Green Means Go

THERE’S THIS BANDWAGON, see; it’s green. And it’s time to start thinking about getting on board.

SUVs are rusting in dealer lots. Toyota Priuses are backordered for months. Clorox’s Green Works line of cleansers is selling like hotcakes. Compact fluorescent bulbs are in; incandescents are out. (And soon CFLs are going to be replaced by LEDs.)

In short, Americans are turning a green corner. They’ve begun replacing their SUVs with more fuel-efficient (and, frankly, safer) models, and now they’re looking at their homes. That’s where you come in.

Simply put, green sells.

From insulation and appliances to paint fumes and whether or not a shade tree is a good idea, home owners and buyers are getting savvy about their impact on the environment — and the environment’s impact on their wallets. For REALTORS®, that means learning how to work with a seller to create and market a home’s green features to a public that is (finally, many would say) recognizing their value.

Simple green

Gayle Fleming of Keller Williams Realty in Arlington markets herself as “Your Going Green Realtor®.” She’s an advocate of making a house as green as possible before putting in on the market.

Her take: Especially if you have to do some work anyway, you’ll more than make up for any added costs with a faster sale at a better price. She speaks from experience. In one case, she worked with a condo owner who needed to fix up a property before selling it. They decided to make it as environmentally friendly as possible and market it that way.

“We went in and changed the appliances to Energy Star-qualified models,” she said. “Everything that could be Energy Star-rated was, including the furnace and heat pump.”

Instead of replacing the worn carpet with standard nylon, they used PET recycled carpet, which is softer, stronger, and happens to be made out of recycled plastic bottles. The worn Formica kitchen counters were

replaced with Marmoleum ones. Marmoleum, like genuine Linoleum, is a natural flooring made from linseed oil and rosin. It doesn’t leach chemicals the way vinyl flooring does. The whole place was painted with a low-VOC paints. (That’s volatile organic compounds — chemicals such as formaldehyde in paint, carpet, and furniture — that evaporate easily and get into the air.)

The result? “When we got ready to market this property, we marketed it as an eco-friendly condo,” Fleming said. “It sold faster than anything in this particular development had sold, and higher than anything had sold for.” That client of Fleming’s made some major changes, but even minor ones can make a big difference.

“The list is almost endless,” said Roger Voisinet of RE/MAX Realty Specialists in Charlottesville. “Changing light bulbs, repainting with the right paint, and refinishing the floors with a low or no-VOC finish.”

A seller looking to greenify a house can easily be overwhelmed with options. So before worrying about what kind of fibers are in the carpet, focus on the big, easy-to-market features.

“The very first and most important thing any buyer can look for is energy efficiency,” Fleming said. “Replace those appliances with energy efficient, Energy Star-rated models,” she said, especially those that do any kind of heating or cooling: dishwasher, range, microwave oven, refrigerator.

If the furnace needs to be replaced, make sure the seller installs on with a high SEER rating — that the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, a good measure of how efficient it is. Because if being able to say “new furnace” is a helpful marketing tool, imagine the extra oomph of “new high-efficiency furnace.”

And if the existing furnace is staying, check it out. If it’s Energy Star approved you need to mention it.

“A lot of REALTORS® don’t know to play that up,” Fleming said. “They might say ‘the furnace is only two years old,’ or ‘the furnace was replaced last year,’ but it could be a furnace with very low efficiency, so if it is Energy Star rated, you want to use that as an angle to sell it.”

Ditto for one of the newest and best innovations in appliances: the tankless or on-demand water heater. They can knock a home’s hot-water bill in half or better. But don’t forget water in general. Fleming likes to see low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads, even in older homes; they’re standard in newer ones homes. “If a listing agent is selling a house,” she said, “that’s really something they should talk about.”

Little green things

But what if a seller isn’t interested in making a major investment in new appliances?

“Even small things can make a difference,” said Nate Shaw, who bills himself as “Northern Virginia’s Green Real Estate Agent.”

For example, he said, “wrapping the water heater with a padding blanket to keep it from losing radiated heat.” That will set the seller back all of about $20 or $30, and it shouts “Green!” at prospective buyers. The same goes for a $50 water-heater timer that shuts it down overnight.

Don’t forget ceiling fans. “They can help offset energy use in both summer and winter,” Shaw points out, by circulating the warm or cool air put out by either the furnace or the air conditioner. Seeing them throughout a home sends a positive message, especially because, unlike screwing in a few CFLs, ceiling fans take effort. “Even something as simple as heavy, good sun-blocking blinds and shades can make a big difference,” Shaw said.

If you really want to impress a green-focused buyer, add a rain barrel near a downspout to collect water for use in watering the lawn and plants (which also lowers your overall water bill). Or go all out and add solar panels to the roof. “They’re very expensive in the grand scheme of things,” Shaw admits, “but they’re definitely going to add a lot of value and be really attractive to buyers who are looking for green houses.”

Clean and green

Obviously not everyone looking to buy green is interested in helping the environment or even saving money. But even the most water-wasting, Hummer-driving litterbug wants to stay healthy.

Ergo, look at the paints and carpets. They’re both so obvious they’re easy to miss, but their ubiquity in a home is what makes them so important. Most people don’t realize that paints emit fumes for a long time — years after they’ve been used. And as you walk on carpets or hardwood floors, you’re sending microscopic bits of fabric or finish into the air and into your lungs.

That’s where low- or no-VOC paints and finishes — such as Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec or Sherwin-Williams GreenSure paints, or BioShield’s wood finishes — come in. If a seller is going to repaint anyway, using an environmentally- and health-friendly paint can be a good marketing feature.

Just as with appliances, there are plenty of small things worth doing as well, from using milder cleaning agents such as those from Method Products to simply putting down a shoe rack so people don’t track-in who-knows-what from outside.

“These are just more features for people who are interested in the healthier aspects of a home,” Voisinet said. “You try to get every feature out there that you can, especially if someone made the extra effort.”

There, however, is the rub. One difficulty a selling agent will run into when pitching even the greenest of homes is how to tell buyers about it. It’s not as if there’s a checkbox in an MLS listing for solar panels.

“Unfortunately, with the MLS you’re limited in terms of what you can do with the fields they have both for energy and for health,” Shaw said. “That sort of thing has to go in the Remarks section.”

Still, she recommends mentioning these things in any marketing material, e.g., “have used all-natural cleaning products for the past X months.”

When you’re marketing the green angle, it also helps to get someone else to give a stamp of approval: Get a home energy audit done. “It will show them where the leaks in their homes are,” Shaw said. “A lot of that stuff may not be cost effective to fix, but it gives you some indication of what’s going on in the house.” And the things you do fix you can use as a selling point: “‘Here’s the energy audit, we’ve fixed this, this, and this’.”

Is all this extra work? Yes? Does it cost money? In the short term, yes, but in the long run it adds value to the home, something everyone can appreciate.

About Andrew Kantor

Andrew is VAR's editor and information manager, and -- lessee now -- a former reporter for the Roanoke Times, former technology columnist for USA Today, and a former magazine editor for a bunch of places. He hails from New York with stops in Connecticut, New Jersey, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Roanoke.
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