Energy Efficiency Considerations for Homebuyers

Newer homes generally are more efficient due to recent building codes that promote higher levels of energy performance.

By Pat Keegan

When it comes to buying a home, many people do not include lower energy costs (such as electricity, gas and propane) on their wishlist, even though they 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.

Homebuyers’ preferences for the kind of new home they want can have a strong influence on energy performance. For example, the size of a home is one of the most important factors that determines energy costs. As square footage increases, lighting requirements increase, and more importantly, the burden on heating and cooling equipment increases.

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

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 efficient as homes built to a higher standard. For example, if energy efficiency or green features are a high priority, homebuyers should look for homes that have ENERGY STAR, Built Green or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design 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. For homebuyers considering a manufactured home, those built after 1994 or that have an ENERGY STAR label have superior energy performance.

If you are interested in buying a specific home, one of the first factors to 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 you 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 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.

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 such as 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 should replace it.

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

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. 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 you determine energy investments are necessary in a home you 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.

This column was written by Pat Keegan of Collaborative Efficiency.