Why is Green Housing so Scarce?


Post contributed by Sam Lai:

If green, energy efficient homes are so hot right now, then why isn’t everyone doing it???

It seems like everyone’s going green these days.  When you buy your car, a tree gets planted in honor of your purchase, or the chemicals used to dry clean your shirts are “less toxic” than normal.  With every industry scrambling to get to the front of the green line, you would think that the housing industry should be no less affected.  And, with the amount of media attention on green, it would seem to indicate that we’ve reached a saturation point in every sector of society.  However, the availability of green housing seems relatively scarce even in the greenest corner of the left coast.

A recent report was published called the Green Building Value Initiative –Assessing the Market Impacts of Third Party Certification on Residential Properties by Earth Advantage Institute.

The report analyzed the market performance of third-party certified homes in the Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas.  Green homes are commonly recognized as homes that demonstrate a certain level of energy and water savings, CO2 reduction, improved indoor air quality and stewardship of resources.  Prior to the development of any certifications standards, consumers were left in the dark about the actual performance and attributes of homes which were being marketed as green or “sustainable.”  The analysis reports that certified homes in the Seattle metro area sold at a price premium of 9.6% and a 3 to 5% premium in the Portland metro area as compared to non-certified counterparts.  If this is the case, why don’t we see more available green housing stock in our Seattle metropolitan market?  Here are a few thoughts from the perspective of a certified residential appraiser in Seattle (me):

*Green Equals New

Although third-party certification of green homes has been an effective means to differentiate new construction green homes with a greater assurance of quality, certification of the refurbished existing housing stock has been non-existent or extremely uncommon.  Of the 500 homes sold in Seattle in the last 12 months that were marketed as being “green,” only 6 were built prior to 1990.  Of these 6 homes only 1 home was certified as green.  The other supposed “green” homes built prior to 1990 were marketed as having one or two marketable “green” characteristics such as low voc (volatile organic compounds) paint, non-toxic finishes, double-paned windows, energy star appliances, bamboo flooring, tankless hot water heater and energy efficient heat pump.  While many of these characteristics are certainly found in homes that are green, it is self evident that installing bamboo flooring is not enough to transform a conventional house into a “green” house.  One agent went so far as to write on the NWMLS marketing description that the house was “essentially like a brand new 3-star Greenbuilt home.”  In other words, “it’s not new or 3rd Party Certified, but trust me, it’s still green.”

*Live in a townhouse OR drive green?

The scarcity of available virgin home sites in these metropolitan areas also regulates the diversity of design characteristics of new homes that can be built.  Seattle is comprised of housing stock that was primarily developed prior to 1955.  While green/efficient housing is best fit for close-in metropolitan housing markets, these areas are typically already built-up of older housing stock with few development sites available.  The result is, of the 500 self-declared “green” homes sold in Seattle in the last 12 months, 442 were townhouses or ultra compact zero-lot-line cottage homes.  Would-be buyers of green homes are frequently forced to choose between a historic energy sucker built in 1926, a green triple level 2 bedroom townhouse designed for young professionals with no kids and no arthritis, or move to a “green suburb” and spend over an hour in traffic every day.

*New Equals Green

Seattle Department of Planning and Development has a reputation for being one of the most stringent energy codes in the country and is touted as achieving potentially 10-20% energy savings over ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1-1999 and Standard 90.1-2004 respectively.  I’ve heard numerous builders, developers and buyers say, “Yeah, if you’re looking at a new house in Seattle, you’re already looking at a green house.” Right or wrong, there’s a pervasive perception in the marketplace and in the building industry that new homes in Seattle have already undergone a high level of scrutiny to pass Seattle’s increasingly strict energy codes.  Therefore, the perceived delta between the efficiency of a Built Green certified home and a conventional new home in Seattle may seem diminished both for developers and consumers.  

*Green Is Custom-Built

When asked about the current trend of deep green projects being developed and certified in the Puget Sound, the program manager at Built Green, Koben Calhoun, responded:  “We are pleased with the number of projects we have seen come through at the 4 and 5-Star levels. Particularly in the past two years the number of 5-Star projects has increased dramatically. At the end of 2007 we had around 16 or 17 5-Star projects (the 5-Star program started in 2004 so in 3 years we had that many), and now in the past two years we have added about 50 more 5-Star projects. It is definitely exciting and I am hoping we can keep the trend headed that way.” While the numbers for 4 and 5 Star homes seem encouraging for the green market as a whole, many of these deep green homes are custom built, luxury quality and not available for middle market buyers.

*Green – It’s For You, Too

Where will the next wave of certified Green/Energy Efficient housing for the masses come from?  I think the answer is right under our nose.  Existing housing stock in major metropolitan cities across the country can be refurbished and repositioned in the market as certified Green and Energy Efficient housing.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, almost 75% of the buildings in the country were built prior to 1979[1].  Refurbished Green/Energy Efficient housing resonates with the values held by consumers in metropolitan markets on a number of levels:

*Reduce/Reuse/Recycle – nuff said

*Green home buyers can select close-in neighborhoods in walk able/bike able proximity to employment & goods/service centers

*Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from some of the guiltiest perpetrators (old residential housing)

*Existing housing stock is plentiful and allows for a much more diverse & cost effective Green/Efficient housing options

*Homes built in the 1950’s and earlier are 50% more compact than average new homes today.

More to come…