Homebuyers take a shine to solar power

SPRING TRAILS, TEXAS - Luke and Nicki Prettol spent four months looking for their first house, narrowing it down to three before finally settling on a three-bedroom one-story in Spring Trails.

The selling point? The home was built to help them save on energy costs.

"When all else is equal, it's one of those things in the back of your head where you go, 'It should be better for the environment,'" Luke Prettol said. Plus, at $206,000, it was in the couple's price range.

Local builders for years have touted the energy efficiency of their homes, such as better insulation and power-saving appliances, but some are taking it to a new level. One company, for example, is creating an entire community where all the houses will have solar power. Another builder claims its new green homes will cut up to 50 percent in heating and cooling usage.

"Just about every other person I come across is wanting at least one of these green features," said real estate agent Stephanie Edwards-Musa, who specializes in green homes. "But it's still making its way here because we are still overcoming the misconception that it's too costly."

Houston homebuyers have long been conditioned to expect less expensive homes than in other parts of the country, which has discouraged the construction of more expensive green homes on a mass scale. But rising energy costs are fueling demand. In a move to bring solar power to the masses, Houston developer Land Tejas plans to power its 2,700-home Discovery at Spring Trails community with the help of solar power.

The solar systems will offset about 15 percent of the electric usage in a 4,000-square-foot home that uses an average 3,000 kilowatts a month, said Craig Lobel, a planning consultant hired by Land Tejas. Actual figures can vary depending on the buyer's lifestyle.

Located off the Hardy Toll Road in Spring, the lots are scheduled to be available to builders this spring. The development is part of Land Tejas' participation in General Electric's "ecomagination" Homebuilder Program, which entails designing homes to lower CO2 emissions and featuring GE products and appliances, Builders must also use methods set by the Environments for Living program, structural and design standards for heating, air conditioning, ventilation and ductwork, among other things, designed by Florida-based Masco Contractor Services.

The homes will be priced between $170,000 and the high $300,000s. Lobel estimates that each house will cost $14,500 more to build, though builders can also get a $2,000 federal tax credit for meeting some energy standards. Savings on utility bills will offset the extra mortgage costs for buyers, Lobel said.

All the homes will also have a "dashboard" made by GE that tracks water and electricity usage, as well as how much solar power the house is using. Requiring all the builders to meet the same standards will help keep home values in the community comparable, Lobel said. Some builders aren't taking green as far as installing solar panels, but have started to make changes that they say will help reduce energy costs.

In January, Houston-based builder David Weekley Homes, announced that all of its houses, including those marketed to first-time buyers, would be built to conform to the highest standards of the Environments for Living Program. It's cheaper for the company to implement the features in all of its homes, now that more consumers want them, company CEO David Weekley said. He can order parts and appliances in bulk and pass the savings on to consumers. Most of what makes the houses green is hard to see, such as more energy-efficient air-conditioning systems and vinyl window frames that conduct less heat than metal ones.

"We're finding that regardless of price range, everyone's concerned about their monthly energy costs and their energy usage," Weekley said. "Most people will admit they think electricity costs are going to go up fairly dramatically, so the concern is if someone buys a home that's not green, it could be obsolete in a short amount of time."

Landscaping also a factor Environmentalists are glad to see the trend develop, but some urge homeowners not to stop there. "The other energy costs that consumers have to look at is how much energy is used going back and forth to their house," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas Office.

"How much energy and water go into making your lawn green?" Still, he noted, a home's long-term energy usage is important, because most houses will last at least 50 years.

"While there's a lot of energy used in the building and construction process, it's the overall energy consumed that matters the most," Smith said.


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