Searching for Special Features That Make a New Home 'Green'

For an environmentally aware person buying a house in North County, are there any particular features to look for? Are environmental features already available in homes? Are they "searchable," meaning can your real estate agent locate such features in the search for your perfect house?

And if you buy that house, will the environmental features help or hurt your future resale value? (Many of us remember how swimming pools slid from a "must-have" feature at one time to a "maybe-trouble" sales consideration.)

"The environment is a thing which may have an impact on your lifestyle--water shortages, energy costs, landscape maintenance," said Professor Craig Hodgetts of the graduate School of Architecture at UC San Diego, which is set to open this fall. "Everything emanates from our lifestyle here. And we can maintain that lifestyle by optimizing the energy and water savings through design."

What will Hodgetts teach students to include in houses of the future that will make them "green" or environmentally efficient, and at the same time economical?

"There's a lot of stuff on the market today that's incredibly effective at keeping annual operating costs down--below what people are paying now," he said. "Double glazing of windows, extra insulation, energy-saving water heating and appliances, double plumbing for using reclaimed water in landscaping and toilets, native plants for the yard that still look like regular yards."

Does that mean that "green" houses will look like the back side of an old TV--all tubes and metal? Not at all. Hodgetts noted that the most energy-efficient houses for our climate are the old California styles--mission revival and bungalow--which feature low, overhanging eaves and walls that provide insulation to keep the house cool during the day and warm at night.

Frank Penarisi, president of Construction Industries Federation Inc. of San Diego County, gave several examples in North County where developers are already building energy-efficient features into their new homes.

"The cost of water will go up," Penarisi said. "Xeriscaping (low-water-use landscaping) is a sales plus. The salesmen tell us that environment features are important economically and influence the sale if the prices are the same with or without these features."

There is also pressure from state and local government to build energy- and water-efficient homes, he said. Builders and people fixing up their houses for sale know that buyers consider resale value and are attentive to these features.

The National Assn. of Realtors in Washington provides statistics on "home improvements that pay" in its recent member publication, "Real Estate and the Environment." A swimming pool built for $30,000 adds $10,000 to the resale price, for instance. Extra attic insulation and an insulated water heater, along with weatherstripping of doors and windows (to keep in your conditioned air), have a "recovery rate" of 70%. This "green" treatment provides a $700 return for every $1,000 put in. An energy-efficient heating system--something you might want in the hill country of northeast San Diego County--is 105% "recoverable" and costs you less to operate each month--half as much in some cases.

The heating issue can get problematic when it comes to solar heating. Henry McCarthy is a veteran Rancho Bernardo real estate agent and has been active in protecting open environmental space in North County, such as the 65-mile-long San Dieguito River hiking trail from the beach to Julian. I mention this because he told me something that might otherwise sound anti-green: Solar water heating or solar pool heaters are sometimes a disincentive in a house sale.

"People aren't sure they can get them repaired," he said. Solar features, whether passive or photovoltaic, simply haven't become mainstream in North County yet, partly because of the disappearance of the tax incentive for solar equipment.

Some local builders are "ahead of the curve" when it comes to environmental features. In Carlsbad, the Davidson Community's subdivision called Pavona features an "old California classic" building style. Every home has all the previously mentioned eco-features, plus built-in recycling bins. Davidson's competition, Eastlake Development Company in Chula Vista, has also installed double plumbing so homes can use reclaimed water for grounds and toilets.

Eventually, buying, selling or building a "green" house will cease to be a lifestyle or ecological consideration or even something that seems to be part of science fiction. It will simply be economical.

North County real estate agents use various reference books and computer data bases to help find the home you want to buy. "Searchable" environmental features such as those mentioned here don't appear in every database. But according to the National Assn. of Realtors, they will be commonplace within the next few years.

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