Energy Adviser: Consider energy efficiency when buying a home

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With the housing market picking up again in Clark County, you might be among those looking for a new home.

Location, size and overall curb appeal may be your top priorities, but keep energy efficiency in mind, too. It will affect not only your monthly costs, but how comfortable you feel in your new home.

If you are buying a brand-new house, you can be sure that it's energy efficient by looking for Northwest Energy Star certification. Energy Star homes are at least 15 percent more efficient than houses built to current building codes. They have tightly sealed duct work, high-performance windows and plenty of insulation, according to Northwest Energy Star Homes, which is based in Portland.

"It's not just the builder saying this," said DuWayne Dunham, an energy counselor at Clark Public Utilities. "One of the nice things about the program is that it's third-party verified." An independent inspector tests the house to make sure it meets the energy-efficiency standards.

Clark County is a great place to find an Energy Star home. For the past four years, Clark has been a leader among counties in Oregon and Washington for the percentage of Energy Star homes built each year. In 2011, 40 percent of new houses built in Clark County received the Energy Star certification, compared to a statewide average of 15 percent, Dunham said.

If you are in the market for a preowned house, you will have to do some sleuthing on your own.

• Feel the heat.

If you decide you are interested in a house, the first thing to check out is the heating system, Dunham said.

"We certainly think heat pumps are a great way to go," Dunham said. "Heat pumps do a very good job of heating at a low cost in our moderate climate, and they also provide air-conditioning."

No heat pump in your dream home? Take note of what kind of heating it does have. If it's a furnace, ask what kind, as well as about its age, its efficiency rating, and monthly heating costs. If the house has baseboards, wall heaters or ceiling heat, plan on an upgrade, Dunham said.

• Check insulation levels.

"After the heating system, which is the most important thing to address, then I would suggest checking insulation levels in the attic, floor and wall," Dunham said.

This is something you can have an inspector help you check. Inspectors know the levels of insulation required by current building codes, and will do the dirty work of climbing into the attic and the crawl space.

• Peep at windows.

Next, check the windows. "If they are single-paned, consider upgrading to an E-rated dual-pane vinyl frame window to ensure you don't waste energy, Dunham said. "If it's already a dual-paned system, but with a metal fame, you might want to consider upgrading to a vinyl pane for other than just energy and money-saving reasons such as comfort, soundproofing, looks and ease of cleaning."

• Help is available.

If you fall in love with a house that has baseboard heat, flimsy insulation and single-paned windows and you simply can't walk away, you have options.

Clark Public Utilities offers incentives for heating system upgrades in electrically heated homes. You can get $500 back on installation of an energy-efficient heat pump, or $1,500 back for a ductless heat pump to replace ceiling, baseboard or wall heaters. For new windows, you can get as much as $500 back. Upgrading insulation in the attic, floor and walls could get you as much as $400 per area. Plus, Clark Public Utilities offers financing upon credit approval, for energy-efficiency projects.

If the house you want is served by gas, check with Energy Trust of Oregon, which also provides incentives -- for example, $100 back on new energy-efficient gas furnaces.

Go into your home purchase with your eyes open, though, because improving the heating system or installing new windows is a major expense. A ductless heat pump to replace baseboard heaters costs about $5,000, while a new heat pump could hit $15,000.

"An investment in these areas will certainly pay off in energy savings through the years, and it will also help with comfort and feel of the home," Dunham said.

But if you can find a house with the improvements already made, all the better.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.