Whether you’re buying or selling, the increased interest in energy efficiency is something to keep in mind.
There’s no black and white slot for green homes. Whether they’re called environmentally friendly, energy efficient, sustainable or passive, they fall under one roof: a home where heating and cooling costs are minimized and comfort is maximized.
Imagine walking across the kitchen floor and never having cold feet, sitting by a window and never feeling a draft or never getting a whiff of bad-smelling air. Chalk it up to great design, which is often invisible but is what makes a home sustainable and cozy, says Victoria architect Graeme Verhulst.
“Comfort is luxury,” says Verhulst, a specialist in passive homes at Waymark Architecture.
A house with high-quality windows, lots of insulation and a heat pump are the hallmarks of a carefully designed, green home, he says: “Energy efficiency is the best measure.”
Verhulst is dismayed that instead, many buyers want high-end appliances, marble countertops and fancy fixtures in their quest for luxury.
Tasha Medve, with Modern Real Estate Team at Royal LePage, has been a realtor in Victoria for eight years and says buyers don’t often ask for “green” homes, but they are concerned about energy costs. “An energy-efficient home is a green home,” she says. “It’s rare that I see people selling a home based on how eco-friendly it is.”
But the market is changing. New homes come with an EnerGuide rating which shows the energy use. The lower the number, the better the performance, with the best result being zero. Often referred to as net zero, it’s a home that produces as much energy as it consumes. So an older home with an oil furnace, single-pane windows and lack of insulation would get a high rating. Medve recommends that buyers request heating bills.
As well, the shape of the home and size of the windows are important, Verhulst says. A lot of jigs and jags, evident with dormers and bay windows, is not green. “Keep the overall shape simple,” he says. To add character, porches and verandahs do the trick.
And if a buyer really wants to get a handle on energy efficiency, they can request a blower door test, which indicates how drafty a home is. A fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the inside air pressure. The higher outside air pressure causes air to enter the house through unsealed cracks and openings, revealing the problems. Not often done, Verhulst says it’s worth the cost.
The Green Spectrum
Builder Mark Bernhardt is a fan of the BC Energy Step Code by which homes are built beyond prescriptive codes and can be 40 per cent more efficient. While the code won’t be mandatory until 2032, the municipalities of Victoria, Oak Bay, Saanich, North Saanich and Central Saanich are following the protocols, making new builds in those communities greener than the outliers.
Bernhardt acknowledges that buyers are often enamoured of what they can see and touch when touring a home instead of what’s not been staged.
“We design for conservation first,” he says.
As for solar energy, Bernhardt says solar panels continue to drop in price and are not much more expensive than insulation. The challenge, and cost, is where to store the solar power.
Other signs that a home is on the green spectrum are flooring and paints. Thanks to LEED standards, off-the-shelf paints are now low VOC (volatile organic compounds), Verhulst says. For flooring, wood, engineered wood, bamboo or cork are green options, while cheap and durable vinyl is not. Highly toxic when burning, vinyl’s production is not green.
Medve likes programmable thermostats because they can be remotely controlled, and at a cost of about $150, have a quick ROI. And don’t forget the yard. Native or pollinator-friendly gardens are far greener than chemically treated, esthetically perfect lawns.
“It’s about changing our mindset,” Verhulst says. “A well-designed building means the right choices. You get healthier buildings that are less expensive to maintain over the long term.”
Updates to make if you’re putting your home on the market
Even in today’s quick-turnover market, homeowners can generate more dollars out of a sale by doing a couple of key, green upgrades. When homes are selling for top dollar, buyers don’t have the appetite to inject further funds for renos.
Medve is well aware of two gripes: “The most common negative feedback I hear when showing a home is that the house is heated with oil and has older windows,” she says. When she bought a 1950s home, she gladly gutted it, knowing that fix-up funds are available.
“Right now, there’s so many government grants. People don’t realize it,” she says. Provincial and federal programs are easy to find online. One example is BC Hydro’s, where homeowners can get rebates for windows, doors, insulation, space heating and water heating.”
“Windows can easily be changed,” says homebuilder Mark Bernhardt. “You can do it without the family moving out.” He adds that windows are the weakest point in a wall, providing minimal insulation. In older homes, you can sit by a window and feel cold. Today’s energy-efficient, double- or triple-pane windows are the beneficiaries of better science that render them far superior to products from even two decades ago.
The second significant upgrade would be installing a heat pump, which is 10 times more efficient than electric baseboard heaters and far cleaner than using oil or gas, Bernhardt says. Heat pumps work by using electricity and refrigerant to move heat from one location to another, either heating a space or cooling it. The Victoria area’s mild climate is an ideal setting for heat pumps. “They generally cost under $10,000 and cut the heating bill by one-third,” Bernhardt says.
Medve has further pre-sale tips: ensure a home is well insulated, install an on-demand hot water tank, put in high-efficiency taps and toilets, have LED lights throughout the home and install a programmable thermostat.