How to Find an Eco-Friendly House

Use these tips to find an existing eco-friendly home for sale or to build a green home from scratch.

Even if you don't buy into the idea that if we're not more careful as a group, the planet could soon look like a scene out of those end-of-the-world movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, it's pretty indisputable that an environmentally-friendly house is a smart move. After all, the more money you save to cool or heat your house, the more you have left over to send your kids to college, buy that 45-inch plasma TV or go on a vacation. We can all agree, right? Having extra money is a good thing.
 

But how in the heck do you find an energy-efficient, eco-friendly house? After all, homebuilders are pretty late to the pro-environment party. Just several years ago, McMansions, those oversized homes known for opulence but also high energy costs, were the darlings of the real estate market, and before that, it's not like the homebuilding industry (or any other industry, really) was preaching and practicing conservation. In other words, there are a lot of houses on the market that weren't built with saving the Earth in mind.

But that doesn't mean you have to wave the white flag and give up on your dreams of having an eco-friendly home. Nor do you have to accost every home seller and demand they fork over their utility bills (though asking politely to see a bill might get you somewhere). That eco-friendly house you want is out there. You just have to find it.

Or build it: The tried and true method

"If you're having a home built, work with a builder that promotes eco-friendly features who will be open to not only build to Energy Star or LEED specifications but has experience with eco-design that incorporates recycled materials, building materials that are free of formaldehyde, non-VOC paints, and more," suggests Leslie Mann, a real estate specialist with Hallmark Sotheby's International Realty in Hopkinton, Mass.

That's the easy way to go -- in terms of ensuring you get what you want -- and yet it's the hard way, too, since there are so many choices to make. For instance, just with insulation alone, Kati Curtis, an interior designer in New York City, could offer you numerous decisions that go far beyond, as the standard stuff is often dubbed, the "Pink Panther fiberglass insulation."

Curtis says that denim insulation, "made out of recycled blue jeans," is really popular, "and so is hemp insulation" (Hemp? Did I hear that correctly? "Yes, yes, you did," says Curtis). She adds, "There's a soy-based foam insulation that's also really, really efficient and popular now in a lot of green home construction. Some homes are even insulated with recycled newspaper."

She would know. Curtis's architectural and interior design firm, Nirmada, specializes in helping homes look not only aesthetically amazing but also achieve as much of a pro-environment nirvana as possible. And one can achieve plenty. If you want a plan or some direction toward a plan, you could go with some of these suggestions from Curtis:

  • If you're interested in that blue jean insulation, check out BondedLogic.com, which sells that and other forms of insulation.
  • If you're interested in recycled newspapers, also called cellulose, as insulation, visit GoGreenStar.com.
  • Want solar panels? Curtis recommends Dow Powerhouse, which has some solar panels that look like regular roofing tiles.
  • Curious about hybrid water heaters? EternalWaterHeater.com sells them.
If you're looking at existing homes...

Here's the good news. It's perfectly okay if it's not in the cards for you to have a homebuilder construct a solar-panel heated house with wooden floors certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (which promotes responsible forest management) and walls insulated with Thermowool (a combination of sheep wool, recycled carpet wool and regenerated polyester). You're not a bad person if you aren't going with a geothermal heating system because, and this is so easy to forget...

You're being environmentally friendly simply by purchasing an existing house.

It's perfectly understandable if you do want to build, and admirable if you want your new house to have all the latest in energy efficiency technology and sustainable building materials, but when you buy a house that's already been built, compared to building a new house from scratch, your carbon footprint -- the amount of green gas emissions created by constructing your house -- is pretty much zero.

That said, if you want to do more for the planet than simply buy an existing home -- that is, you want to go the extra mile (on foot, not using fuel) and purchase one that is ecologically friendly -- there are clues you can look for that can help you distinguish an energy efficient house from an energy-sapping one that will maim your checking account.

What sort of clues? Well, if you're going to ask about eco-friendly homes, it helps to go to James Petersen, who owns Petersen Engineering, a Portsmouth, N.H. firm that specializes in energy efficient renovating and helps homebuilders create eco-friendly homes. He has several tips for homebuyers wondering if the house they're looking at is truly environmentally friendly.

Look at the front door. "Check to see if the door closes snugly in its frame," suggests Petersen. If it is a good fit, "this would indicate likely good weather-stripping in other places as well."

Investigate the sunroom. "Is there a window-filled sunroom that is open to the main living/dining area, but can't be isolated by a door?" wonders Petersen, cautioning, "It will have high heat loss in the winter and high heat gain in the summer."

Watch out for sliding glass doors. Most houses have one, but if you have several, you have reason to be leery. "Sliders are notoriously leaky," says Petersen.

Embrace the trees in the yard. Particularly if they're deciduous trees -- the leaves fall off in the winter -- and if the house is shaded by them. "A wide open site leaves the house unprotected from the wind and sun," explains Petersen.

Ask for and review utility bills. "Energy use is perhaps the most important thing that one thinks of when considering 'eco-friendly,'" Petersen says, adding, "It is very difficult to know how much energy a home uses without access to two to three years of utility bills. A house can be covered with photovoltaic panels and that does not mean the utility bills are low. The home next to it could be more eco-friendly."

He adds that even geothermal or air source heat pumps also aren't a guaranteed indicator of energy efficiency, despite what you've heard. "The public has a disproportionately positive view of heat pumps," laments Petersen.

Find a real estate professional who can help...

You're not the first person to decide that they want a green home. Realtors have noticed the clamoring among the marketplace, and they're adapting. For instance, in Boulder, Colo., there's Pedal to Properties, a real estate firm that offers the chance to bicycle from house to house and look for not just eco-friendly homes but in eco-friendly neighborhoods (like the kind where you can ride your bicycle without fear of becoming roadkill).

And while you're likely familiar with the Multiple Listing Service that Realtors often use to find leads for homebuyers, you may not know about the Green MLS (ListedGreen.com), which features energy efficient homes being sold worldwide. The public can also use the service to locate EcoBrokers, real estate agents specializing in eco-friendly houses. Some more lingo to be familiar with -- LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environment Design. If a Realtor has LEED AP after their name, it means that they're part of an accredited group of professionals who are familiar with the standards put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council. 

While EcoBrokers aren't out there in great numbers, especially in states farther away from the East and West coasts, there are more coming.

"This is definitely a growing trend among buyers," says Chobee Hoy, who owns real estate firm Chobee Hoy Associates Real Estate in Brookline, Mass. She says more sellers are revamping their homes by doing things like sealing ducts to eliminate drafts and installing energy efficient windows and doors.

Why the rush and fuss? Hoy's assessment is a good summation of where the housing market is headed: "Sellers who focus on making these improvements," says Hoy, "tend to sell their homes quicker."

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to FrontDoor.com. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.

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