what was used.
Even old paint can present some environmental hazards as many exterior paints used to have lead in them. While this may not present a problem while the paint is still on the walls, the danger comes when it starts to flake off as the flakes can be ingested by animals or the lead leaches into the ground.
A home painted with a lead based paint is also more expensive to repaint as additional controls need to be in place to capture the old paint as it is sanded or scraped off.
Rain water harvesting
The supply of water is another energy intense aspect of modern living. With climate change also shifting rainfall patterns, there’s no way to be sure if an area that receives high rainfall historically won’t face a water crunch in the future. The presence of rain barrels or large rainwater tanks can help provide you with some water security, plus lessen the strain on mains infrastructure.
Lawns and garden
A large lawn can be pleasing to the eye, but it’s usually a bear to maintain. Lawns are energy and resource suckers, requiring regular mowing (time, emissions and noise), watering and weeding. When considering buying a green home, ensure the garden and lawn is local climate compatible and is constructed in a way to keep the need for maintenance and the application of chemicals such as weed killers to a minimum. Small lawn areas, mulch, native plants are all positive indicators that some thought has been put into this aspect. If there is a lawn area and you don’t yet have a mower, consider buying an emissions-free alternative; a reel mower.
How was the property used prior to the home being built? Some home owners have been shocked to find high levels of heavy metals and other pollutants when soil tests are performed around their residence. This is especially troublesome where a back yard vegetable garden is supplying the family with some or all of its food. Check into the history of the area.
As energy consumption will play a major role in your new home’s ongoing environmental impact and there are a lot of points to consider, when you’ve narrowed down your choices it may be wise to invest in a professional energy audit before you sign the dotted line, which can help reveal issues you may not have considered.
To find a company offering this service try typing the following into Google: home energy audit town (where town is the area where the house you’re considering buying is located).
Making money from your green home
I mentioned earlier in the article that there is a way to generate income from a green home. Here’s how – feed in tariffs. Feed in tariff programs are in place in many parts of the world. It’s where owners of grid connected solar power systems are paid a premium rate for all the electricity produced by their system – and it’s usually far higher than the going market rate.
An important thing to determine aside from the availability of a feed in tariff is to establish what kind of program it is. They usually come in one of two flavors – net and gross. A gross feed in tariff pays you the premium rate for every single kilowatt your system generates. A net feed in tariff only pays for electricity exported to the mains grid that is surplus to your own consumption. In most cases, a gross feed in tariff is far more financially beneficial.
Buying a green home doesn’t just help lighten your housing related environmental impact; it’s a sound investment too!
While you could get very finicky about a new green home, such as looking for a house that’s been built with rainforest certified wood, carpets of pure wool from sheep raised organically etc.; it can get incredibly expensive and bear in mind if you’re buying an existing structure – the “damage” has already been done. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get into the nitty gritty, but you just need to balance what you can afford with what you consider the most important features.
If instead of buying an existing house, you’re thinking about building a new home scratch, check out this primer on Sustainable Building.
This guide to buying a green home is just a start, there are plenty of other environmental issues to take into consideration when searching for an environmentally friendly house – if you have some added points to contribute, please add your green home buying tips below!