Q: I’m planning to buy a new home this year, and I want to know how efficient it is. What questions should I ask my home inspector?
A: Many factors go into buying a home. For most people, energy efficiency does not top the list, and unfortunately, houses don’t typically come with energy efficiency ratings.
It can be difficult for a buyer to know how efficient a home is when viewing the listing online or taking a tour. But your home inspector can help you identify potential energy costs and energy-efficiency upgrades.
Some homes may already be efficient, while other homes may need improvements. Buying an inefficient home can lead to unexpectedly high energy bills down the road, so you will want to know what you’re getting into and can afford the energy costs once you get the keys.
Here are five questions to ask your home inspector:
1. What is the condition of the electrical panel and wiring throughout the home?
A panel upgrade or rewiring can be a costly endeavor. An older panel and wiring aren’t inefficient, but they can delay or make some energy-efficiency projects more expensive. In several homes I have worked on, older wiring had to be replaced before insulation could be added.
Make sure the panel can accommodate any new appliances you might want to add, such as
air conditioning or an electric vehicle charger.
2. How old is the HVAC system, and how efficient is it? Has it been maintained?
The typical lifespan of an HVAC system is 15 to 25 years. As the largest energy user and often the most expensive equipment in the home, you will want to know the energy, maintenance, and replacement costs. If the HVAC system is old, consider the cost for a replacement.
3. How old is the water heater?
The lifespan of a storage water heater is about 10 years. The cost to replace a water heater ranges from $400 to $3,600, depending on the unit type and installation costs. If an older water heater is in a finished space or on a second floor, replace it before it fails and potentially causes water damage.
4. What are the levels and conditions of insulation in the attic, walls, and floor?
Insulation is one of the easiest and most beneficial energy-efficiency upgrades you can make. It isn’t as pretty as new countertops, but it can make a home more comfortable, waste less energy, and reduce outdoor noise.
To cut down on drafts and make insulation more effective, air seal before insulating. Seal cracks, gaps, or holes in the walls, floors, ceiling, and framing between heated and unheated spaces.
If your new home needs insulation and air sealing, make this your efficiency priority. The sooner you do it, the more energy you will save over time. Recommended insulation levels vary by location. You can find information about insulation and air sealing at www.energy.gov.
As it’s the largest energy user and often the most expensive equipment in the home, you’ll want to know the age and efficiency of the home’s HVAC system. Ask your home inspector if the electrical panel can accommodate new appliances you might want to add, such as air conditioning or an electric vehicle charger. Photos courtesy of Mark Gilliland, Pioneer Utility Resources.
5. Are there any extras in this home that will increase my utility bills?
Any motors in the home or on the property should be assessed, including pumps for wells and septic systems. When it comes to extras, remember life’s luxuries aren’t free. You will want to be able to afford the cost of operating amenities, such as pools, hot tubs, and saunas.
You can request the home’s utility bills for the previous two years from the seller or realtor. Your bill will not be the same due to your personal energy habits, but this information will give you an estimate of the home’s energy costs.
Electric rates vary across the country. If you are moving to a new city, be sure to check the rates at the local electric utility.
When buying a home that checks all your boxes, ask your home inspector the right efficiency questions. Understanding the condition of appliances, features, and building materials can save you from hidden surprises in your home and on your first utility bills.
Miranda Boutelle writes on energy efficiency topics for NRECA, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.