Home & Garden

Big on green but short on cash

Even as the green movement builds momentum, some builders say, buyers are being choosier about paying lots of extra money for energy efficient and environmentally friendly features.

Many buyers still want green features, they say. And those buyers think such features will add value at resale. Instead of splurging, though, buyers are being more cautious with their investment in green.

“Buyers will say they want this and this and this,” said Allen Tate agent Linwood Bolles, who markets new homes. “Then you show them how much it will cost, and they say, ‘Oh, you want me to pay for it?'”

Both the Charlotte and Lake Norman builders associations recently have formed Green Building Councils, reflecting growing interest among area builders and their customers. The National Association of Home Builders hosted a National Green Building Show earlier this month in New Orleans, and proclaimed that “green has gone mainstream.”

But going green can add 7.5 to 10 percent to the cost of a house – and sometimes much more. At 10 percent, a $500,000 house becomes a $550,000 house.

“Buyers do recognize that green is an added value when they go to resell,” said Bolles, who sells homes for builder Ross Allen. “The question is, do they buy this house – or the similar house next door that's $15,000 less?”

Allen builds both custom and speculative homes. The custom buyer, he said, can make his own decisions about spending for green features. When Allen builds a home to sell, the questions loom larger.

“If I spend an extra $12,000 for windows, am I going to get $12,000 more for the house?” he said. Often, he decides the answer is no.

Brian Spiers of Regal Custom Home Builders identifies himself as a “green” builder. All his homes are Energy Star rated. But some features make more economic sense in today's economic environment than others, he said, and his buyers understand that.

A solar water heater might reduce a family's utility bills enough to pay for itself in less than a decade, while solar electric panels might require 20 years.

“Would you rather put a pool in or put a solar panel on the roof?” he said. “That's an easy decision to make today. I can't blame anyone for choosing the pool.”

The good news, say the builders and other experts, is that you can stretch your green budget by investing in a few basic features when you build or remodel, and delaying others until later.

Allen and Spiers build high-end homes, but the same tips apply at all price ranges.

Invest in the best windows, doors and insulation you can afford. Those items are important to the building “envelope,” and are difficult to replace later.

“You can't easily go back and add foam (insulation) inside the walls later,” said home designer and green advocate Jennifer Pippin, “so go ahead and upgrade now.”

Delay those things you can upgrade later. You can add bamboo or linoleum flooring, for instance. “In 10 years, when you're renovating the kitchen, you can go with formaldehyde-free cabinets,” Pippin said.

Also, you can make your home more efficient with techniques that don't raise the cost, she said.

Site your home carefully on the lot, and landscape with plantings that protect the home from sun and wind. Incorporate passive solar features such as masonry slabs and wide roof overhangs. Such techniques will cut your utility bills in winter and summer.

Pippin, who operates Pippin Home Design in Sherrills Ford, is one of the area's strongest green advocates. Her remodeled Lake Norman home is a living laboratory packed with high-tech – and retro low-tech – green features. She estimates that green features – including solar panels and a rain catch cistern – increased the cost of the remodeling project by 15 to 20 percent.

She's a co-chair of the Lake Norman Home Builders' new Green Building Council, and excited that the month-old group already has more than 30 members. And she understands why home buyers and remodelers can be cautious about investing in features she cares so deeply about.

“They're just really leery about this economy,” she said. “When they plan a renovation, they might include the basic concepts for green, but probably won't include the upgrades. They'll prep for those later.”

She also has discovered that many lenders don't value green features enough to increase appraisals to reflect the extra investment. Her own home appraised as a high-end lake house, she said, but she got no credit for all her attention to green design and the money she spent on technology.

“The mortgage companies and the appraisers have to be educated about the value,” she said. “That would make it easier for the builders and their buyers to get on board.”