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Measure Dream Home With the Environment : Purchasing property with energy-thrifty and water-saving devices will be wise investment in the long run.


The shopping bug bites us at holiday season--and some of us it bites big. We go shopping not merely for things like home appliances but for entire homes, the largest purchase most of us ever make. Judy Hoag, president of the Ventura Assn. of Realtors, observed, "This is the time of the year when it's the busiest."

Just like certain home appliances, homes themselves can combine economy and attention to the environment. Energy-thrifty and water-saving features are "an enhancement to a property when you sell," Hoag said. And while you're still living in that home, features like solar heating for spa and pool water can cut utility bills significantly.

What should you be looking for this season--or any season--in the way of an environmentally friendly home?

"Water rates are horrendous," Hoag said about the city of Ventura, where she lives. "And they upped the rates to make up for lost income when usage went down during the drought."

One solution, she said, is to buy a house with drought-tolerant landscaping, or re-landscape the home you currently own, to keep the water bill about the same in the future. "And it's absolutely easier to maintain," she said of this kind of exterior decorating.

Concerning the house itself, she said that installing double-glazed windows--which she did in her own house--can lower energy bills.

When anybody buys a house, there are the more complicated issues of heating and air-conditioning efficiency and insulation or questions about radon, asbestos and lead paint. For such matters, Hoag said, potential buyers should seek advice from an expert. We called the American Society of Home Inspectors and the California Real Estate Inspection Assn. for referrals.

Jim Farmer is a real estate inspector from Newbury Park. He is one of the experts Hoag recommends to cautious home buyers--at about $250 a pop--to look over a house before money changes hands.

"When a person buys a home it's emotional," Farmer said. "They buy with their heart, not with their eyes." And, he said, they don't initially notice certain features, some of which are very mundane indeed, which can make a difference in the livability and the possible resale of a home.

He listed some of these "environmental bonuses." The most mundane are buried, water-efficient sprinkler systems, buried power lines and low-water landscaping. Then, to cut smog-producing energy use, there is insulation, double glazing and weatherstripping, as well as efficient appliances. Electronic air filters inside a house can cut smog damage further.

A question he raises about stoves and heating equipment is, "What's the efficiency rating?" Newer equipment is 90% efficient; that is, you utilize 90% of the fuel you pay for. Older stoves and heaters, said Farmer, send half the fuel they consume "up the flue."

The bonus of having a solar heater for pool water is significant. "If a gas pool-water heater is broken, don't fix it," he said. "Install solar instead, and in a year you'll be getting free heat."

Local inspectors like Farmer also routinely check for environmental hazards like radon, asbestos and lead paint. Old or badly maintained houses and those in certain geological areas sometimes need attention. But it's seldom a costly affair.

Earthwatch doesn't want to be the grinch that stole Christmas, but rather just point out that if you're home hunting these days, let your environmental smarts as well as your holiday spirit guide you.


* FYI: Environmentally friendly home features can be a bonus to new owners. Holiday season home buyers are well advised to listen to realtors who recommend consulting a professional home inspector about these and other home energy and safety features. For referrals, call the California Real Estate Inspection Assn. (800) 388-8443, or the American Society of Home Inspectors, (800) 743-2744.

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