by Janelle Sorensen, Content Director, Elemental Green

How old is the roof? How much is the monthly utility bill? Has the sewer ever backed up? In many ways, the questions you should be asking before buying a house seem pretty obvious, but what if you’re checking out eco-friendly homes? New products and technologies and innovative design are bumping up the eco-factor in many homes across the country, but are all green homes created equal? Of course not. That’s why it’s extra important to know your stuff before making any offers. You’ll likely pay a premium for a green home and you’ll want to know that you’re getting what you pay for. Here’s a list of 8 essential questions to ask before buying a green home, so you can confidently make an offer with your eyes wide open.

#1 Is this home certified?

The easiest way to tell if a home is more sustainable is if it has a credible certification. Energy Star and LEED both offer certifications; LEED has several different sustainability categories while Energy Star is more focused on energy efficiency. To become LEED-certified, homeowners must gain a certain amount of credits in categories like water efficiency, location and transportation, innovation, and more. To have an Energy Star home, owners must commit to a defined set of energy measures that make it more sustainable. Of course, not all sellers bother to get their green homes certified, so just because it doesn’t have a stamp of approval, doesn’t mean it’s not energy efficient or built with sustainable building materials. Clearly, you’ll have to ask some questions to make sure. There are a few websites out there, such as Green Homes for Sale, that list homes specifically by their certifications and make it easier for you to find already certified homes.

#2 Do I have a knowledgeable realtor/appraiser?

Your realtor should be the one giving you the low-down on your new potential home, right? Well, if he or she has no background knowledge of green homes, you might not get all the information you need. A realtor who has experience selling homes with eco features or who has a green credential can make a world of difference in the buying process. Use the online resource, EcoBroker, to find yourself a realtor who is a certified expert. EcoBroker Certification means a realtor has completed a set of requirements, including energy and environmental curriculum. They claim to have the first and largest green real estate training program in the world. Other substantial credentials to look for are a National Association of Realtor’s Green Designation or the LEED Green Associate certification. Also, there are more area-specific green realty sites, such as Earth Advantage of Washington and Oregon and Green Key Real Estate of San Francisco.

Another important factor is the appraiser. Does he or she understand the actual value of a green home? An appraiser who doesn’t factor in the benefits of an eco-friendly home may undervalue it and price it as they would a standard-built home. Get an appraisal by someone certified so that you fully understand the investment you’re making.

#3 Does it have a multifunctional layout?

You can invest in all of the advanced energy-saving technologies out there, but when it comes down to it, less is still more. Buying a massive home, despite any eco features, kind of defeats the point of trying to go green. The more square footage you have, the more energy it takes to heat and light it. Ask yourself, before buying a home, do I need this much space?  There are many homes that have unused rooms, like that formal dining room or all those extra bedrooms, so consider how you actually want to use your future space. Instead, opt for homes that have multifunctional rooms and a well-designed layout so you can get away with less square footage without feeling cramped. A smart, efficient floor plan along with green home technology will help you help the planet, rather than simply offsetting the energy use of an oversized house.

#4 Is it in a convenient location?

Although this is less about the home itself, where the home is located is an important factor to look at when trying to be an eco homebuyer. The location you choose to be in greatly affects your work commute and anywhere else you need to go, and will result in a specific fuel usage. Buying a home in a strategic place will help you use less gas and/or allow you to take advantage of public transportation. Walk Score will help you find neighborhoods and cities with the greatest walkability, the smartest commutes, and all nearby amenities. Many suburbs and some bigger cities weren’t built with transportation efficiency or pedestrians in mind so you’ll be locked into using your car wherever you go. When buying your green home, do some checking to see if you’re setting yourself up for green transportation as well.

#5 How old are appliances and what maintenance do they require?

A good overall question to ask is how old are the appliances in this home?  This will give you an idea what kind of timeline you’re looking at for repairs and replacements. Make sure to find out how old the eco features are as well. As Kari Klaus of Viva Green Homes writes, “Believe it or not, some ‘eco’ products, high-efficiency systems, or building techniques that were considered very efficient or high tech ten, fifteen or twenty years ago could be less efficient than “normal” products or required local building codes of today.”

Don’t forget to ask what kind of upkeep eco features require, and how to use them. They won’t do you much good if they stop working due to poor maintenance or if you can’t figure out how to use them. For example, make sure you know the cleaning procedures for solar panels or how you would actually operate that high-tech home automation system. By asking a lot of questions, you can figure out which home eco feature would be feasible with your lifestyle and how much money you may need to kick into appliances in the future.

#6 Do the green features make a real impact?

When comparing between green homes, consider the features that will make the most impact. Yes, there are some innovative, sleek technologies to tempt you, but choose the elements that will do the most good. For instance, did you know that heating and cooling is responsible for nearly 50% the energy use in an average U.S. home? So perhaps choosing the home with a super efficient heating and cooling system will save more energy and money than a home with eco features that look cool but don’t actually make much of a dent. Additionally, with homes that have undergone a green renovation, opt for those that have redone the kitchen and bathroom with energy and water saving measures as these rooms have a significant impact on overall efficiency. Essentially, just be sure to evaluate which eco features have maximum impact (even though they might not be glamorous), so that you’ll you get the most out of your new, green home.

#7 Are the building materials eco-friendly, too?

Having a green home takes a little more than solar panels and a low-flow toilet. It’s equally as important that home building materials were sourced responsibly and aren’t full of harmful chemicals. You might think you’re doing the earth a favor with solar panels, but some manufacturers use heavy metals like lead, and when it comes to recycling or replacing them, then what? As green living expert Yuli Ouiya explains: “If you have solar electricity in your house, but each panel is made with heavy metals, ask yourself these questions: What happens if those panels get damaged or need to be replaced? Can they be recycled? How are they disposed at the end of the lifecycle? Lots of manufacturers use lead based solder. One panel can have up to 58 grams of lead. According to Caminiti, companies like Mitsubishi, offer 100 percent silver-based, lead-free solar panels. It increases the price but also makes it more durable.” Doing in-depth research comes into play here so you can be assured that your “green home” is truly green.

#8 Is the landscape a benefit or a burden?

Does your eco home have acres of sprawling, perfect grass? Is there enough room for compost and a garden? Your yard is an extension of your house and it’s important to take into account its sustainability potential when looking for a green home. The maintenance that a huge lawn requires (especially by American standards) is not the best choice ecologically. All of the gas to mow, water to irrigate, plus fertilizers and pesticides that homeowners use on their lawns contributes to pollution and uses a lot of precious resources. The more acres you have to manicure, the more harmful chemicals and water you’ll use. Of course, expansive acreage is appealing to many so you might consider xeriscaping your yard or letting part of it go natural instead of keeping it all grass, increasing biodiversity and decreasing resource usage. On the other hand, if you’re buying a very small lot, consider whether it will have enough space for your favorite activities. Bonus points if you add a composter or try your hand at organic gardening.

Buying a house is a BIG deal and there are tons of details to consider. And, as someone seeking a dream green home, there’s even more to think about. But, in the end, you’ll be happy to have gone the extra mile to make sure the place where you make meals and memories is one that reflects your desire for sustainability. It makes home sweet home even sweeter.