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What are the 7 or 8 best sustainable home improvements we can make when preparing a home for sale?

December 3, 2012

Information provided by Elizabeth DiSalvo, Trillium Architects

Subject Home:

Home built in 1981. It has electric heat (e.g., insulation is good). Goal: to protect home equity. Budget: good. Increasing performance and lowering maintenance are key factors.

To make this home as efficient as possible there are certain things that can be done, however, if the home were being fixed up to sell, there are other things that can be done. Why?

  • One main reason: many improvements cost a lot of money to purchase and install and you will see the benefit in lower operational costs (heating and cooling) over the years.
  • You will see an ROI -- return on investment and it will be worth it to you personally.
  • You may not see the same payback in the sale of the house.

The reasons for this are that - unfortunately - many home buyers do not appreciate the value of energy efficiency yet. I wish they did because this is the core of my business and it is definitely logical to consider such factors when buying a home, but at this time I would say it is not a primary factor in home buying.

Also, the market is limited. A certain size house in a certain neighborhood will only get so much in a sale price. The top money you might get may not be enough to cover the cost of the upgrades you have just made.

So keeping that in mind, this is what I would do if it was my house:

INSULATION. Be sure the house is as well insulated and sealed, from what you say it seems like it is, but check attic, cracks around windows, doors and electrical outlets. It is true - the envelope of the house is the number one key factor in energy efficiency.

WINDOWS - along the same lines. Are the windows relatively efficient. Are they double pane? Many people feel that upgrading windows is not worth the money in terms of ROI. I feel it is because it greatly improves the look and functionality of a house, not just the efficiency and when they are being installed you have a god chance to repair any rot and also caulk and seal for air infiltration.

HVAC SYSTEM. This is a big money ticket and if you were planning to stay in the house I would say definitely do it, but if you are selling I would try to figure out if the sale price would be worth the cost expenditure.

If you decide to go for it I would seriously consider a gas or electric Forced-air system, or an air to air heat pump system (also called a 'minisplit' system.) This is similar to a geothermal system only it does not involve drilling into the ground. It is an extremely energy efficient (perhaps the most energy efficient) heating and cooling system and it uses electricity as its fuel source. In your case this means you do not have to switch over to natural gas (which may not be available in your area.)

If natural gas is available I would also consider any of the super efficient gas based heating systems (like Viessman or a Munchkin boiler, there are many others.) If you don't want to install a new HVAC system, do you have ceiling fans? Do you operate your house properly by opening and closing windows and shades to maintain optimum temperatures without moving the thermostat?

CONSIDER AN ERV OR HRV. Energy Recovery Ventilators or Heat Recovery Ventilators provide air that keeps occupants healthy, removes odors, reduces moisture, removes indoor pollutants and lowers the relative indoor humidity.

Basically they take 'used' heat and moisture from the air that is leaving the house, while mixing it with fresh air entering the house. Dedicated duct work is ideal for your new HRV or ERV, because fresh air is delivered to the living room and bedrooms, while stale air is removed from bathrooms, laundry room and kitchens. However if you do not have a ducted system in your house already the ERV/HRV can still be installed to great effect.

ENERGY STAR APPLIANCES. Replacing old energy hog appliances is a great way to save a lot of money every month.

ELECTRICAL LIGHTS AND ACCESSORIES. Have you changed all of your light bulbs over to LEDs? Yes you can change them to CFLs - (you may have already done so) but as these burn out I would consider LED bulbs. I find them to have a much nicer light quality, they come on instantly, can be dimmed to 20%, and each bulb will last for years longer than the CFLs. Minor things like good lighting that comes on right away can greatly improve your own mood and a home buyers mood.

Also - for yourself - things like power strips, battery back up surge protectors and master cut off switches can reduce the amount of electricity you use for tv's and computers and other appliances and make your home and equipment more safe at the same time.

LOW FLOW PLUMBING fixtures and appliances. Many of these represent 'low hanging fruit' as they can easily be installed for not too much money upfront. Things like shower heads, faucets, dishwashers, and washing machines are all readily available in low flow or low use options and reduce water usage significantly.

FINISHES AND FURNISHINGS inside the house. These items have less to do with efficiency and more to do with health and durability but they often have a bigger impact on home sales.

FINISHES AND FURNISHINGS inside the house. These items have less to do with efficiency and more to do with health and durability but they often have a bigger impact on home sales.

  • What kind of floors do you have? Hardwood floors are more long lasting, durable, easier to clean and many home buyers find them more appealing than carpet or vinyl. Consider having your floors redone.
  • Same goes for kitchen cabinets and counter tops. real wood or stone, or even some of the higher end manufactured counter top products can really transform your home in a home buyers eye because they truly do represent clean, healthy, durable living.

THE EXTERIOR OF YOUR HOUSE: This is mostly a durability and maintenance issue.

  • What is the condition of your siding and roofing? If they are good, check flashing and caulks.
  • Check your gutters. Make sure that water is running away from the house top to bottom.
  • Consider installing rain barrels at each gutter downspout and use the water to water your garden or wash your car.
  • Keep in mind that you could add insulation to the outside of your house if you are considering re-siding, it costs a bit more but it does add a lot to your envelope efficiency.)

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