Portland home sellers must get energy audit

City requirement takes effect January 1

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Michael Kronenthal accesses his family's attic, where they hope to install new insulation to use less energy. Their new Home Energy Score revealed they could use an extra foot of attic insulation. (Portland Tribune/Jonathan House)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Ever shop for a home and wonder how much it would cost to heat and cool?

Starting in January, anyone shopping for a newly listed house in Portland can get a rough estimate of the property’s energy bills, via a Home Energy Score.

Last year, the Portland City Council approved an ordinance requiring home sellers to obtain a Home Energy Score before they list their homes for sale or commence advertising it, and the new mandate takes effect Jan. 1.

Home energy score assessors 

Getting a Home Energy Score — akin to a miles-per-gallon sticker on cars for sale — likely will be viewed as a hassle by many home sellers and Realtor. But city officials expect it will encourage many sellers to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, saving the buyers money on utility bills and lowering the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Lynn Merrick, who recently commissioned a Home Energy Score for her century-old Mount Tabor home as part of a “beta test” of the new program, was surprised by the results. The house scored only a “3” out of a possible “10” after a home energy assessor conducted a 90-minute review, said Merrick, a climate change activist who founded the Let’s Talk Climate community forum series.

“It’s kind of embarrassing to be this climate advocate and find our scores so low,” Merrick said. Especially after she and her husband thought they were reducing its energy use by installing a solar water heating system, rooftop photovoltaic solar panels and an energy-efficient radiant heating system.

“We learned that we need a whole other foot of insulation in our attic,” Merrick said. They also learned their windows are leaky.

Ideally, she and her husband would have gotten such a report when they bought their house long ago.

“Can you imagine our utility savings over a 20-year period? It would probably be several thousand dollars.”

Merrick may engage in a friendly competition with some of her environmentally minded neighbors to see who can improve their Home Energy Scores the most, and lower their utility bills. Even if they don’t benefit financially for that many years, she figures it’s the right thing to do.

“By spending most of our lives with a huge carbon footprint, it seems like the least we can do for the generation coming up.”

Opposition campaign fizzled

The mandate was enacted in the final days of then-Mayor Charlie Hales’ administration, as part of his “bucket list” of policies to address climate change. The Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors led a vigorous campaign against it, calling it a useless mandate that would raise the prices of homes, kill some house sales, and achieve little.

But with that battle lost, Realtors now must educate their clients of the need to get a Home Energy Score. Failure to obtain one can result in a $500 fine.

“They may not be overjoyed about it, but they are also good soldiers,” said Stephanie Swanson, vice president for communications at Enhabit, the nonprofit formerly known as Clean Energy Works. Enhabit was contracted by the city to help launch the new program, in part because of its considerable experience in the field. Enhabit has conducted 14,000 such assessments over the years, and helps refer clients to trained contractors. It also helps people get loans so they pay for energy-saving improvements via their monthly PGE, Pacific Power or NW Natural bills.

Earth Advantage, another homegrown nonprofit that developed a similar rating system for new homes, is overseeing training of home energy assessors and doing quality control for the program, Swanson said.

Volunteer programs sagging

Portland and the state of Oregon have been national leaders at trying to encourage energy efficiency, such as providing subsidies from Energy Trust of Oregon for home energy retrofits. But with historically cheap natural gas prices due to fracking, the payback period for improvements has grown longer, and fewer people are taking advantage.

That’s why the city decided to make the Home Energy Scores mandatory, as a few other cities have done.

Prospective home sellers must hire a home energy assessor to visit their home and prepare the Home Energy Score. The city projects that will cost $150 to $250, though that depends on how the market evolves. Enhabit has a team of home energy assessors and is offering the service for $229 until year-end.

Portland is using a Home Energy Score developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, with one addition. The two-page report will include an assessment of the home’s carbon footprint, in tons of emissions per year as well as a numeric rating. Reports will itemize projects that could improve the Home Energy Score, if they can pay for themselves in energy savings over the ensuing decade, Swanson said.

Lynae Forbes, president of the Hasson Group, figures the startup phase of the new mandate will be bumpy, but she’s more focused on making sure her company’s 180 residential real estate agents are trained on the new program than complaining about it.

Forbes worries that prices could go higher if there is a backlog of requests for Home Energy Scores. When that occurs for home appraisals, she notes, it’s common for appraisers to “jack up their prices to double or more if people want to get it done in a timely manner.”

But, in contrast to the dire warnings made by Realtors when trying to kill the mandate, Forbes doubts it will dissuade people from buying stately old homes — the kind that are the draftiest. “That population of home buyers are not buying it for efficiency factors,” she reasons. “I don’t really buy into the fear factor that it’s going to affect home values to any significant extent.”

However, she does foresee some buyers using faults pinpointed by the Home Energy Scores to bargain with sellers to rectify those weaknesses, such as adding insulation. That happens routinely after home inspections.

Portlanders hoping to list their homes in the new year are advised to start planning now.

Realtors will make sure their clients understand the new mandate and direct them to the city website or other resources, Forbes said. “I don’t want to see people get anxious about this.”

Find out more

Enhabit promises to send a home energy assessor to a client’s home within three to five days, and produce the report before they leave the premises.

The assessor punches in about 50 data points, including details about the home’s insulation and other features. Then the software program spits out an average utility bill, taking into account prevailing prices and average family size and energy usage.

The reports will be publicly available on the Green Building Registry website.

• To learn more about the city program and arrange a Home Energy Score with the city’s designated nonprofit, click here.

• To find a contractor to do home energy retrofits that might be eligible for rebates from Energy Trust of Oregon, call 1-866-368-7878 or click here.

City webpage on the Home Energy Score.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.