If you’ve been greeted by a blank stare from your real estate agent when you’ve tried either to buy a “green”, energy efficient or healthy home, or sell your own, that’s probably because the agent has no idea what constitutes a healthier home or how to value it.
Features like granite countertops, spa tubs and cathedral ceilings – that they get. But what if your home sports solar collectors, excellent insulation, or a geothermal heating system? Chances are, that will be new to your realtor. Plus, many companies that underwrite home loans could care less about its green features, preferring to base the overall value on comparable properties in the same neighborhoods – comparable in the sense of square footage and number of bedrooms and baths, not energy efficiency or other measures of sustainability.
I built one of the first green homes in the Washington, D.C. region because I couldn’t find anything similar to buy. When I sell my house, I intend to put it on the market as a “green” property. I had no help from a real estate professional when I built, and I don’t expect to get much help when I sell. No matter. I’ve picked up enough tips in the process of working in the sustainable home world to feel pretty confident about how to proceed, both as an owner and a potential seller. Hopefully, these tips will help you make the most of your purchase or sale, too.
If You’re Buying
- Review Green Claims – Home sellers are not any more above “greenwashing” their claims that their “product” is non-toxic, energy-saving, or resource-friendly than a company that wants to take advantage of consumers’ skyrocketing interest in all things green. Read the fine print. For example, the claim may be that the house is insulated to save energy. Most houses do have some insulation, though many are not insulated adequately. So that’s not a particularly helpful claim. A better claim would note what R value the house is insulated to in the attic, walls and crawl spaces. You can check with the Department of Energy for recommended R values for every region in the U.S.
- Review Heating, Cooling and Water Bills – Ask to see a year’s worth of utility bills. Then compare them to the average for a house of similar size, information you should be able to get from the local utility company. Does the home use 20 or 30 % less energy or water as its owner may claim than a comparable but non-green house in the neighborhood?
- Check More Than the Age of Appliances, the Water Heater, and the Furnace – Just because appliances are new does not make them green. They should be certified to meet EPA’s ENERGY STAR standards for energy efficiency. Those that use water should meet EPA’s water efficiency standards as well. Make sure to check the warranties for all appliances, and find out whether service contracts on those appliances will still be in effect if the house is sold.
- Educate the Home Inspector – Most home inspectors are looking for structural damage, whether windows open and close, if the roof leaks, maybe even termites. But you should also find out whether cupboards are off-gassing formaldehyde or the water or paint are contaminated with lead. When you hire an inspector to check out the house before you buy it, ask if s/he can also detect chemical contaminants that could make you and your family sick.
- Check Builder Credentials – If you are buying a new home, be sure your builder and the contractors on the project are qualified to do the work. For example, if someone claims to be building a LEED house but is not a LEED certified builder or project manager, proceed with caution – or not at all.
- Beware “Flippers” – Many contractors specialize in “flipping” houses: they buy a house that is cheap and in disrepair, make cosmetic changes, and flip it back into the market at what might be double or triple the amount they paid for it. Scrutinize the green claims of flippers particularly closely.
- Check Local Zoning Laws – You may think you’ve found the perfect house for solar collectors, only to discover after you buy that the neighborhood association thinks they’re ugly and won’t sanction them. Whether you want to add solar or a geothermal heating system or even plant a bank of trees to provide additional shade and cooling in the summer, make sure local regulations allow you to do so before you buy.
- Consult with solar companies – If you are looking for a house you can specifically solarize, check with a local solar installer before you purchase. The installer will be able to tell you how much solar gain you’ll actually get and what you can expect to pay, whether you buy solar panels outright or lease them.
If You’re Selling
- Quantify Your Home’s Green Assets – Make a list of all the green assets your home offers, and be as specific as possible. Per the note above regarding insulation, note the R factor of the insulation if it meets the Department of Energy’s standards. Also note how much money you save on heating, cooling and water. If you have before and after bills to show operating cost reductions, share them with potential buyers. Don’t forget to mention if you’ve installed water-conserving rain barrels or a landscape of native plants, and have painted with no VOC paints.
- Convey Your Home’s Intrinsic Green Value – The reason why so many real estate agents look like deers caught in the headlights when asked to explain the benefits of a “green” house is because they usually don’t appreciate the intrinsic value the house offers. Don’t be afraid to include a statement in your home’s marketing materials that explains how the house is a symbol of a greener, more eco-friendly lifestyle and how it helps reduce climate change and protect air and water quality.
- Sell It Yourself – “Sale by owner” websites make it easier and easier to skip a realty company altogether and sell your home yourself. (My neighbor recently held his own open house on the day of our local house and garden tour, intrigued someone who was walking by, and had a contract on the house two days later. I sold my Washington, D.C. condo myself and plan to sell my current home myself whenever I do put it on the market.) You can find out everything you need to know to facilitate a sale online, or hire a real estate attorney at an hourly rate rather than pay a real estate agent a flat commission on the sale. But more than saving money, you will be able to explain the many benefits of your green abode much better than any realtor could.
- Educate Your Realtor – If you decide to work with a realtor, make sure to educate him/her thoroughly about its green-ness. The sales brochure and any other advertising should clearly and accurately highlight your home’s green features; you might want to be present at the open house to answer questions prospective buyers have about the green features they’ll see in your home.
Whether you’re buying or selling, you might want to consult GreenHomesForSale.com. You can both list your home on this site or browse homes that are for sale by zip code.
Have you bought or sold a green home? Please share your experiences and suggestions.