Selling Green

By Judy Newman

MLS listings are emphasizing the eco-friendliness of homes.

When potential buyers are considering a home or condominium, more and more of them are no longer just looking to see how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has or if the kitchen is equipped with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

Some also want to know if the refrigerator has an Energy Star designation, if the toilets are low-flow or how energy efficient the windows are.

Features that make homes use less energy are becoming more important selling factors, REALTORS® say. And they are studying up on ways to help their clients go green by taking specialized classes and by highlighting environmentally friendly features via the Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

It’s what the public wants, says Mary Janik, 2009 president of the five-county Traverse Area Association of REALTORS®, in Traverse City, Mich. Her organization is one of the first in the country that has “greened” its MLS. Homes with energy saving features have a green indicator on their MLS listings. Viewers perusing the listings on a computer can click on the symbol for green features and a written checklist pops up showing which features are marked as certified on the home. 

Janik says a growing concern about protecting the region’s environment is a big factor. “The sense that I’m getting is that, at least in our area, environmental quality is very, very important and our water quality is of utmost importance to our people,” she says. “We are surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply (the Great Lakes). We need to be stewards of that water supply for future generations.”

Over the past couple of years, REALTORS® in the Traverse City area began noticing that people were interested not only in eco-friendly features in home building and remodeling but in having a way to find homes with those features on the Multiple Listing Service. “We really didn’t have anything set up to do that,” Janik says.

It worked out well, she says, that at about the same time, the National Association of REALTORS® stepped up its own effort to incorporate green procedures, launching a green training program. A 12-hour core course explains green building trends, sustainability issues and smart growth policies. Members can then choose one of three areas for further study — residential, commercial or property management —in a six-hour elective session. The three days of classes, which can also be taken online, conclude with tests that participants have to pass before they can earn an NAR Green Designation and become a member of its Green Resource Council.

Since the core course was introduced at NAR’s annual conference in Orlando in November 2008, nearly 5,000 REALTORS®have completed the class, says Al Medina, who manages the green training and is director of NAR’s Green Designation program. “That’s very good. It’s an indicator of the demand for green education,” says Medina, a LEED accredited professional from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Cost of the core program: $295 in person or $325 online; electives cost $125.

At the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (TAAR), all six staff members will have their NAR Green Designation by the end of 2009, executive vice President Kimberly Pontius says. By September, 23 of the association’s 605 REALTOR® members had gone through the program with another 25 slated for the November course. “I anticipate 10 percent of our members will have their Green Designation by year’s end. That’s how aggressively we’re approaching it,” Pontius says.

TAAR worked with the local home builders association to develop a disclosure form for sellers. The four-page form is “the most comprehensive greening of the MLS” that NAR’s Green Resource Council says it has reviewed. Sellers and builders can specify if the home has any of a wide variety of features, based on four categories:

  • Energy efficiency, such as Energy Star appliances or chemical-free insulation;
  • Renewable heating and cooling, including solar panels, in-floor radiant heat or tankless water heaters;
  • Indoor environmental quality, such as the use of finishes without volatile organic compounds, sustainable flooring in cork or bamboo, or low-flow bathroom fixtures; and
  • Exterior water conservation, including rainwater collection or drought-resistant landscaping.

TAAR rolled out the green checkoff concept in November 2008 in a combination trade show/outreach program called Green Solutions 4 — the “four” stood for: residential, commercial, property management and remodeling.

The goal was “to raise awareness about the value of green in home building and real estate” and to educate both REALTORS® and the public, Pontius says.

Since then, TAAR has shortened the name Green Solutions 4 to GS4 and has made it a brand under which the group has held more workshops and seminars about how to make properties eco-friendly.

Pontius has been asked for advice on how to incorporate green elements into the MLS. He spoke to the Council of Multiple Listing Services conference in Lake Tahoe in October, and he will be a speaker at NAR’s annual conference in San Diego in November. 

Janik says she was prompted to act when a speaker at NAR’s 2008 conference recommended reading Thomas L. Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

“It’s going to open your eyes up. We’re destroying all of our natural resources and then putting them in landfills when we’re tired of them,” Janik says. “We, as a board and association said, this isn’t right. What can we do to get the word out to the public there’s a lot of good in doing green construction and green home building?”

At the same time, home builders in the Traverse City area were ripe to go green, including Pathway Homes. Gary Jurkovich, chief executive officer, says he took a chance, building five homes, chock-full of energy-saving and eco-friendly features, on speculation at a time when the housing market was slowing down.

Next came Chrystal Ridge Condominiums, a 22-unit development under construction. The 1,600-square-foot condos, with full basement, are expected to have heating and cooling bills totaling only $800 a year, Jurkovich says, even in cold and snowy northwest Michigan.

“We’re not seeing homes built out of straw bales and recycled tires,” Jurkovich says. “One of the biggest things is it has to be accessible to everybody.” 

