- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Despite media coverage about green building, global warming and rising energy costs, few Washington-area home buyers focus on energy efficiency when they buy a home. Whether the residence is a resale home with aging appliances or a new home with the latest in ecologically aware features, buyers focus more on the color of kitchen counters than on the energy rating of the furnace.

“I’ve done about 1,500 inspections during the past year, and I am rarely asked about insulation or energy-efficient appliances. Consumers are just not tuned into this,” says Brian Koepf, a home inspector with Brian Koepf & Associates Inc., LuxRE Inspections in Reston.

“Basically, consumers are so nervous at the home inspection, they just want to know whether there’s anything major wrong with the house that should stop them from buying it,” Mr. Koepf says. “By the time buyers get to the home inspection, they know they want to buy the house, so even if it’s not energy efficient, that’s not enough to stop them from buying the place.”

Ann McClure, a Realtor with Mc- Enearney Associates in McLean, recently listed two new luxury homes in Bethesda’s Glenbrook Village built by Turning Point Homes with energy-efficient features. One home has sold; the other remains listed at $1,465,000.

“At this price point, buyers are really looking for bells and whistles,” Ms. McClure says. “Consumers don’t really understand things they can’t see, except perhaps for a few engineer types who do get it. Overall, the people who care about energy efficiency are in the minority. But energy efficiency will become increasingly important to people in the future.”

Ms. McClure says she has read predictions that electric rates will soon be rising in Maryland and the District.

“Some people in the real estate industry are predicting that in five years, energy expenses will be three to five times higher than they are now,” she says.

Ms. McClure says buyer education will improve consumer knowledge of the importance of energy conservation. She includes a summary of utility costs with each of her listings and asks sellers to compute those costs for her buyers.

“People look at principal and interest first and then taxes and insurance when determining how much their monthly expenses will be in a new home,” says Ms. McClure. “Next they look at homeowner association fees and condominium fees, but they should also look closely at their utility costs.”

Ms. McClure says that while there is an extra cost in building homes with energy efficient features, you can reap significant savings in the long run.

“Logically, you can add things like a travertine marble backsplash into a home at a later time, but you really can’t really rip out the walls to add extra insulation,” Ms. McClure says.

Artery Group LLC, developers of communities in Virginia and Maryland, recently decided to build all its new homes as Energy Star-certified homes, which means they meet high standards of energy efficiency through insulation, energy efficient appliances and heating and air conditioning systems.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes Energy Star requirements (www.energystar.gov).

Bill Zahler, Artery senior vice president and general manager, says, “We decided to become Energy Star-certified in order to offer our buyers better overall value and a healthier home. For instance, each home will have a gas water heater ventilation system that gives the home cleaner air.”

Mr. Zahler says that with normal lifestyle habits, an Energy Star-certified home can save an average of 30 percent per year in utility costs compared with a home without these features.

The standard features Artery includes in its Energy Star homes are low-E windows, DuPont Tyvek house wrap, additional insulation, a power-vented water heater and an energy efficient heating and air conditioning system.

“We choose the combination of features that meets the certification requirements, and then for anything above and beyond this level, it becomes a customer prerogative,” Mr. Zahler says.

Buyers can opt for additional features such as bamboo flooring, a renewable resource. Buyers concerned about healthier air quality and allergy issues can choose wool or rubber carpeting. Buyers also can add rainwater collection barrels and a composting system for the back yard.

Mr. Zahler says that adding Energy Star features increases the cost to build the homes but that it varies according to the size of the home and the style.

“Our management team feels that building energy-efficient homes is a strategy that sets us apart from other builders,” says Mr. Zahler. “We think people care about these issues both from environmental concern and to save money. We show people that an initial investment in their home will save money in the long run and be good for the environment, too.”

The EPA’s Energy Star Overview of 2005 Achievements report says, “More than half a million families, 40 percent more than in 2004, now live in Energy Star-qualified new homes and are saving about $110 million annually. Further, builders in more than 40 metropolitan areas now construct 10 percent or more of their new homes as Energy Star, making it easier for prospective home buyers to find a qualified home; and almost 10 percent of new homes constructed in 2005 earned the Energy Star.”

Builder Jim Hathaway, owner of Turning Point Homes, built the two homes in Bethesda’s Glenbrook Village to be both energy efficient and extremely low maintenance.

“We designed the homes for a busy family that was also slightly green,” Mr. Hathaway says. “So the homes have PVC trim, Hardiplank siding, vinyl windows and stone accents on the outside, with two-by-six rather than two-by-four wood so that extra insulation can be added. We put in high efficiency furnaces with two zones and energy efficient windows.”

Mr. Hathaway estimates that increasing the insulation from R-13 to R-19 costs about 20 percent more for these 5,500-square-foot homes. The cost of framing the home with two-by-six rather than two-by-four lumber costs 57 percent more.

“Buyers are usually most interested in the efficiency of the heating and air conditioning system because this has the most obvious effect on their pocketbooks,” Mr. Hathaway says. “Buyers are starting to know the difference in SEER [Seasonal Energy Efficient Ratio] ratings, for instance. In January 2006 the government mandated that all new heating and air conditioning equipment have a 13 SEER rating or higher. It used to be that builders put in a furnace with a 10 SEER rating. It costs about $1,000 per SEER level to upgrade, but usually buyers will recoup that cost within about three years.”

Rather than charging more money for the energy-efficient features in his homes, Mr. Hathaway says that the Turning Point homes in Glenbrook Village are priced at $80,000 to $100,000 less than similar homes in that market.

“Some things we don’t do, such as a granite backsplash all the way up the wall or an IPod docking station in the kitchen,” Mr. Hathaway says. “My view is that I would rather put in the features that make a long-term difference to the homeowner. But if you can’t see it, it doesn’t have the same ‘wow factor’ as an IPod docking system.”

Mr. Koepf suggests that while newer homes are typically more energy efficient, buyers should ask the builder or the seller about energy-efficient features before purchasing a home. They can also ask their home inspector about some of these issues.

“An energy efficiency survey would almost be an additional service above and beyond a regular inspection,” says Mr. Koepf. “But buyers can ask about insulation in the home, especially if the attic is insulated. They should ask about the age of the windows and whether they are double-paned or have a storm window.”

Mr. Koepf says that the highest energy users are an extra freezer and an extra refrigerator. He recommends that homeowners who have these additional appliances unplug them if they are not being used. He also recommends a programmable thermostat and lowering the temperature on the water heater to lower energy costs. Replacing an air conditioner with a lower SEER rate can also be cost-effective in the long term, especially for homeowners who intend to remain in their homes for a significant length of time.

For information consult Pepco’s Web site (www.Pepco.com) and Dominion Power (www.dom.com). The Alliance for Saving Energy offers a home checkup (www.ase.org/section/_audience/consumers/homecheckup).

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