Investing in an Energy Efficient Home
by Arnie Katz
Q: We're in the market for a new home and want one that won't cost a fortune to heat and cool. Every builder we've talked with assures us that they build "energy efficient" homes. Frankly, we're dubious since several friends have recently moved into new homes and have fairly high bills, are not comfortable, or both. How can we find the kind of home we want?
A: Some states, such as Virginia, have an independent home rating system in place that actually enables people to compare the energy efficiency of one house with another, like the yellow stickers on appliances or the mileage ratings on cars. Here in North Carolina, we don't yet have a rating system in place, so the homebuyer has to look elsewhere for help.
One place to look for help is your utility company. Find out if they have a program with higher-than-code energy standards. Some, like Dominion North Carolina Power's Energy Saver Plus program, require permanently sealed ductwork that is tested by a qualified technician. Since leaky ductwork often accounts for 15-20% of heating & cooling bills, this type of quality control is crucial. Doing the job right the first time may add a few hundred dollars to the cost. Not doing it right will add thousands of dollars to your energy bills over the years you're living in the house!
Remember, the state building code does not guarantee energy efficiency. The code is the minimum standard allowed by law . Just because a house is built to code, doesn't mean it will be comfortable or affordable to operate. Often, going beyond code is both practical and cost-effective. If the budget is tight, keep in mind that it's a lot easier to, say, add a deck later when you have the money than it is to add wall insulation. And the added insulation will save you money that you can use later for the deck.
On the other hand, there are certainly cases of people spending big bucks for so-called energy-saving features and devices that do nothing but add cost to the house. As with any purchase, there's no getting around doing your homework. For a house to perform well in terms of energy, the builder and subcontractors have to be committed to quality and attention to detail.
Your best course is to talk with a number of people who live in homes built by a particular builder and ask them specifically about their energy bills and comfort. Ask what sub-contractors the builder uses for heating & cooling systems and for insulation and ask around about their reputations.