10 Great ‘Green’ Home Improvements for 2010

Uncle Sam is handing out tax credits for buying energy-efficient products—but they expire at year-end.

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Slide Show: 10 Energy-Efficient Home Improvements

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While the debate over climate change rages on, energy-efficient features have become a key attraction for today's home buyers. The National Association of Realtors' 2009 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers found that nearly 90 percent of buyers considered heating and cooling bills important, and more than 70 percent wanted high-efficiency appliances. "One of the things that we as advocates of energy efficiency have been encouraged by is a change in home buyers' and homeowners' attitudes towards energy efficiency," says Kateri Callahan, the president of the Alliance to Save Energy. 

[Slide Show: 10 Energy-Efficient Home Improvements.]

And why not? Energy-efficient home features help lower your bills while reducing your carbon footprint. On top of that, Uncle Sam is now handing out tax credits worth up to $1,500 when you purchase certain energy-efficient home products. But if you're planning on going green, you had better get moving, says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. "All the tax credits expire at the end of 2010," she says. "So this is the year to do a lot of those things because Uncle Sam is going to help you pay for it." To assist consumers who are considering making these upgrades, U.S. News spoke with a number of experts to compile a list of 10 Great Green Home Improvements for 2010. 

[Also see 10 Ways to Save Cash and Go Green.] 

1. Energy-efficiency audit: Before you can make your home more energy efficient, you need to know where you currently stand. A so-called energy audit, in which an energy professional inspects your home to determine where efficiencies can be created, is a great way for homeowners to figure out which parts of their property need attention. "That is the very first step that any homeowner should take," says Karen Thull of the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance. "[An energy-efficiency audit] is a great way to kind of measure where there are inefficiencies." Homeowners can contact their energy company or a contractor about conducting an energy audit, which may be free in some cases. "I'm an energy guy, but I even called my local utility and had their auditor come out [to inspect my house]," says Randy Martin, the former director of energy-efficiency services at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities. 

2. Seal it up: Ensuring that your home is tightly sealed is a key component of energy efficiency. "You can talk about the future of the smart home and all of that," says Meg Matt, the president and CEO of the Association of Energy Services Professionals. "But it really does come back to the basics of sealing what I call 'the leaky house.' " Plugging up the leaks that allow cold air to slip into your house—and drive up your heating bills—is an important first step. Such leaks are often found near doors and windows, but they can also spring up in your basement or attic. Certain materials used to seal these leaks—such as caulk, spray foam, or weatherstripping—can qualify for federal tax credits. "It's something that homeowners can do easily," Thull says. "And there are a lot of different products out there that are able to do [it]." For more specific information on eligibility and the tax benefits associated with different products, visit this site

3. Insulate upstairs: Adding insulation can help keep your home comfortable year-round. "It turns out that about half of the homes in the United States are underinsulated," Callahan says. "If your home was built before about 1980, you should really look at it to see if you have got the proper level of insulation." For those adding insulation, Callahan recommends starting with an easily accessible part of the house, such as the attic. "In the attic spaces, a lot of times, the insulation over a period of years will reduce down to maybe 3 or 4 inches where you are supposed to have like 10 inches of insulation," says Paul Zuch, the president of Capital Improvements. "A lot of the insulation companies promote going in and blowing an additional 10 inches of insulation in your attic. That really helps." Certain insulation products can qualify for federal tax credits.