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Consumer Wise

A new home doesn’t guarantee energy efficiency

By Pat Keegan

Q:

Kanyon Payne, a home energy rater with United Cooperative Service, uses an infrared camera to show consumers where energy losses are occurring.
Photo credit: United Cooperative Service

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 I should help my clients consider before they purchase a home?

A:

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 kind of new home 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, lighting requirements increase, and more importantly, the burden on heating and cooling equipment increases.

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 homes built to a higher standard. For example, if energy efficiency or green features are a high priority 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 manufactured homes 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 as residents of site-built homes. If your clients are considering a manufactured home, those built after 1994 or that have an ENERGY STAR label have superior energy performance.

Once your clients are interested in a specific home, one of the first factors they should consider is how the energy performance of that home compares to similar homes. Although you may request electricity, natural gas or propane bills from the sellers 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 comparison-shop based on energy performance, similar to the way they can comparison-shop for cars. A certified RESNET Home Energy Rater will need to inspect the home and develop a HERS rating. This rating can be done during the inspection process, or you may request a HERS rating from the seller.

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

Hidden systems have the most impact

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

How old is the heating system? If the home’s heating 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 home’s interior from the outdoor environment and includes features like doors, walls and the roof. If the quality of the building envelope is compromised, it can contribute to higher heating and cooling costs.  R-Value is the thermal resistance measurement used for insulation, indicating its 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 your 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.

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. Write to energytips@collaborativeefficiency.com for more information.