Going Green / Eleven ways to green the home-buying process
Find, furnish, and fix up your new home—sustainably
Ginny Leary shares tips @zerowastebuffalo.
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Buying a home is complicated, and first-timers often find it especially so. From determining a budget and must-haves to finding the perfect neighborhood, decisions pile up fast. And these days, there’s another thing to think about: sustainability.
According to an April 2019 report from the National Association of Realtors, sixty-nine percent of real estate agents said promoting energy efficiency was very or somewhat valuable in listings. Seventy-seven percent said a home’s utility bills were very or somewhat important to their clients. After all, increased sustainability isn’t just a good move for the planet; it’s also good for your wallet.
“Sustainability is always part of the conversation,” says Aaron J. Stanley, real estate broker and president and CEO of Green Home Revolution (greenhomerevolution.com). As he shows properties to clients, he educates them on how aspects of a house affect its ecological footprint.
“I believe in energy efficiency not just because our environment is unfortunately experiencing what we’re experiencing, but also because it’s a good economic choice when you’re saving money on your utility bills,” Stanley says.
Whether you’re looking for a starter home, a forever home, or something in between, here is how you can make the entire process greener.
Find a new place
Focus on the bones.
“Everybody loves pretty pictures—nicely painted rooms and things like that—but what it really comes down to is examining a home at a thorough level,” Stanley says. With every client, Stanley points out the “big-ticket items”—necessities that impact a home’s performance and incur large costs to update. Look at the condition and age of the roof, siding, windows, water heater, and furnace, as well as any obvious red flags like leakage or drainage issues. Note any immediate upgrades you’ll need and factor those costs into your budget.
Consider long-term green updates.
It may seem counterintuitive to think about potential upgrades years in advance, but sometimes a little planning can save time and money later. For example, if you’re considering eventually adding solar panels, Stanley recommends looking at the roofline to be sure you have south-, east-, or west-facing exposures that are clear of trees and other obstructions. If an electric vehicle is in your future, you’ll need at least 150-amp electrical service to support it.
Don’t rely on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). While the MLS includes fields for Energy Star and other sustainable features, it’s only as useful as the data realtors enter. If an agent doesn’t know if a property contains these upgrades, a narrow search won’t pull them up. Therefore, Stanley recommends searching broadly and working with a knowledgeable realtor who can point out green features during tours.
As you set up your home, create systems that help you go green every day. Consider starting a backyard compost system.
Declutter as you pack.
It doesn’t make sense to move items you don’t use. Instead, take this opportunity to Marie Kondo your stuff and only pack items you love and need.
Then give your cast-offs a second life. In her book, The Conscious Closet, journalist Elizabeth L. Cline includes chapters on how to responsibly donate, sell, swap, and recycle used clothing (read more about it here). When donating to local organizations, it’s always best to reach out or check online first; some, like Goodwill and Savers, have long lists of potential items they accept, while others have limited storage space and may only accept donations as needed.
Don’t buy packing materials; reuse boxes to save money and resources. “You can ask friends, businesses, grocery stores; they will all have cardboard boxes for free,” says Ginny Leary, who is TRUE certified in zero waste principles and shares tips on Instagram @zerowastebuffalo. Some moving companies may also offer reusable totes for packing.
Offset your move.
From driving to work to heating our homes, our everyday activities emit carbon dioxide, the primary cause of climate change. Carbon offsets are a concrete way to reduce our individual carbon footprint. Essentially, a carbon offset is a certificate representing one ton of carbon reduced from the atmosphere. Through social enterprises like Terrapass and Carbonfree.org, you can purchase offsets based on your individual footprint, and the money will fund carbon-reducing projects in renewable energy, forestry, and landfill gas capture. Especially if you’re using a large truck to move a long distance, Leary suggests counteracting the adverse impact of that move through carbon offsets.
Make a house a home
Conduct a home energy audit. The first step in assessing your new home’s energy efficiency—and how to improve it—is an energy audit. Through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), many homeowners qualify for free or reduced-price audits; visit nyserda.ny.gov for more information.
“It will look at where your biggest heat loss factors are and use things like a blower door test and infrared cameras to show where heat loss is happening in your home,” Stanley says. “That will give you an idea of where you should focus your efforts, whether that’s insulation, windows, or doors.”
Get to work. Even the best recommendations are meaningless if you don’t take action. With your energy audit and budget in mind, prioritize updates. “You usually get the best bang for your buck when you put money into insulating your home because if you can prevent heat loss, you can reduce your energy bills, even if you don’t upgrade your furnace or hot water tank,” Stanley says.
With each project, consider ways to maximize your investment—and minimize your footprint. For example, a tankless, or on-demand, water heater uses significantly less energy than a conventional hot water tank because you’re only heating water when you need it. Also, while Stanley acknowledges that switching to geothermal heating is often cost-prohibitive for homes with natural gas heat (which is relatively inexpensive), the payback time in reduced energy costs is far shorter for homes with propane or oil heat.
Make small changes for big impact. Even seemingly minor changes add up quickly to increase efficiency. Leary suggests installing low-flow showerheads and replacing flourescent light bulbs with LEDs. “Make sure to do this once the current ones are dead,” she says. “No use in wasting a bulb that still has some life left in it.”
“Check home thermostats to see if they are programmable,” advises Jackie Hausler, who blogs about interior design and sustainability at haus2home.com. “If they are, you can set them to certain temperatures at specific times to maximize your energy efficiencies. If they aren’t, it’s a low-cost, high-impact update you can easily make.”
Shop secondhand and DIY. “There are a million pieces out there screaming for a makeover that you can snatch up for a steal,” Hausler says. She suggests checking garage and estate sales, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, Buffalo ReStore (which benefits Habitat for Humanity), and even the side of the road.
From there, your secondhand find may need some TLC. “The most important part is always giving it a good clean,” Hausler says. “You’ll be surprised how much a piece can be transformed by just removing the grime with some soap and water and adding some oil or polish to make it shine.”
Make sustainability second nature. As you set up your home, create systems that help you go green every day. Learn your community’s rules for curbside recycling and yard waste and keep your tote in an accessible location. Put reusable bags near the door or stash a few in your car for impromptu shopping trips. Consider starting a backyard compost system or collecting rainwater in a rain barrel.
If gardening appeals to you, start planning for warmer weather by determining which areas of your yard receive ideal sunlight for veggies or other plants. And, if you don’t have a yard, consider container gardening.
Instead of replacing things that break immediately, learn simple repairs through YouTube videos or books, like Popular Mechanic’s How to Fix Anything, available through the county library system. The Tool Library also hosts monthly Dare to Repair Cafés, where volunteers fix everything from lamps and toys to small electronics and vacuums (thetoollibrary.org/daretorepair).