With Earth Day approaching, the media will soon be singing the praises of people living off the grid with solar panels and water reclamation systems. Meanwhile, if you're in the market to buy a house, you're probably hearing about eco-friendly homes and wondering: How can I get in on the action?
Hint: It isn't as easy as it looks. But if you want to buy a house that's in harmony with the environment, here are a few points to consider that may help you prepare for your search.
Be ready to look (and look, and look). Environmentally friendly houses and even neighborhoods that are sensitive to the environment are out there, but they are not as plentiful as you might think. Your search will require some patience.
"We don't get a huge demand in the Northeast from people who want homes constructed with environmentally friendly materials—not as much as you'll find in the Midwest and South," says Chris Masiello, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, which is based in Keene, N.H.
What constitutes environmentally friendly materials? Generally, green builders utilize components that are recycled or have been salvaged from other houses or buildings that were torn down. Sometimes, it's a matter of getting materials locally instead of shipping them from across the country or world. Houses constructed from those materials may be in short supply, but according to Masiello, at least in his part of the country, it is becoming more common to see green add-ons to homes like wind turbines and solar panels.
It is still rare, however. No matter what area of the country you're looking for a house, unless you're incredibly lucky or well-connected, you're going to search for a while before finding your dream eco-home—even on websites designed to help people who are concerned about keeping the planet clean, like GreenHomeFinder.com, which features some perfectly good homes but not enough of them. If you check out quite a number major cities and states, you'll turn up nothing.
"Eco-friendly, sustainable houses are not mainstream," says Timothy Woods, both an architect and an architecture professor from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Be ready to spend. That is a big reason the 21st century isn't yet full of solar-paneled houses built out of recycled steel and walls that are insulated with old denim jeans. These homes are expensive.
"Most new-construction, sustainable houses are more costly than new-construction standard houses," Woods says, adding that the homes may save money in the long run, but buyers have a tough time getting past those initial costs, which are often 20 to 30 percent higher than conventionally constructed homes.
Woods says he has designed eco-friendly, sustainable houses that are below the average building cost and have energy bills that are one-third of the average home. The trick, he says, is for the architect to design the house to fit the environment. "In other words, it's better to use an inexpensive window positioned in the right place to take advantage of natural heating and cooling than to place an expensive window in the wrong place to try to solve for a house design that does not take advantage of its natural environment," he says.
Masiello says eco-friendly homes in the Northwest are even more expensive than those in other parts of the country, due to the terrain and weather, explaining: "Construction costs are higher than in most parts of the country, and you wind up with snow loads on roofs. Houses tend to have to be built with much greater materials, which adds to the costs."
Be ready to build. Because eco-friendly homes aren't part of the mainstream yet, you will probably have to hire a builder if you want a house that doesn't rob resources, or many, off the electric grid. A builder is also likely necessary if you're seeking a house that conserves water, with elaborate filtration systems that allow the home to recapture lost, usable water, often called greywater (such as water that runs while you're doing dishes; it is never water from a toilet), which can be utilized for watering gardens, trees and flowers in the yard.
As noted, building an eco-friendly home won't be cheap, although the costs vary. "It really depends on the geographic region," says Woods. "California can range from $150 to $250 per square foot. My house [in Georgia] was $75 per square foot."
If you can't find an eco-home, you can always add features to an existing house, although that won't be inexpensive, either. According to a recent issue of Sierra, the Sierra Club's magazine, the average rooftop solar array in the United States costs about $20,000, although federal and state tax credits can bring that number down significantly.
And if you can't afford to build and can't find a home that makes you feel you're doing something worthy for the environment, take heart that you may still end up doing a lot of good with the house you buy. After all, if you purchase a small home instead of a large house with extra rooms you don't need and high ceilings, you'll use fewer natural resources for your energy than the homeowner who lives large.
Furthermore, keep in mind that if you are building a sustainable home, no matter how environmentally friendly the building materials are, there's almost always a negative cost to the environment when building anything. (Those environmentally friendly materials have to be transported by train, truck or something that uses gas.)
Surreal as it may sound, homeowners who buy a house that's already been lived in are being better stewards of the environment—at least in the short term—than the environmentally conscious homeowner who builds a new sustainable home from scratch.