Home Buying Questions & Answers
When you’re looking to buy a home, you’ll likely have quite a few questions. Asking the right questions up front—especially when it comes to energy efficiency—will help you navigate the buying process. Here are some of the most important questions to ask.
Energy Efficiency: Top Things to Ask a Real Estate Agent
1. Do you have any training related to energy efficiency? Do you have a green certification?
Real estate agents with energy efficiency experience will be better equipped to help you find a high-performing home. The EcoBroker Designation and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) Green Designation are two programs that signify that the real estate agent has completed a rigorous training program on energy efficiency and sustainable homes.
2. Are there any energy-efficient rated homes or homes with green features for sale that meet my needs?
Ask your real estate agent if there are any homes for sale with noted “green categories” in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). You can also look for “green” keywords in listings. See if any homes recently had a home energy rating or made any energy efficiency upgrades, such as updating appliances or adding insulation. Ask your real estate agent to also look for high-efficiency keywords indicating, for example, that the home has clean energy systems (“heat pump,” “solar panels”).
3. What documentation shows that a home is energy efficient?
If a home is being promoted as energy efficient, ask your real estate agent whether there is any documentation to confirm the performance of the home. Documentation can include a home energy rating or score certificate, an ENERGY STAR certification, or the results of a home energy audit, among other possibilities.
If no documentation is available, ask the current homeowner for a year’s worth of applicable energy bills (electricity, gas, oil, propane). Check what the average monthly or annual energy costs are. Keep in mind that energy use is often related to the residents’ behavior. A household with a family size or habits different from your own will likely have different energy use patterns.
If the monthly energy costs are higher than you expected or can afford, consider making energy-saving improvements that can help. Get a professional home energy audit before or after buying the home to learn what upgrades would help lower the monthly bills. A home energy rating can also help determine the home’s energy performance compared to that of similar homes.
Energy Efficiency: Top Things to Ask an Inspector
1. How well is the home insulated?
How well the home is insulated will have an impact on your heating and cooling costs. In colder climates like New York, the insulation is even more important. The attic and basement should be well insulated to stop heat from escaping the home. Ask your inspector to identify the insulation’s R-value . The higher the value, the greater the insulating power. ENERGY STAR offers guidance on recommended R-values for home insulation based on the climate and location of the home.
2. Are there areas where air sealing is needed?
Look for inspectors in your area who are experienced in checking for proper air sealing, which works to prevent air leakage and boost personal comfort by removing drafts. Some inspectors may charge extra for this service, but you will get a better sense of the overall energy performance and comfort of the home. The most common air leakage points are in the attic and basement, as well as around windows, doors, and heating ducts.
3. How efficient are the heating, cooling, and hot water systems?
During the inspection, the home’s heating, cooling, and hot water systems will be checked to make sure they are working properly. Ask your inspector how efficient the systems are. Most fossil fuel furnaces and boilers have an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating. The higher the rating, the more efficient the system is. High-efficiency systems have ratings between 90 and 98.5 percent and are commonly ENERGY STAR certified. Systems with lower AFUE ratings will cost more to operate.
If the home has central air conditioning, ask the inspector what the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) is. The higher the rating, the more efficient the system is. High-efficiency systems have a SEER rating of 15 or more and are commonly ENERGY STAR certified. Systems with lower SEER ratings will cost more to operate.
For the hot water system, measuring energy efficiency will depend on the type of water heater—gas storage water heaters, on-demand water heaters, electric storage water heaters, etc. Use ENERGY STAR’s water heater criteria guide to determine whether the hot water system in the home is efficient.
4. How soon will I need to replace the heating, cooling, and hot water systems? Does it make sense to upgrade now?
Ask the inspector to find out the age of the system and its expected life span. If the system is 15-20 years old, it may be nearing the end of its life span and need to be replaced. If a new system is needed, consider asking the sellers to replace the system or offer additional money at closing.
Energy Efficiency: Top Things to Ask the Homeowners
Below are some of the most important questions to directly ask the homeowners, or to make sure your real estate agent is asking.
1. What are your average energy costs?
Ask the current homeowner for a year’s worth of applicable energy bills (electricity, gas, oil, propane). Check what the average monthly energy costs are. Keep in mind that energy use is often related to the residents’ behavior. A household with a family size and habits different from your own will likely have different energy use patterns.
If the monthly energy costs are higher than you expected or can afford, consider making energy-saving improvements that can help you save money. Get a professional home energy audit or rating before or after buying the home to learn what upgrades would help lower the monthly bills. A home energy rating can also help determine the home’s energy performance compared to that of similar homes.
2. Have you experienced any moisture problems in the home?
If there are moisture problems, the home may be at risk for condensation, which can lead to mold and mildew. High humidity, cold surfaces, and inadequate ventilation can all contribute to moisture problems in a home. If the homeowners are not aware of the cause of the moisture, consider asking a contractor or professional home energy auditor to identify and make recommendations on how to address the issue. Depending on the direct cause of the moisture, there are low-cost ways to control it. These may include air sealing, adding insulation, upgrading the air conditioning system, or purchasing an ENERGY STAR certified bathroom fan.
3. When is the last time the heating, cooling, and hot water systems were serviced? Have you experienced any problems with any of these systems?
Ask the homeowners when the systems were last serviced by a professional contractor and whether they have the service records. Systems should be serviced annually.
Find out if the homeowners have experienced any noticeable issues with their systems. Issues can include systems cycling on and off more frequently than usual, humidity problems, uneven heating and cooling, or leaks. If any of these problems are occurring or if a system is 15-20 years old, it may need to be replaced. Talk to your real estate agent about asking the homeowners to either replace the system or offer money at closing toward purchasing a new one.
4. Are some parts of the home hotter or cooler than others?
If temperatures throughout the home are not consistent, it may be a sign that air sealing and insulation upgrades are needed to keep heated and cooled air where you want it. Air leaks in a home and duct system can prevent heating and cooling equipment from working efficiently. Sealing and insulating ducts can improve the efficiency of a heating or cooling system by as much as 20 percent.
If the home has effective air sealing and insulation, inconsistent temperatures could be a sign that the heating or cooling equipment should be serviced or upgraded. The size, location, and efficiency of windows can also have a big impact on comfort. Have a contractor or home energy auditor check the home’s insulation and air sealing and confirm the condition and efficiency of the windows and heating and cooling systems.
5. How old are the appliances in the home (e.g. refrigerator, dishwasher)?
Look for ENERGY STAR certified appliances in the home. These will be the most efficient. You can also ask for the age, make, and model of all major appliances and research their performance using an appliance energy calculator. If the appliances are old or inefficient, consider purchasing new energy-efficient appliances when moving in.