10 Questions You Should Ask When Buying a New Home

There’s a good chance most consumers know more about their personal electronics and their cars than they do about their most important investment—a house. I’m not talking about cursory information either; I’m talking serious in-depth stuff about RAMs, gigabytes, progressive scan, etc.

Kudos to you if you’re educating yourself about the semi-expensive items you buy; this is a good thing. But having no knowledge at all about your home is dangerous and can be quite expensive. Let me show you how.

Let’s say you buy a house, and your payments are $1,500 per month. The builder was in a hurry to get the home on the market and was motivated to cut costs, so he skimped on insulation for the walls, improperly insulated the attic, used a low-efficiency heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and selected inefficient appliances.

Once you move in, you’re likely to be hot in the summer and cold in the winter (especially on the second level) because the walls and the attic aren’t effectively protecting you from the elements. So now you have to adjust the thermostat—up or down, as the case may be. But heat rises and all the conditioned air leaks out of the second floor ceiling and disappears out the attic. Now you have to run your HVAC system even longer, which causes electric bills to jump (see figure 1).

Figure 1

But that’s not all. Your fridge—the biggest energy-consuming appliance in the home—is also inefficient, which causes you even more money. Now your $1,500 per month mortgage is actually $1,700, or maybe even more if you live in a place where utility rates are ridiculously high.

The most expensive part of maintaining a house is the cost for heating and cooling—which accounts for about 50 percent of your yearly total, give or take. If you live in an existing house, you probably resign yourself that inefficiency is one of the drawbacks of an older home. Heck, a drafty house is part of the charm for some people. But there is no excuse for inefficiency in a brand new house, especially with all we know about the science of building (yes, there is quite a bit of science involved).

To be fair, home buyers aren’t totally oblivious. They know about wood floors, granite countertops, about the way-cool whirlpool tub, and about the stainless steel appliances they can show off to their friends. All of these are second-tier concerns, however. There are much more important things to ask when you’re sitting down with the sales team or walking through the model (look for an upcoming post on what existing-home buyers should ask). Here are 10 questions to ask:

1. What kind of air sealing did the builder perform? When a house is framed, builders cut all kinds of holes in the walls for wires, pipes, and vents. There are also gaps around windows, doors, chimneys, and many other places. So before the house gets insulation, the builder needs to seal up the gaps properly with some type of foam or caulk. (Foam provides better sealing and is, therefore, the preferred option.) “Air leakage, or infiltration, occurs when outside air enters a house uncontrollably through cracks and openings,” the Energy Department writes on its website. “Properly air sealing such cracks and openings in your home can significantly reduce heating and cooling costs, improve building durability, and create a healthier indoor environment.” (see figure 2)

Figure 2

2. What type of insulation is in the house? More than likely, your builder will tell you he used fibreglass batt. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t great. Fiberglass batt is the cheapest insulation you can buy, and its performance is very much dependent on how good it’s installed. Newsflash: It’s almost never installed properly. “Your state and local building codes probably include minimum insulation requirements, but to build an energy-efficient home, you may need or want to exceed them,” the DOE says.

3. Is the attic sealed and insulated? The attic in an old home is almost never insulated properly, so heat escapes out the ceiling. But hopefully your builder was conscientious. Ask if he sealed around all the lights, vent fans, or ceiling fan, and make sure he installed good insulation under the roof deck. “Properly insulating and air sealing your attic will help reduce your energy bills,” DOE says. Plus, it’s often one of the easiest places in a house to insulate, so there is no excuse.

4. Are there ducts installed in the attic? According to the site, www.ductworkinstallation.com, “Ductwork in an attic is normally the largest energy problem in the home or building. The reasons why this practice should be avoided are comfort complaints, heating & cooling losses in the attic ductwork and air conditioner, higher energy bills, maintenance difficulties and system failures.” If your builder put ducts in the attic, that’s a bad sign.

5. Were the ducts sealed properly? Even brand new ducts have gaps in the connections. If they’re not installed properly, the hot or cold air that’s generated from your air conditioner will leak out prematurely and not reach its intended target—the rooms of your house. That’s why all duct installations must be sealed properly with a mastic—a glue-like substance—to make them air tight. Your builder should have done this (see figure 3).

Figure 3

6. What’s the SEER on the air conditioning unit? SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating. Consider this the miles-per-gallon rating of your unit. The higher it is, the more energy efficient it is. But the contractor still has to install it properly. The government recommends a SEER of 13, but going above the code is always better.

7. Are the appliances Energy Star rated? Appliances that are Energy Star rated use less energy, less water, and cost less to operate than standard products. They may cost a little more, but the payback period is relatively short. Look for the blue Energy Star logo (figure 4).

Figure 4

8. Does the house feature Water Sense certified products? WaterSense is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that encourages water efficiency. Consumer products, such as toilet and faucets, meeting the agency’s standards can be identified by a special label. Certified toilets use 20 percent less water and bath faucets use 30 percent less (figure 5).

Figure 5

9. Did the builder perform a blower-door test? Building a house to prescribed methods is one thing, but those rules are only on paper. Builders need to test the house to verify everything was done properly. That’s where third-party testing comes in. Ask your builder if he had a “blower-door test” conducted on your house. “Professional energy auditors use blower door tests to help determine a home’s airtightness,” DOE says. In performing the test, a technician mounts a powerful fan into the frame of an exterior door. “The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside,” DOE explains. “The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings. The auditors may use a smoke pencil to detect air leaks. These tests determine the air infiltration rate of a building.” (see figure 6) Conducting this test helps reduce energy consumption due to air leakage, avoid moisture condensation problems, avoid uncomfortable drafts caused by cold air leaking in from the outdoors, and make sure the home’s air quality is not too contaminated by indoor air pollution.

Figure 6

 10. What is the home’s HERS rating? Think of HERS—home energy rating—as you would a car’s miles per gallon number, only in this case a low number is better. In simple terms, an energy rater uses software to analyze a home’s construction plans and then does onsite inspections, and tests after the home is built. “Results of these tests, along with inputs derived from the plan review, are used to generate the HERS Index score for the home.” The rating is based on an index of 100. “The lower a home’s HERS Index, the more energy efficient it is in comparison to the HERS Reference Home,” EPA says.


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