Jurkovich says spending an extra $2,500 can equip a home with spray foam insulation, low-flow bathroom fixtures, a high-efficiency furnace and hot water tank, and compact fluorescent light bulbs. “You’ll get your payback in 36 months and have a significant impact on the carbon footprint,” he says.

In the Tucson, Ariz., area, REALTORS® are about to introduce a checkoff list with categories of features consistent with national and local ratings systems for green homes. “We look at these critical categories: energy, water, resource efficiency, location, sustainable site and indoor environmental quality,” says Jan Anderson of Long Realty Co. and a member of the Tucson Multiple Listing Service technology committee.

“One of the things we are trying to do is to help the consumer understand what a green home is. It’s not a random list of features, but a carefully thought-out grouping to address all of the environmental issues inherent in home building, operation and maintenance,” Anderson says.

Each category will have a drop-down computer check list with features that are easily understood by consumers and real estate agents, such as Energy Star appliances, Anderson says. “Features will change over time as technology changes. But the issues we’re addressing, such as energy conservation and water conservation — those are constant.”

On the national level, NAR’s Medina is working with the U.S. Green Building Council, the National Association of Home Builders and others to develop a tool kit to serve as a guide for other communities to add green features to their MLS listings. “There are definitely parts of the country that are seeing the need to do this and they don’t have too much guidance right now,” Medina says.

As more people build homes with green qualities or add environmentally friendly improvements to existing homes, those features seem to fall into four standard categories, Medina says: energy, water, indoor air quality and materials. Determining if homes with eco-friendly characteristics are “green” homes — if they are not certified by a third party or do not fit with national program standards — will be a question of degree. “It’s an issue that we’re trying to figure out,” he says. “If I want to say my home is energy efficient, how many features do I need to have?”

Medina says NAR’s tool kit will include a cover letter explaining why it makes sense to add green elements to the Multiple Listing Service; ideas on how to organize to get such changes made; case studies showing how some communities have greened their MLS; and a recommended data entry form. It will be a guide, not a mandate, Medina says.

Builders and home owners can also pursue third-party certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification is probably best known. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., the LEED designation requires meeting a long list of standards assessed in a “rigorous third-party commissioning process,” the Green Building Council says.

More cities are pressing builders to use LEED standards for new public buildings. For homes, though, it can be costly to meet the qualifications; plus there is the expense of hiring a consultant to test and quantify the features, Medina says.

The National Association of Home Builders offers its own sustainable standards, fairly similar to those for LEED buildings, and certification requires an analysis by an independent contractor. But costs are generally lower and much of the work can be prepared online, Medina says. 

As for the potential hassle factor involved in MLSs adopting a green initiative, Medina says it is a question of “how responsive MLS decision makers want to be. The whole industry is changing. Consumers want it; the government is highly encouraging it through credits and incentives; and on the local level, it may be mandated. Some cities, like Boston, have adopted [sustainable requirements]. Building codes in cities like Boulder and Austin are heavily green,” he says.

“The challenge for MLSs is: do you want to be proactive or reactive? This is going to happen. If it hasn’t gotten to your community yet, it will, within a couple of years,” Medina says.

Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper in Madison, Wis.

Green Living Benefits Everyone

Chronically homeless people in Duluth, Minn., can live in the New San Marco apartments equipped with ceiling fans, energy-efficient lighting and high-efficiency steam heat. 

Women and children with special needs occupy the Pomona Apartments, in Pomona, Calif., which have kitchen and bathroom fluorescent lights, exterior windows protected from the sun and carpets made of recycled materials.

Lower-income residents in Washington, D.C., can live at Wheeler Terrace, which has a geothermal heat pump and a green roof on one of its seven buildings.

Farm workers at the Colonia Amistad in Independence, Ore., have apartments with Energy Star refrigerators and washer-dryers and sidewalks that shed rainwater onto the lawn.

These are just a few of the housing projects that have been created with the help of Enterprise Community Partners’ Green Communities program. The first national green building program focused on affordable housing, Enterprise Green Communities offers grants, loans, tax-credit equity, training and technical assistance to developers and builders around the country to help them finance projects that use environmentally sustainable materials, increase energy efficiency and reduce features with a negative environmental impact.

“The Green Communities program was set up to deliver health, economic and environmental benefits. You’re providing a healthy living environment,” said Dana Bourland, vice president of Green Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners.

Many developers of affordable housing are eager to incorporate green aspects into their projects because they understand the benefits, Bourland said. “They are also mission driven. They know who they’re serving. And they see what a difference it makes, delivering green, affordable housing,” she said.

Established in 1982 in Washington, D.C., Enterprise Community Partners (then called the Enterprise Foundation), was created by real estate developer Jim Rouse and his wife, Patty, with the goal of making it possible for every American to live in decent, affordable housing. Since then, the organization has raised more than $10 billion to help finance more than 250,000 housing units.

