How to Go Green: Home Buying

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The housing market may have had a rough time of late, but there are still plenty of us out there looking to buy a new home. Whether you are a first time buyer or a seasoned home-buying veteran, it is worth remembering that buying a house is one of the biggest decisions you can make, and not just financially. The location, size and style of your house, along with what you chose to do with it, can have a huge impact on your ecological footprint. So choose wisely, ask all the right questions, and check out some of our handy hints below. Happy hunting!

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Top Green Home Buying Tips

  1. Get good help
    Not long ago, if you'd have told your realtor that you were looking for a green house, they'd have handed you a gallon or two of emerald-hued paint. Nowadays, with increased eco-awareness and energy prices going through the roof, it's not just us TreeHuggers that are worried about things like indoor air quality and energy efficiency. When screening potential realtors, ask them how much they know about home energy performance and other environmental issues that matter to you. Alternately, services like EcoBroker, Modern Green Living, and other green residential tips can help you seek out a green real estate pro. Learn more about what to look for in a green realtor in our post on Verdant Vocations: A Real Estate Agent?

  2. Conduct an energy audit
    If your green realtor is on their game, this one will go without saying, but it's not an automatic. You can tell a lot just by taking a careful look around. Check out the heating and cooling systems carefully and make sure they are in good working order and sized appropriately. Take a gander at the windows, and check if they're single or double-paned, and at the doors, to see if you feel a draft coming through around the edges. Be on the lookout for missing or inadequate insulation, or signs of mold. To get really good info, though, we recommend hiring a professional for your audit. They'll use things like infrared cameras and special fans to pressurize your house and determine how leaky it is; this will help you determine if your potential new house needs any big efficiency upgrades, and if something like new insulation will make sense. Sister site Planet Green has more info on the benefits of a home energy audit.

  3. Remember: location, location, location
    New Yorkers have the some of the lowest ecological footprints in the United States, and it's not because they are all amazingly eco-conscientious. Rather, it's because they tend to live close to shops, entertainment, and places of work. If they don't live close to all those things, they live close to a subway or a bus line that will take them to these locations. The lesson here? Choose your location carefully. Even if the countryside is definitely for you, it's worth thinking about commuting distances, proximity of local facilities, and how you are going to get around. How to begin? Visit Walk Score to locate restaurants, parks, grocers and other businesses and amenities within walking distance of your possible future home.

  4. Buy small, live large
    It's the closest thing TreeHugger has to a mantra: small really is the new big, and less is the new more. The smaller your living space, the less energy is needed to heat and light it, and the less you have to spend on utilities too. With some thoughtful, careful interior design, you can create beautiful living environments out of some surprisingly small spaces; we recommend multi-functional and transformer furniture to help you get the most out of your space.

  5. Kick the tires
    Unless you really luck out, your new home will almost certainly require a few aesthetic and maybe even a few structural changes. Slapping on a fresh coat of low-VOC paint is easy, affordable, and won't contribute to poor indoor air quality; ripping up old, off-gassing, difficult-to-recycle wall-to-wall carpeting to refinish the hardwood underneath is tougher on you and on the planet; replacing leaky, rusty, lead-leaching plumbing is a taller order yet, so be sure to "kick the tires" of the houses you're looking at, so you can get an idea of the changes you'll want or need to make to create a greener, healthier home.

  6. Reuse, renovate, recycle
    If a LEED-certified, solar-powered penthouse downtown remains just out of reach, consider looking for place that will benefit from a upgraded green kitchen or bathroom -- the two rooms where you typically get the best return for your renovating dollar. As long as it doesn't need major structural repairs, or you don't have to gut the place to get the rooms and layout you want, you can renovate according to your ecological principles and get a double bonus: a greener, more efficient home and a higher resale value (market-willing) upon your departure. Just be aware of the work involved, prioritize to get the best bang for your buck, and don't get carried away with romantic notions of a grand marble staircase, an all-red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel and a disco room with your own disco dancers. Renovating is hard work -- get more tips on green renovation before you get going -- but the rewards can be substantial; you might even achieve LEED Proactinium.

  7. Research your renewable-energy potential
    Until recently, generating your own power was out-of-the-question expensive for most of us. As the costs of alternative technologies like solar, wind, or geo-thermal power come down, they're becoming easier to find and easier to afford. If your dream home isn't already plugged in to off-grid technology, don't fret; you can discover your renewable energy potential to see if it makes sense to generate some or all of your own power, and then check in with DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see what sort of rebates and deals are available in your state.

  8. Certifiable!

    LEED-H, or LEED for Homes, just released final guidelines for their residential green building certification in January, which means there aren't a ton out there right now (we spotted the first one in the western US), though about 400 builders representing 10,000 homes across the U.S. participated in the LEED for Homes pilot program (you can find your local LEED for Homes provider here). And, if you're looking in New England, Energy Star Homes certify that homes meet the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) performance guidelines for energy efficiency. They're two programs on the rise, so be on the lookout for more green homes from both of them (and read more below in the "Getting Techie" section). For now, there's lots of best practices to glean from both programs' guidelines and principles.

