Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Should energy audits be part of home inspections?

Earlier this year when Congress was discussing an energy bill, the idea of mandating energy audits during a home purchase became a point of contention. While misinformation on the issue did occur, the notion of requiring energy audits during a home sale never saw the light of day.

The idea of requiring energy audits is not new, however. Some localities in the U.S. have already implemented a requirement including the city of Austin, TX and the state of Nevada (beginning in 2011), while other areas have proposed some form of energy audit during a sale.

Why have an audit?

The arguments for performing an energy audit when purchasing a home are much the same as for performing a home inspection. That is, a prospective homeowner is given data about the current status of the home so they can make an informed decision. Where the results of a home inspection identify items in the home that are not up to code, do not work as intended, and even ongoing maintenance issues, the results of an energy audit provide details about areas in the home that are prone to energy loss (such as air leaks and insufficient insulation) and items that could be improved or replaced to save the homeowner money on their utility bills.

One key output of the energy audit is a "score" of the home's energy performance. The Department of Energy has published the E-Scale that would allow a buyer to compare homes on a consistent basis vs. a poor substitute of using old utility bills.

Concerns regarding audits during home purchase:

The most common argument raised is that an energy audit will simply point out negatives when nothing is actually "wrong" with the house. The concern from real estate agents is that this will scare buyers off their intended purchase when there is no reason to, or cause sellers to spend additional money to raise their rating. My opinion - one in the minority I believe - is that this is helping buyers make a fully informed decision about a home and that they can then adjust their budget accordingly.

The issue of whether audits should be mandated is more of a political one and a bit more touchy. Backers point to the ability to reduce overall costs and eliminate the potential need for building new power plants. While the benefits of having energy audit results available to a consumer is undoubtedly worthwhile, there are many situations where it's need is questionable. One such example is when a sale involves a rehab investor. In this case, the investor already knows that they are looking at "distressed" property and are accounting for updates needed to the home. While many rehabbers choose to ignore mechanical and structural updates that would improve efficiency, they nonetheless know what they are getting.

A middle ground?

While there are valid arguments on both sides of the debate, it would seem that a simple compromise is that consumers are educated as to the benefits of an energy audit at the time of purchase in the same manner as home inspections. Specifically, they are provided materials explaining the energy audit process and an option to conduct an audit during the home inspection period. The consumer has the choice at that point of simply waiving the inspection or including it as they see fit. The cost of the audit would be the buyers responsibility. (And yes, they can do that now, but awareness is limited.)

Although I am simplifying for the sake of discussion, I anticipate that we will eventually see the practice of energy audits at the time of home purchase become more common - and will likely result in a few problems along the way including poor quality audits, sales that are terminated, etc. The practice of home inspections took its lumps along the way and had to implement higher standards and certifications. (According to ASHI, the first regulations for home inspectors were instituted in 1985 - and only 32 states regulate home inspectors today.) Even in their current state, results of home inspections are inconsistent and can be a point of contention during the sales transaction.

At least certifications for energy auditors are already ahead of the game. RESNET is the standards base when an energy efficient mortgage is involved, but other groups are making headway as well, including the Building Performance Institute.

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