GREEN IS IN. It seems nearly every magazine — including, now, this one — has had at least one issue with a green topic emblazoned on its cover, with articles offering tips about environmentally-friendly living. Consumer consciousness has been raised, and homeowners are wising up, opting for green choices in their light bulbs, paint, windows and HVAC systems.

But for buyers looking for an environmentally-conscious home or office, the array of advertisements touting green features can be overwhelming. It’s hard to separate what’s a real environmental plus from all-too-common marketing fluff.

Because of that, REALTORS® representing sellers who have gone the extra mile to turn their property into a showcase for sustainable living may want to find ways to demonstrate these features to potential buyers. And buyers’ agents need to know what’s real and what’s hype.

While the Internet can provide a fountain of information on what it means to be green, REALTORS® may feel they’re being flooded with too much information. Sometimes green is obvious — energy-efficient appliances and low-odor paints, for example. But a quick Google search on “green building” turns up more than 13 million potential sources of information.

Web sites from NAHB and The US Green Building Council (USGBC) include brief written for novices in the world of green building. USGBC, for example, includes a “What Makes a Product Green?” checklist as part of its “ReGreen” guidelines for remodeling projects.

“It can be difficult to know if a property has been according to sustainable building guidelines without a third party certification such as LEED,” said Ashley Katz, communications coordinator for the USGBC, referring to

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, one of the most stringent programs for green building.

LEED, in fact, is one of a number of certifications that have surfaced in recent years to help builders and buyers standardize on what it means to be green.

“Third-party certification, such as an Energy Star rating or, in Virginia, the EarthCraft House Single Family Program — or LEED certification — is the clearest way for anyone to know that a building is green,” Waring said, while Katz explained, “LEED certification is like a nutrition label for buildings documenting the energy and water conservation systems and the materials used in the building.”

EarthCraft and LEED certifications, which are designed mainly for new or remodeled homes, are based on point systems. For EarthCraft, for example, a building must earn 150 points to be certified green, including 75 points for energy efficiency and then additional points for items such as a green roof.

The building gets those points for lots of things, big and little.

“A third party will test the shell of a home for air filtration and test the duct systems to be sure they are tight, then inspect the insulation,” said Waring. “Other green concepts that can earn points include site planning for solar energy, Energy Star appliances and lighting fixtures, water management with low-flow toilets and faucets, and indoor air quality. I happen to like birds, so I even get points by adding a bird bath or bird feeder to a property.”

But the green movement, at least when it comes to buildings, is still new enough that finding a certifiably green home is tough. Instead, you’ll have to know what to look for yourself.

Green Eyes Open

Start with the basics. If you see that a seller has replaced standard light bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs), while it doesn’t mean a home meets the highest level of green standards, it’s at least an indication that they’re environmentally aware.

“Anything you do to be more green is helpful, even if it’s just painting your home with low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint,” said Emily English, Green Building Program Manager for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “Most people remodel their homes in pieces, so even if an existing home doesn’t have every single possible green feature, it can still be considered green if the owners have started working with anything in the whole smorgasbord of ideas that are involved in green building.”

To be really green, though, a building needs a bit more than efficient lights or healthier paint.

“Even if a place has bamboo floors and solar panels, it doesn’t necessarily meet the highest level of green building standards,” Katz said.

She suggests that REALTORS® start by looking at a home’s appliances and fixtures to see if they’re relatively new and energy efficient. They should also consider hiring a contractor to do an energy audit which measures a home’s energy efficiency.

Mark Waring, vice president of Bain-Waring, a green residential building company in the Richmond area, goes along with that. “Green building is based on energy savings,” he said, and the only way to know for certain if a home is truly energy efficient is to ask, and to ask for proof.

“The first step a lot of homeowners take, which is a huge energy saver, is to install low-E argon windows,” Waring said. Those are windows with an invisible low-emissivity coating that refl ects a lot of the heat from the sun. “Other big energy savers which are visible to REALTORS® and their clients include tankless water heaters, older appliances [replaced] with Energy Star appliances, and upgraded attic insulation.”

Testing Green

Michael Strong, vice president of Brothers Strong Residential Design-Build in Houston and the NAHB’s “Green Remodeling Advocate of the Year” for 2008, said it takes two steps to identify a home as green: visual inspection and mechanical testing.

“A good basic home inspection can include a look at the insulation, light fixtures, appliances, sealants around doors and windows, HVAC system, and the windows,” Strong said. “It’s best if this type of inspection is done by a licensed or certified energy rater. In some areas, home inspectors are also green inspectors, but in others a separate inspection may be needed.”

Homes that are more than ten years old should have both a blower-door test and a duct blaster test done, Strong suggested, because they can lose from 25 to 50 percent of their air through duct and sealant leaks. And while he agrees that the most objective and well-defined aspects of green building focus on energy efficiency, there are other elements to being green. “REALTORS® working with clients with health issues such as allergies need to hire someone to do an air-quality inspection,” said Strong. “This kind of air sampling can test for mold and mildew, for radon in granite, and for formaldehyde in carpets.”

There’s more to a green home besides the obvious. “While energy efficiency is the biggest and easiest green feature to identify, consumers and REALTORS® should also look at things like proximity to public transportation, the way a home is sited on a lot, water-saving devices and indoor air quality when deciding whether a home is green or not,” said English.

Of course, being green and staying green are two different things. Just as even the highest-performance car doesn’t do so well without occasional oil changes and tune-ups, even the most environmentally friendly home won’t stay that way.

“Energy Star certification or another third party certification means that a building has the features to operate efficiently, but that doesn’t guarantee performance,” said English. “Homeowners may need the knowledge about what is in the house and what they need to do, such as changing the air filters, to make sure the green features are maintained.”

And don’t lose sight of the big picture. Being green is more than a marketing gimmick or a way to raise a home’s price. It’s a better way to do things.