  9. Shade grown?
    Trees are good for a lot more than hugging, so take a peek outside your potential new digs to check out the foliage the comes with the place. Big deciduous (leafy) trees are great natural climate controllers; in the summer, their leafy branches block the sun and can help keep your home cooler (reducing cooling costs), and, in the winter, the bare branches let more natural light and heat through to your home (reducing heating costs). Big old trees also offer potential homes for our fine feathered friends, who can be helpful in maintaining your organic garden. Your neighborhood's biodiversity will benefit, too.

  10. More great outdoors
    Ask yourself a couple more questions: Is there is big lawn that requires care (and lots of water) to maintain? (Remember, this isn't always up to you; some neighborhoods have homeowners' association rules that requires a certain level of lawn manicuring.) Is there a good, sunny place for a garden, to grow your own food, or is there a good space for some good container gardening? Will you have room for a compost pile, or just a small compost bin? Read up on How to Green Your Gardening and match your potential homes with the size of your green thumb.

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Green Home Buying: By the Numbers

  • $160 billion: The amount of money Americans spend each year to heat, cool, and light their homes. That energy represents about 21 percent of the national total energy consumption.

  • 400,000: The number of families that could pay their fuel bills with the money saved if everyone in the U.K. topped up their loft insulation to 27cm (10.6 in).

  • $20,000: The increase in value to a home caused by installing a solar electric system, for every $1000 spent in annual operating costs.

  • 85 million tons: The amount of CO2 saved annually (by 2030) if 60 percent of new homes in the U.S. were built according to dense, urban patterns, rather than typical suburban development.

Sources: U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Office, Energy Savings Trust, Renewable Energy Access
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Green Home Buying: Getting Techie

Energy Star Homes
An energy efficiency certification program run by the United States EPA. Over 750,000 new homes in the United States are now certified by Energy Star, and typical energy savings are estimated at between $200 and $400 a year. Energy Star features in a home are likely to include snug construction and ducts, effective insulation, efficient cooling and heating equipment, and high-performance windows. Energy Star homes are independently tested. Keep in mind that Energy Star certified homes achieve their ratings by calculating reduced energy use in a home only, and don't take concepts like reducing the square footage of your home or using environmentally friendly materials into consideration.

HERS Index
The Home Energy Rating System, a scoring system established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). The lower a home's HERS Index, the more energy efficient it is; the score determines whether or not a home qualifies as an Energy Star Home.

Passive solar
Aconstruction technique that aims to use sunlight in its natural form to heat and light a house. Typical features may include large, south-facing windows with low-emission glass, and heavy concrete or stone floors and walls with huge thermal mass. The idea is that the sun heats the house during the day, and the floor and walls store this heat and radiate it out during the night. Careful angling of windows and use of shade-giving blinds or plants can prevent overheating in summer while letting light in during the winter. Passive solar systems require no additional energy to operate and therefore have zero operating costs, emit no greenhouse gases in operation, and usually have low maintenance costs.

Active solar
A collection of technologies that are used in construction to convert solar energy into usable heat, cause air-movement for ventilation or cooling, or store heat for future use. Active solar uses electrical or mechanical equipment, such as pumps and fans, to increase the usable heat in a system; as such, they're more costly to purchase and maintain over time.

Co-housing offers the ideal mix of private home ownership with shared community facilities, such as a common house with guest rooms and a communal kitchen, shared gardens, or nature reserves. When sharing an abode, each family unit can live with less on a day-to-day basis, retain their privacy, and still enjoy the luxury of shared facilities when needed.

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Where to Get Green Home Products and Materials

Green Buying Guides:

Selecting some of the best new green products consumers can purchase.

Building Green:

Giving Back Green:

Home Buying & Real Estate:


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Green Home Buying: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles on House Hunting from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

Whether it's before, during or after your housing purchase, you'll want to be in the know about greening your...

Planet Green programming you can use for inspiration:

Renovation Nation
World's Greenest Homes
Other Green Home Buying Resources:

A reader tells us why you should invest in your house, rather than buying that shiny new hybrid.

Read up on why buying closer to where you work may be one of the greenest things you could do.

Here are some quick tips on how to find green residential real estate.

Get smart about the relationship between energy use and home size.

Insulation is a big part of this equation; get TreeHugger's picks for some green varieties.

Gonna renovate after you buy? Do some homework on how to green your renovation first.

Check out some great energy saving tips from the US Environmental Protection Agency that we approved of.

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Further Reading on Green Home Buying

Home Buying:

Building Green and Green Renovation:

Home Energy Efficiency and Use:

How to Go Green: Home Buying
The housing market may have had a rough time of late, but there are still plenty of us out there looking to buy a new home. Whether you are a first time buyer or a seasoned home-buying veteran, it is worth remembering that buying a house is one of the

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