Looking to Build a Green Home? Ask Prospective Builders These 8 Questions

House with brown bricks still under construction. Numerous pieces of wood are littered around the front side of the house.

When looking for a green builder, it's important to know what questions to ask.

Every new home buyer has questions for prospective builders, but if you want a house built to green standards, the questions will be a bit different. Before you start shopping for a green builder, decide what “green” really means to you.

“Decide what your priorities are,” says Marla Esser, CGP, LEED AP, owner of St. Louis, Mo.-based Sustaining Spaces, a green building consultancy. “It helps frame the conversation. It could be about water conservation or indoor air quality. Then find someone who shares those same values.”

Those values often have to do with the home’s energy efficiency and 
indoor air quality — many builders may refer to this as a high-performance home. A builder might focus on using materials that are renewable, such as sustainable wood for framing, and are friendly to the environment, such as paints and finishes that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and locally produced materials. It could go beyond these things to how a builder sites a house on a lot to reduce its energy consumption or how construction waste is handled to reduce what goes into a landfill.

Ask each builder why he or she builds green houses.

“A builder should be passionate about green building and be able to articulate the benefits of green building over a code-built building,” says Punta Gorda, Fla.-based appraiser Sandra K. Adomatis, SRA, LEED Green Associate, and author of the Appraisal Institute’s Residential Green Valuation Tools.

Mike Luzier, president and CEO of Home Innovation Research Labs, which administers the National Green Building Standard (NGBS), agrees.

“A builder needs to be able to talk in terms of the benefits consumers receive,” Luzier says. “It goes far beyond energy efficiency. Your home will be more comfortable and more durable.”

Ask about a builder’s designations, such as the National Association of Home Builders’ 
Certified Green Professional or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED AP.

To Certified EcoBroker Chris Andrews, a residential real estate specialist with Equity Missouri in St. Louis, a designation is pretty much the price of entry to the conversation.

“If you’re a builder and don’t have a designation, in my mind, you’re not a green builder,” he says. “You didn’t take the extra step and get the education. If you’re going to hang your hat out there, it ought to come with some papers.”

Don’t stop there, though.

Ask how many houses a builder has actually constructed to green standards.

Marla Esser says that’s essential. While the company’s website might tout membership in green organizations and coursework that’s been taken, that doesn’t prove the builder has actually finished a green house.

“We see dozens of builders with websites where they say they’re a green builder, but they haven’t built any projects,” she says. “You want an educated, experienced person leading the process.”

Ask about references from satisfied buyers, as you would with any builder.

Ask if the house is certified by an independent, third-party organization.

NGBS-certified houses, for example, are rigorously tested in six categories: site design, resource efficiency, water efficiency, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and building operation and maintenance.

Make sure the testing and 
certification is done by an outside organization and isn’t just an internal company checklist with a catchy marketing name.

“The first question a buyer should ask is if your home is certified,” Luzier says, “and if it is certified, to what standard? To meet all the requirements of the National Green Building Standard, a builder has to pay attention to hundreds of details. Meeting the performance requirements of NGBS conveys value in the marketplace.”

In addition to the NGBS, LEED is a recognized standard for excellence in green building practices.

This is huge — and for more reasons than you might think. Yes, it ensures that the house has the features and the performance the builder promised, but it may also help buyers obtain incentives, such as a more favorable mortgage interest rate. For example, the Washington State Housing Finance Commission offers a .25 interest rate reduction for qualifying buyers of energy-efficient homes certified by NGBS, LEED and several other green standards.

Ask if the builder completes the Appraisal Institute’s Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum on its green homes.

According to Adomatis, this form describes the special features implemented in the house to make it high performance or green. You should give the form to the lender when you apply for a loan to alert the lender that the house “requires a competent appraiser with knowledge of the property type.”

Certification also can help at resale.

“Certification stays with the property,” Esser explains. “We’re finding on average, houses are getting 9 percent more when they have that certification, so there’s money you can get out of it.”

Ask if the builder gets a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating on the house, and if you will receive a complete copy of the rating.

For energy efficiency, this rating levels the playing field. The U.S Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency all recognize the HERS Index as an official verification of energy performance.

The lower the HERS Index, the more energy efficient the home should be. According to the DOE, a typical resale home scores 130 on the HERS Index, while a standard new home is rated at 100. A home with a HERS rating of 70 is 30 percent more efficient than a standard new home; a home with a score of 130 is 30 percent less energy efficient than a standard new home.

A zero HERS means it produces as much energy as it uses and probably has a solar or geothermal system, Adomatis says.

Buyers should consider it a huge red flag if a builder who claims to be green doesn’t get at least a HERS rating on the house and provide that to the home buyer, she says.

“HERS scores are a great equalizer,” says Joyce Mason, president of GreenWorks Consulting, a California-based company that works with builders to create and market sustainable building programs. (Mason notes that the HERS scale in California is different than it is for other states.)

“They are a great way to test a builder for its efficiency,” she says. “A lot of builders are marketing their HERS scores. If you get one that is within 10 points of the builder next door, including things like landscaping and air quality, they’re essentially equal.”

Once you’re satisfied with the answers to all these questions, here’s one more:

Ask if you will be able to see your house while it’s under construction and meet the person who will be in charge.

“Often, builders don’t want to take people through their homes while it’s under construction,” Mason says. “It’s important for consumers to scrutinize how the house is built. The things that consumers usually are most interested in are the things that affect their pocketbook — energy and water. What happens inside the walls is more important than on the outside.”

Pat Curry is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who specializes in housing and real estate. Her articles have appeared in magazines and on websites including Professional Builder, REALTOR Magazine and BobVila.com.

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