Buying or selling an eco-friendly home can be overwhelming and involve navigating new territory. Many homeowners turn to Judith Martin, founder of Rye-based Green Homes Consulting, LLC, for advice and to keep the process more manageable and less costly.
What is your top tip for homebuyers who are focused on purchasing a green home?
A green home is one that uses substantially less energy than a traditionally built home. If a seller describes their home as green, buyers should focus on elements resulting in lower energy use. Most important are the improvements to the ‘building envelope’—the exterior walls, roof, and basement—to reduce heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer. And of these areas, the ‘hat and boots’—the roof or attic and basement—are top priority. If high-performance insulation has been added to the attic and basement rim joists, the home should perform well. Before or after purchase, professional air sealing of small openings and cracks is a low-cost way to noticeably reduce drafts. Buyers should next focus on the heating and cooling system and hot-water production, both big energy users. I recommend that buyers walk around with the home inspection engineer before closing to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the home’s systems from a qualified professional. We also recommend a free or low-cost home-energy audit.
On the other side of the coin, are there potential pitfalls to avoid?
There are possible pitfalls in different categories. Has work on the home been done correctly? For example, open cell foam sprayed directly onto the underside of a roof is likely to rot the roof structure after a few years. We often see fiberglass insulation installed upside down. Even some geothermal systems have gotten a bad rap because of poor engineering and installation that results in higher rather than lower costs. It’s important to choose contractors carefully. Another pitfall is spending on improvements that don’t deliver a ‘big bang for the buck’ in energy efficiency. One of the most notable is window replacements. If a buyer doesn’t like the windows or if they’re not functioning well, replacement may be necessary, but if the reason is solely improved energy efficiency, the cost is large and the payback period is very long. Buyers also should ask sellers for 12 to 24 months of utility and maintenance bills that also will include the names of contractors, regularity of maintenance, and impact of improvements on energy use.
How does a homeowner determine whether going green is worth the investment and commitment?
Almost every homeowner is constrained by budget. Focus on top priorities with the greatest impact on energy efficiency and the shortest payback. Key improvements to the building envelope will yield significant benefits—hopefully, at least a 25 to 30 percent reduction in energy costs. Comfort should also be a priority. Reducing drafts is as important as maintaining a comfortable thermostat setting without draining your wallet. Smaller steps can make a difference, too: sealing ductwork, programmable (and programmed!) thermostats, and Energy Star appliances (especially refrigerators), and energy efficient lighting like LEDs. Replacing a refrigerator that is more than 10 years old is likely to pay for itself in a year or two—as long as the old unit is not kept in service in a garage or basement!
So much focus in placed on buying or building green property. Do you also have advice for sellers?
We advise homeowners to keep track of the green steps they take so they can tout them to buyers when it’s time to sell. It’s easy to forget over time about insulated garage doors or triple-glazed skylights. If a seller is interested in making the home greener before sale, focus on the building envelope. A thorough, professional air sealing job that includes caulking, weather stripping, gasketing, and a blower door test before and after the work is completed can provide hard proof of the resulting benefits and is not terribly costly. NYSERDA even offers some financial incentives.
Judith Martin, Green Homes Consulting, LLC (914) 967-2956 www.greenhomeswestchester.com