"Energy and conservation features could well make the difference in the decision to buy a house, all things being equal."
That was the first thing Fred V. Priebe of Brown Realtors in Thousand Oaks told me when I asked him if eco-considerations counted for anything in the real estate business. He's chairman of the land use and environmental committee of the Ventura and Santa Barbara District of the California Assn. of Realtors.
"Builders have begun to use environmentalism as a feature," he said. "Thick insulation, dual-glazed windows, energy-efficient appliances, low-flow toilets and dishwashers, even computers, which switch the heat or cool to different parts of the house where you are or aren't."
And if you're outside?
"The Marathon drought-tolerant lawn is becoming standard in new housing. In this county, lawns are sought after but they have to be low-water," he said.
Over the last five years, these kinds of features have begun to creep into real estate data banks, sales literature and property checklists. In a recent publication, the National Assn. of Realtors lists them among "Home Improvements That Pay."
Specific amounts you can expect to recoup when you sell your house are even enumerated. If you put the insulation in the attic yourself, you can expect to get a dollar and a quarter back for every dollar you spend. One of the subdivisions Priebe represents, Summerfield in Oxnard, boasts a specific list of "energy savers" right down to pilotless gas appliances which, he says, save 30% on gas bills.
Frank Montellero, owner of Westlake Realty, said agents these days are not doing their job if they fail to detail environmental items in their sales presentations. The dollars and cents involved, he said, can be significant.
"We stimulate a buyer to discuss maintenance costs per month after mortgage, taxes and insurance," Montellero said. "There can be a difference of $150 to $300. If the price of the house without the features is exactly the same, they don't buy it. We're starting to see a significant number of clients asking these questions. When you have something that separates one house from another, you use it as a sales tool."
A word about solar energy and the realty market. Some realtors consider it a plus in houses in this county near the beach, where it can get chilly and you want solar heating for your pool. Some think it's a disincentive for those people who are unfamiliar with solar heating rigs for the pool and worried that they can't get them repaired. But any way you look at it, solar heat, from day to day, is cheaper than electricity.
According to Montellero, some present and many future buyers will have different concerns from those of buyers who in the past wanted pools and tennis courts. For one thing, they want to be able to market their houses in three to five years and know that environmental issues will be of greater concern then. They see existing houses being retrofitted with energy- and water-saving features and know they'll be competing with these properties when they eventually sell.
"We're heading in that direction," Montellero said.
We won't be having to give up our ideas of what a home looks like, however. High-tech energy- and water-saving fittings won't mean living in something that looks like the back of an old TV set--all tubes and metal angles.
"Everything emanates from our lifestyle," said Craig Hodgetts, a founding professor of the University of California's newest School of Architecture, in La Jolla. "The point of all these environmental features is to provide the convenience of not having to alter your lifestyle."
That's why the newest, most energy- and water-efficient houses don't look as if they are. In the language of the trade, they are "old California classic."
What's interesting about this greening of the real estate market is that it isn't voluntary. A lot of it is driven by building regulations. And that in turn is driven by drought, air quality problems and rising energy costs. I'm fond of saying that such circumstances provoke us into environmental virtue.
But Professor Hodgetts' acerbic comment about lifestyle made me rethink my slogan. He suggested it should be, "People will do anything to preserve their lifestyle, even buy environmental."
Ventura County real estate agents use various reference books and computer databases to aid in finding a home for a buyer. If you are interested in buying or selling a home with green characteristics, make sure your local realty firm's database and reference library are up to date.