In Tight Market, Real Estate Agents Tout Eco Features

'Luxury With A Conscience' i i

hide captionPromoters of a condominium building in Alexandria, Va., bill it as "luxury with a conscience."

Elizabeth Shogren/NPR
'Luxury With A Conscience'

Promoters of a condominium building in Alexandria, Va., bill it as "luxury with a conscience."

Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

With the real estate market still hurting across most of the country, a growing number of real estate agents, builders and homeowners are pitching the green features of properties to try to lure buyers.

But in much of the country, green buyers and sellers struggle to find each other. In most places, the listing services that realtors and appraisers use make it difficult to search for eco-friendly real estate.

And most buyers still put a higher value on location, price and traditional amenities than on environmentally friendly additions.

Green Sells Better If It Also Saves Money

Still, when real estate agent Jennifer Halm shows clients around the stately, historic-looking condominium building in the popular Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., she highlights the property's green features.

Especially the ones that cut utility bills, like geothermal heat and air.

Unlike a conventional heat pump, geothermal units take advantage of the fact that a few feet underground, the temperature stays relatively constant year-round. They pull heat from the Earth during the winter and reverse the process in the summer. Halm says it saves so much energy that residents will pay $100 a month less in utilities, and they'll qualify for big tax breaks.

Geothermal is the property's flashiest green feature, but there are lots of others. The property's Web site is full of details about how the units will help residents tread lightly on the environment.

Even so, the units have not moved fast. But Halm says they're still selling better than the competition.

"It's an added bonus that we're green ... but I think the tax incentive and the savings are more important," she says.

Green hasn't been a silver bullet for architect Robert Nehrebecky, either. He built an environmentally certified house in Bethesda, Md., and his real estate agent advertised it on a national Web site for green homes.

"We had absolutely zero interest locally because of that ad," Nehrebecky says.

Nehrebecky says potential buyers did not seem to care about the expensive sustainable wood floors he installed. But many walked away when they learned that the house didn't have a two-car garage.

It took seven months to find a buyer for the house, and he had to sell it at a loss.

Problems Matching Green Buyers And Sellers

Even ardent environmentalists have a hard time finding the eco-friendly properties that are out there. And sellers often don't get credit for their green improvements.

Portland realtor Kria Lacher i i

hide captionKria Lacher has helped cities develop green listing services to connect eco-friendly buyers and sellers.

Sadie Babits/NPR
Portland realtor Kria Lacher

Kria Lacher has helped cities develop green listing services to connect eco-friendly buyers and sellers.

Sadie Babits/NPR

That really irritates Kria Lacher, a real estate agent in Portland, Ore.

"I would notice things like a 1920s house with all of its original appliances, heaters, windows, all of that. And then another 1920s bungalow that had a high-efficiency furnace and Energy Star appliances," says Lacher. "And they were selling the same [price] per square foot, and that just made me really upset."

She says the problem was that there was no way to search for green homes in the listing services that agents use to advertise properties. So she decided to change that. Now, Portland's multiple listing system makes it easier to match up buyers and sellers of green properties.

Her new system worked well for her clients who were selling a ranch house on a busy street in northeast Portland. On her advice, they installed new energy-efficient windows and added lots of insulation.

The house sold at asking price in 22 days — half of the average selling time in the neighborhood.

Lacher has also helped Seattle; Truckee, Calif.; and New Mexico develop greener listing services. The country's biggest Multiple Listing Service — which covers the Washington, D.C. area — also recently changed its search system to help agents promote and find eco-friendly homes.

Now, it will just be up to buyers to decide if a two-car garage or sustainable wood floors are more important.

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