In a shaky economy with sputtering housing starts and downsized budgets, many individuals building green homes are weighing the costs and benefits of having those houses certified by a third-party inspector.
Homeowners continue to pursue certification from groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council and The National Association of Home Builders, but a growing number of them are forgoing a process they perceive to be expensive without yielding sufficient benefit.
While certification can indeed involve time and money, green experts say homeowners should pause long enough to explore the advantages that can flow from those investments before they take a pass.
ProudGreenHome bloggers Irene Garvey and Todd Moore are facing that dilemma now as they build an energy-efficient home in Plymouth, N.H. Their thought is that while LEED and other certification programs help raise awareness and enhance the overall quality of sustainable building, the prescriptive and sometimes costly procedures are not appropriate for their small project.
"Our 'certification' will be satisfaction derived from living in a comfortable and efficient home built with as much local labor and materials as practicable," Garvey said.
Estimates are that it costs anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 to certify a home through the USGBC’s LEED program. Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the USGBC, says that experienced green builders can build a LEED-rated home for as little as 1 percent of the total cost to build the home. Builders that don’t have a high level of green building knowledge could see those costs increase to 4-5 percent. For a $500,000 home, that could add $20,000 to the price tag, unacceptable for most home buyers.
Kredich points out that inexperienced builders and homeowners might want to consider regional programs that are less expensive and more geared toward builders just getting started in green construction. In fact, there are approximately 80 national and regional programs that offer green home certification.
Some of the more well known regional plans include the Austin Energy Residential Green Building program, which certified more than 700 Texas homes last year, and the Earth Advantage Institute. Based in Seattle, Earth Advantage has certified more than 11,000 homes. Austin Energy’s certification program charges homeowners just $50, while homeowners can usually recover Earth Advantage’s nominal fee through local government grants.
There are many advantages to certifying a home, including higher re-sale values, potential benefits from insurance and mortgage companies, higher overall quality, and documentation that a home really was constructed by following green building practices.
Often, certifications come with a major systems maintenance package, as well as a walk-through training session, so homeowners understand how to keep equipment running at peak performance, and therefore assure the longevity of green benefits. In addition, certification can protect against greenwashing, or erroneous claims made by builders or manufacturers about the performance of green products.
Building quality. Kredich says that LEED-certified homes are performance-tested in a number of different areas, and every home is verified and inspected and subject to an audit by the USGBC to make sure the quality of the program is upheld. “It’s one thing to say your home is green, but it’s another thing to have a third party say it’s green. That’s the primary advantage of certification,” says Kredich.
In addition, certification requires another set of eyes to examine a project, a process that is commonplace and common sense in other industries that exercise strict quality control measures. Andrew Moore, general manager of Arlington Designer Homes, says the inspection process is crucial.
“No matter how good you are or how well your systems work, it’s always a good idea to have a second or third pair of eyes on the project,” said Moore, who just unveiled a NAHB-certified Gold level home in Arlington, Va. “Inspectors bring an expertise not just to the current project but to future projects. I’ve learned so much from my [project] inspectors.”
Resale value. While the real estate sector only recently began tracking the relationship of green features to resale values, some regions of the country have gathered data showing that green homes fetch higher prices and sell more quickly. Atlanta and Portland, Ore., are two such cities.
Insurance and mortgage benefits. While these benefits are still in their infancy, insurance companies are expected to begin offering “green-home policies” in the future, and that banks might make available better lending practices for green homes. However, certification will be required as proof to participate in these programs. Certification may also help homeowners to take advantage of a growing number of federal, state and local government incentives.
“I’m very pro-certification, although it can be costly,” said John Miller, owner of John Wesley Miller Co., which built the solar home community Armory Park del Sol in Arizona, featured on HGTV’s Dream Builders TV series. “A lot of it is how much time and money you want to put into the certification, and does it have value to a builder for marketing purposes.”