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Home buyers must beware of 'greenwashing'

Kenneth R. Harney on

WASHINGTON -- The practice is called "greenwashing" and home shoppers need to be on guard: It means a house is being marketed as environmentally friendly and energy-saving when it doesn't really deserve that description.

Greenwashing is a growing issue in real estate as multiple studies demonstrate that consumers are attracted to -- and will often pay premiums for -- homes that are highly efficient in saving on utilities bills.

Just about everybody likes the concept of green, and builders and real estate agents increasingly use the term as a sales come-on. But experts say too often what's marketed as green isn't what it purports to be when you take a close look.

Sandra Adomatis, an appraiser in Punta Gorda, Florida, who is nationally known for her expertise in valuing green properties, says "look in the MLS (multiple listing service) and you'll see lots of homes listed as having green features" but it may mean as little as "somebody put in some LED light bulbs or a couple of Energy Star appliances in the kitchen."

In an interview, Adomatis described one listing she saw recently on a home built in 1959. It indicated that the house had a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score of zero -- as good as you can get. (The HERS index measures a home's energy efficiency and requires testing of the home's performance by a certified HERS rater. The lower the score, the better.)

Adomatis knew it was unlikely that an older home would come anywhere close to such an impressive rating, so she asked the listing agent why she was marketing the house with a zero HERS score. Her response: "I don't know what HERS is or how they score, so I just put in zero." Wow.

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Allison A. Bailes III, founder and president of Energy Vanguard LLC, a home energy rating and consulting company based in Decatur, Georgia, says "absolutely, [greenwashing] happens all the time. A lot of [builders] are doing things that are just standard," but they're marketing them as green. He says he saw one company aggressively advertising its allegedly green homes, but most of the details didn't amount to much. It was hype: Insulation R-values that met, but did not exceed, minimum local building code requirements; code-minimum HVAC systems; "digital thermostats," which are commonplace; Energy Star appliances; and a long list of other unremarkable features. As to Energy Star appliances, Bailes noted in a blog, "if you've done any shopping lately, you may have noticed that it's hard to find one that's NOT Energy Star certified."

Kari Klaus, CEO and founder of Viva Green Homes in Arlington, Virginia, a national listing portal exclusively for "eco-friendly" homes, says "greenwashing is a growing problem -- clearly there's a desire to jump on the train and use buzzwords" like "green," "sustainable" and "high efficiency," too often with little to back up the claims. Her website (www.vivagreenhomes.com) carries free listings for certified (HERS, LEED, Energy Star, Built Green, Net Zero and others) as well as non-certified homes that have some green features such as solar panels, geothermal, energy-efficient windows and doors, water conservation devices, etc.

When non-certified homes are listed on the site, the seller or agent must check off boxes indicating what green features the property offers. The site then produces a "Green Score" ranging from one to five stars to give potential purchasers a rough idea of how green the house really is.

The site also allows visitors to shop for specific features or high ratings area by area.

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