Energy Adviser: Thinking of buying an efficient house?



Concerns about climate change, rising energy costs and lowering their carbon footprint make today’s homebuyers more savvy about energy costs and enthusiastic about energy-saving homes. They realize that energy cost is like property tax: you pay it month to month for the duration of your mortgage and beyond.

Despite this, most folks still purchase homes based primarily on location, access to schools and parks, the desire to join a well-regarded neighborhood and the tax break homeownership offers. The question of energy savings may not arise until a home inspector mentions it.

According to homebuilders, houses built to best practices are at least 3 percent or higher in energy efficiency. But buyers interested in really lowering the lifetime cost of owning a home ought to consider Northwest Energy Star Certified Homes. They boast at least a 15 percent better efficiency than new homes built to current local codes. Because they cost less to heat and cool, these homes start paying off in energy savings on move-in day. And the cost of energy-efficient items — appliances, windows, heating and ventilation systems — is built into the mortgage.

The energy efficiency of newer versus older homes can vary widely and may be difficult to compare. In this case, try comparing energy usage of the two by running Clark Public Utility’s Home Energy calculator. Running energy scenarios can provide you a rough analysis and a better idea which home uses more energy and has more potential to reduce energy waste.

Normally, homes built to old out-of-date codes don’t have to meet today’s standards. So unless previously upgraded, an older home is likely to be much less energy efficient and can make reducing wasted energy neither easy nor cheap. Something as obvious as installing new energy-efficient windows is a big expense.

Regardless of the age of the house, check its ventilation, the age and efficiency of its furnace, its insulation, its ductwork and the energy efficiency of its appliances. Give the home bonus points if it also has energy-efficient windows, a ductless heat pump or tankless water heater.

Inspectors who crawl around dirty attics and into muddy crawl spaces know the insulation, ventilation and heating requirements for current building codes. If one says the house is under-insulated, plan to upgrade it. They might even note the failings of baseboard, wall or ceiling heat. So plan on a heating upgrade in this case.

Installing a new heating system is a major expense that can run between two and three times of what it costs to construct the same system in a new home. Your best option for replacing such inefficient heaters is a ductless heat pump costing about $5,000. With ductwork, a new heat pump installation could run $15,000. Both will lower winter heating bills and deliver summer air conditioning.

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 $1,000 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, the utility offers financing, upon credit approval, for energy-efficiency projects.

If the house you’re considering is served by gas, check with Energy Trust of Oregon serving NW Natural customers in Washington. It provides incentives also — for example, you can receive up to $250 on a direct-vent gas fireplace. To contact Energy Trust, call 866-368-7878 or visit Energy Trust.

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