Its Enterprise Green Communities program, initiated in September 2004, was meant to be a five-year, $555-million effort to build more than 8,500 homes for low-income people that would be energy efficient and employ sustainable building practices. 

And it has surpassed its goals.

In five years, Enterprise Green Communities has pumped nearly $700 million into projects that have created 16,000 affordable housing units nationwide.

Projects included in the Enterprise Green Communities program must meet certain guidelines. A lengthy checklist includes criteria such as:

  • A green development plan that shows an integrated effort by the project team;
  • A site along existing roads, water and sewer lines, near public transportation, but not within 100 feet of wetlands or land identified as habitat for endangered species;
  • Property in a walkable neighborhood with at least four community and retail facilities within a half-mile;
  • Energy Star appliances and water-conserving fixtures;
  • Recycled materials or salvaged wood; and
  • Renewable energy.

At Intervale Green in the Bronx, New York, at an intersection that looked like a bombed-out war zone when then-Pres. Jimmy Carter visited 30 years ago, about 400 people live in apartments with a private backyard and a garden studded with sculptures by a prominent local artist. 

With the help of grants that included $50,000 from Enterprise Green Communities, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp. (WHEDC) built the largest affordable, multi-family, high-rise building in the United States that is Energy Star-certified — a $39 million, 128-unit building.

Lush, green roofs crown the complex and its landscaping — which includes 33 trees from the Mayor’s Million Tree Initiative — is accessible to residents and to the community. Both are a source of great pride, said Nancy Biberman, WHEDC president.

“We are also proud to be able to locate non-toxic finishes and energy efficient fixtures that are both attractive and affordable,” she said. “We are especially proud of the amenities in each apartment, which include access to broadband Internet. We are providing each family with a computer, as well as instruction on its use.” 

About one-third of the families who move into Intervale Green have come from homeless shelters. Residents are encouraged to get physically fit and reduce energy use at the same time, through initiatives like WHEDCo’s “Burn Calories Not Energy — Take the Stairs” campaign, Biberman said.

“We are giving out bike helmets and pedometers to encourage fitness, and reusable water bottles to encourage recycling. We created a walkable interior courtyard with footprints so tenants can exercise outdoors with the children and count calories expended while walking,” she said.

“Tenants are learning how to save money by creating their own green cleaning products. Most importantly, Intervale Green tenants are already seeing reduced energy costs,” Biberman said.

Tenants in green housing units also benefit from the clean indoor air, said Enterprise’s Bourland. A study of residents in 60 of the Enterprise Green Communities’ homes in Seattle showed children with asthma had a 60 percent reduction in their symptoms within one year.

“We expected from the beginning that there would be an improvement, and our assumptions are right,” Bourland said.

In Middleton, Wis., the Parmenter Circle project has seen a significant savings in electricity and water use, with green features that include low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads; all fluorescent light fixtures; high-efficiency gas furnaces in each apartment; and two inches of rigid foam insulation under the basement floor, said Robert Schwarz, co-owner of the project development company, Nakoma Development.

He said installing energy-saving equipment added to the cost of the building. But a $43,000 grant from Enterprise Green Communities helped cover some of the extra expense for the $6.3-million project.

Forty of the 50 units have rent and income controls, and it helps that utility bills for heat and electricity combined average $70 a month, or about $45 in months in which little heat or air conditioning is needed, said Schwarz, who also lives in one of the apartments.

A recent energy audit by Enterprise Green Communities found that “Parmenter Circle really came out with flying colors. We surpassed their estimates” for reduced electricity and water use, Schwarz said.

Two projects being built in downtown Albuquerque by the private, non-profit, Supportive Housing Coalition of New Mexico, have received grants from Enterprise Green Communities.

Silver Gardens will be adjacent to the Alvarado Transportation Center, a hub for commuter rail and buses, with 66 units for mixed-income residents. Downtown@ 700 Second is on a former brownfield site and will include 72 mixed-income apartments and some commercial space. It will have rooftop solar panels for hot water and heat, and domestic gray water recycling. That means water used in the units’ sinks and showers will be captured, filtered and treated, then diverted for use in the commodes, said Mark Allison, executive director of the Supportive Housing Coalition, developing the projects.

“Water is just a huge thing out here for us,” he said. Innovative green design features such as those cost about $500,000 extra. “But we’re going to own and manage this property for the next 50 years. The more affordable we’re able to make the project for the long run, the better it will be for tenants,” he said.

“We want to demonstrate that it makes good business sense and that it’s the right thing to do. We want to change people’s perception about what affordable housing can be,” Allison said.

Bourland said the projects built over the past five years have proven a point. “We’re learning that you can do this in any housing, that it’s cost effective. Now, let’s do this in all affordable housing, so that green housing and affordable housing just become one and the same,” she said.

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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