Home energy audits defy critics, backers’ forecasts Real estate effects don’t seem onerous, but fewer upgrades made than expected
A year after it took effect, Austin’s requirement that many homes undergo energy audits has not produced the dire effects that some in the real estate industry had feared.
But its impact on energy conservation is debatable.
In 96 percent of the 4,862 audits conducted, the energy auditors recommended at least one improvement. However, only 520 homebuyers or sellers followed through on any of the recommendations.
That is far short of the City Council’s first-year goal of 25 percent of all homes sold getting energy upgrades. More than 9,500 city homes served by Austin Energy were sold in the 11 months that ended in April.
Still, it’s a start, said Karl Rábago, vice president at Austin Energy, which oversees administration of the new ordinance.
“It suggests that this is in fact a valid gateway to our energy-efficiency programs and having a conversation about energy usage,” Rábago said.
The City Council will review how well the ordinance is working, he said. “We need to take a hard look at marketing and education and the impact of this economy on the most effective means for getting to that goal.”
The ordinance applies to homes older than 10 years, with some exceptions, including homes that have had energy improvements within the past 10 years.
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Sellers must hire a citycertified energy auditor to inspect their home and provide a report that must be shared with the buyer before or at closing.
Sellers are not required to make any of the recommended improvements, which can range from steps as simple as caulking and weather-stripping to installing new heating and air-conditioning systems, which cost several thousand dollars.
The audits typically cost $200 to $300. Failing to get one can result in a fine of up to $500. Austin Energy says no fines have been levied under the ordinance, which is enforced through a complaint-based system.
The ordinance has not stalled home sales or weakened sellers’ negotiating power, real estate agents say.
Tammy Young, an agent with Realty Austin, said she thinks the audits are a good first step toward making buyers and sellers more aware of a home’s energy efficiency and what they can do to improve it.
“The audit has never crushed any deals for any of my buyers or sellers,” Young said. “In one or two cases, it led to an additional seller concession,” she said, mentioning a case in which a seller agreed to pay half the cost of sealing the ducts. “That was a defect in the house that we wouldn’t have known about based on the general inspection report alone.”
Sellers generally have accepted the cost of the audit as part of the expense of selling their homes, Young and other real estate agents say.
Ginger Auel, a local real estate broker, said the audits make buyers aware of energy-related items that they can improve upon, which will increase the home’s efficiency while keeping cost down.
Asked whether the audits can be another selling point, Auel said, “I think it’s helpful for buyers to have the energy audit reports so they know what to expect on their future investment, but I don’t think it is necessarily a huge selling point.”
Joe Stewart, a broker/agent with John Horton Realty, said he thinks the audits largely duplicate the job done by licensed home inspectors and don’t materially add to the stock of more energy-efficient housing in Austin because acting on the recommendations is voluntary.
Stewart said home inspectors, who are state-licensed and must use an audit form promulgated by the state, in some cases have caught mistakes made by energy auditors, including one case in which an auditor erroneously said a home had double-pane windows. (Rábago said Austin Energy’s goal is to review 10 percent of the audits for accuracy and completeness and to follow up with the new owners about making energy upgrades that are eligible for Austin Energy rebates.)
Stewart said the audits are a burden for lower-income home sellers who “count every penny.”
The ordinance’s proponents counter that it is especially crucial for lower-income folks to know about their home’s energy use, because it accounts for a higher proportion of their household income — as much as 20 to 25 percent, Rábago said.
Billy Meyerdirk, owner of Energy auditor Kristof Irwin checks a swimming pool pump at a Parkfield Drive home in North Austin to see if it has a timer. improve its comfort, health, safety and durability — and likely its resale value,” said Kristof Irwin, who, with his wife, Diane, owns Blue Heron Builders, an Austin-based green builder of custom homes, and Positive Energy, an energy audit firm.
For example, fixing leaky ducts not only improves air quality but can help prevent mold, he said.
In addition, an audit sometimes uncovers potential safety issues, including improperly vented combustion appliances such as gas ranges, water heaters or furnaces. Such deficiencies, Irwin said, routinely turn up in the audits.
When buying a car, “we’d be aghast if there wasn’t a window sticker saying how it performs as far as fuel economy,” Irwin said. Because homes use a significant amount of energy, it’s all the more important for an owner or buyer to know about its efficiency, he said.
Rábago said consumers “come to energy efficiency by 100 different roads,” such as wanting lower electric bills or improved indoor air quality. The energy audit ordinance “is one more road, and the more roads the better, he said, “because we know the cheapest power plant you’ll find is the one you don’t have to build.”
“There is a gold mine of energy savings in older homes,” Rábago said.
The utility has a wide range of energy-efficiency programs, including rebates and low-cost loans, for both homes and commercial properties.
Since Austin Energy’s last rate case in 1995, “we’ve saved over 660 megawatts of electricity — the size of a large power plant — through energy-efficiency programs, and at way less than half the cost of what a power plant would cost,” Rábago said. “That’s why for 15 years we’ve avoided a rate case.”
Positive Energy co-owner Kristof Irwin covers a register in a Parkfield Drive home’s kitchen to test the central air-conditioning and heating system ducts during an audit under the year-old city rules.
This gauge measures air pressure and flow in ductwork.