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First-time homebuyers guide to sustainable homeownership

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Shopping for a home can be overwhelming, and comparing potential homes could involve a long list of pros and cons. Somewhere on that list will probably be a series of green home improvements and sustainable homeownership executed by the sellers. Some green home upgrades are valuable and will significantly impact your new home’s comfort and monthly costs, while others sound good on paper but won’t add much to your enjoyment or the home’s value. Here are the green home improvements you should look for, and those you should pass on.

Sustainable homeownership upgrades that are worth it

sustainable homeownership worth it

Some green home upgrades are so cost-effective and add so much comfort to your home that they should be considered must-haves on your home hunt. If you see any of these green home upgrades on a listing during your house hunt, add them to the home’s “pro” column.

Insulation

If you want your first home to be a cozy haven in the dead of winter and a cool and comfortable retreat in the heat of summer, upgraded home insulation should be a must on your green renovation list. Home insulation comes in many forms, from fibreglass batts, blown-in cellulose, to chemical spray foam.

Most homes will have some insulation, but you’ll determine its quality by using something known as an “R Value,” which is a measure of how well the insulation stops heat from escaping your home. The higher the R-Value of insulation, the better. You can determine the R-Value of your home by checking your most accessible space — likely an attic. If your home is a new-build, the developer should tell you the R-Value of the insulation.

The most valuable outcome of additional insulation in a home is the potential to lower your utility bills. If your home is not adequately insulated, heat and cold air can get lost through the ducts. According to Home Advisor, the average cost of insulation ranges from $1,400 to $2,300. Although it’s a more substantial upfront expense, the return on investment over the long term far outweighs the initial price tag.

Heat pumps

If your potential home has one or more heat pumps upgraded, you’ll enjoy energy-efficient heating and cooling. Heat pumps, especially air source heat pumps, used to be considered inefficient and not worthwhile in cold Canadian weather. Advances in technology, efficiency standards, and rising temperatures mean this equipment is now a must-have for sustainable homeownership.

The average cost of a heat pump ranges from $4,092 to $7,211, with a national average of $5,700. Heat pumps can be expensive, but Home Advisor experts say that there is a potential for up to 70% of a return on investment (ROI) upon selling. Another way you get a more significant ROI after the upfront cost is that heat pumps are cost-effective to run. 

If the home you are considering has a heat pump, inquire about the age of the equipment. Any equipment ten years or older will be a candidate for an upgrade within the next few years, which you’ll need to work into your future budget.

Tankless hot water heaters

If you’ve ever lived with a large family, you know the pain of running out of hot water halfway through your shower. That’s why a tankless water heater is an excellent upgrade to have in a home. This type of water heater instantaneously heats water, ensuring you never run out, but also that you’ll only heat the water that you use, which can save on hot water heating costs.

According to Consumer Reports, tankless water heaters can save you at least $100 each year on your utility bill. However, the switch to install a tankless water heater after having a storage-tank water heater isn’t simple. The swap typically requires plumbing services and, potentially, an upgrade to electrical or gas lines to increase capacity.

Tankless water heaters can range from $525 to $1,150 – but installation alone is between $800 to $1,500. The best time to make the switch if you’re considering the pros and cons is when your current system is on its last legs, or you are looking to save space and energy. Like most energy-efficient upgrades, most of the ROI won’t be seen immediately, rather down the road when you continue to achieve lower utility bills.

Sustainable homeownership upgrades that aren’t worth it

sustainable homeownership worthwhile

Not every green home upgrade is worth it. Some are expensive, offer relatively little return on your investment, and don’t improve your home’s comfort. Others are beneficial, but only in specific scenarios. If you see these green home upgrades on a potential home’s listing, evaluate them carefully.

Solar panels

Touted as a way to free yourself from utility bills, solar panels can exercise your energy independence. But first, it’s essential to do your due diligence before investing in a home with solar panels. If installed incorrectly, solar panels can cause water intrusion through your roof, which can be costly to replace. 

Also, it’s crucial to understand how you’ll use the power generated by the solar panels. Is it used to power the home via a battery system, or fed back to the grid? Does your local utility pay for excess power generated? These questions are essential to answer to have a firm idea of just how much the home’s solar panels will benefit you.

The average cost of solar panels in Canada is $3.01/watt, or $22,500 for a 7.5kW system. To determine the exact value, you should also consider what province you live in and the sunlight you’ll get. Saskatchewan gets the most sunlight across all regions with 1,330 hours. According to a study done by the National Energy Board, the places that make the most sense to install solar panels are provinces with higher electricity costs, areas with commendable rebate programs, and provinces that get the most sunlight. If you don’t fall under any of these umbrellas, it’s likely not the best investment.

Electric car charging stations

Electric vehicles are slowly becoming more widespread, but the fact that your potential new home has an electric car charging station isn’t an automatic plus. Car charging stations are only useful if you have an electric car, and not all electric vehicles can charge at the same station. 

The equipment you need to create an at-home charging station can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000, and the installation can range from $800 to $1,300. That said, the critical takeaway of having an electric charging station is that the home’s electrical service can support an electric car. Most electric vehicles can charge on a current of 120 volts, which is standard in most homes. If you choose to purchase an at-home charging station or vehicle in the future, minor modifications may be needed.

Complicated home automation systems

Home automation is still in its infancy and tends to be complicated and buggy. It may sound appealing to have a home that automatically dims lights, changes the air temperature and opens and closes blinds. Still, if that system malfunctions or has a confusing user interface, it may be more trouble than it’s worth.

According to Home Advisor, home automation systems can range from $249 – $1,544. So, although the lower end of systems comes in at an affordable cost, that doesn’t mean the additional charges save you money. Most smart technology that is compatible with home automation systems is generally expensive. For example, you could buy a simple light switch for under $10, whereas a smart light switch that is compatible with your system could be closer to $50. As this technology matures, we can expect home automation to become more straightforward and standardized, but for now, a “smart home” may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Sustainable homeownership renovations can be flashy and noteworthy, or straightforward and useful, but they aren’t often both. When you’re looking at potential homes, try not to get too sidetracked by the latest and greatest in green home updates. Instead, stick to the tried and true upgrades like insulation, upgraded heating, and new windows and doors. These upgrades are sure to make your home cozy, cost-effective, and easier on the planet.

Image of Jordann Brown

Jordann Brown

Jordann Brown is a marketing and communications professional living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As the owner of an 83-year-old cottage, and with a passion for renewable energy, Jordann spends much of her time working on home renovations. Founder of the popular personal finance blog, My Alternate Life, Jordann has been featured in many notable publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CTV News and CBC.

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