Home & Garden

Buying or selling a green home in Tucson

Components of a rainwater harvesting system found at a foreclosed property in Tucson

Looking for a green home has become easier, thanks to an upgrade to the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) that lets realtors mark options in eco-friendly categories such as lot design, water and energy efficiency, and indoor air quality. In Tucson, looking for some green features or evaluating the potential of a home to become more green is more realistic than expecting to find a home with extensive green features on the market, says Barrie Herr, who serves on the MLS com-­mittee.

Herr and his wife, Janie Herr, were green long before they started working as real estate agents. When they moved to Tucson in 1975 and owned and operated a plastics factory, they viewed recycling and sustainability as good business practices. They later started Arizona Waste Exchange to provide a clearinghouse for the reuse of industrial wastes, and Herr was an original member of the Tucson Clean & Beautiful recycling outreach program.

When they began working as real estate agents in the early ’90s, it was natural for them to look at things from a green perspective. Herr has trained to earn the GREEN Realtor designation and continues to educate himself. Recently, he attended a webinar on signing contracts electronically, which reduces driving.

Green perspectives evolve over time. When the Herrs bought their house 18 years ago, they weren’t aware of rainwater harvesting and followed the conventional wisdom to direct water to flow off their lot. They’ve since created retention basins on their property. Since water is such a key issue in our area, the Tucson Association of Realtors is raising funds to place a cistern on its property.

The internationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council provides third-party verification that a building was designed and built using green strategies. While the LEED system awards points to green features, each house needs to be assessed to determine priorities in renovations. In one house, it may make sense to focus on insulation, but in another, investing in a rainwater harvesting system will pay for itself sooner. Homeowners need to figure the cash outlay and payback time for any green improvement, says Herr, who recommends having an energy audit to determine how to best invest renovation dollars.

Herr also cautions people to distinguish between true green marketing and the practice of greenwashing, promoting a building as green when it isn’t. While a bathroom exhaust fan gets a point in the LEED system, that alone doesn’t make for a green home, says Herr.

Some homes built in the last round of construction, before the housing market decline, were built in a more energy-conscious way and earned an energy-efficient designation from Tucson Electric Power, says Herr.

When examining the orientation of the house, a potential buyer can see where a patio or trees may be needed to shade windows or a glass wall. Orientation is also a factor in assessing placement of solar panels or a rooftop solar water-heating system. Instead of solar, an electric hot water on demand unit for the kitchen or bathroom is another energy-efficient option.

Some distressed properties such as short sales or foreclosures may be an even better value because they include partially completed green renovations. Homeowners may have started a project and then needed to move, lost jobs, or divorced, says Herr.

When I searched for a home with green potential here in Tucson, I found one house that listed partial bamboo flooring. But another house with parts of a rainwater harvesting system installed didn’t have the system listed. The bank’s agent might not have recognized the components, since the cistern was missing.

I bought that house at the beginning of December and approach renovations in a spirit of adventure. Most foreclosed homes have been neglected to some extent. Rather than just delving into green renovations, I first attended to basic plumbing and electrical repairs and routine roof maintenance.

To operate in a financially as well as environmentally sustainable fashion, I curbed the impulse to immediately put in a glamorous solar system, and instead invested in energy-efficient windows and insulation in time to get the federal tax credit for energy efficiency that was set to expire at the end of 2010. This tax credit has since been extended through 2011 (albeit reduced), while the tax credit for solar and other renewable energy systems continues through 2016. The only solar investments I made in 2010 were the small cost of installing a solar-powered attic fan before the attic insulation was installed, and buying a solar oven (a portable cooker designed to be used outdoors on sunny days).

When it comes to selling a green home, Herr says that while most people prefer to live more green, sellers must consider convenience and cost factors. In a more normal market, making some green improvements could make a home more marketable. But in these times, a seller may not recoup the costs of the improvements, says Herr. While tax credits and rebates help, none pay all the costs of improvements.

As I was buying my Tucson house, I was also preparing to sell the house I inherited from my mother in Ohio. I chose to make only one major green modification: radon remediation. Radon, an odorless gas that is a decay product of uranium, causes lung cancer. Many homes in northeastern Ohio have high radon levels. Radon also occurs at high levels in some homes in Tucson, but it can be mitigated.

Homeowners may be in denial about the health effects of radon, both because they’re wary of the cost of remediation and because they’d have to acknowledge that they may have been breathing radon for much of their lives. Remediation costs under $1,000 for an average-sized house with a basement, to vent radon from the basement to the outside so it doesn’t accumulate in the house.

My uncle was concerned that my plan for radon remediation could make it harder to sell the house. The first real estate agent I interviewed, a family friend, did not understand the radon issue at all. So I searched on the National Association of Realtors website and found the one real estate agent in that zip code who has green certification. She and her boss represented the house well, and I was also fortunate that an article on radon came out in the local paper shortly after I put the house on the market. I had a buyer in a few weeks, when there was over 16 months of inventory of homes in that area. The buyers had an inspection done; if I had not already completed the radon remediation, rather than closing at the end of this month, I might have had to delay the closing or lost the sale altogether.


Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (www.dsireusa.org/incentives)

Green Homes Tucson (the Herrs’ site, www.greenhomestucson.com)

National Association of Realtors (site to search for agents with specific designations such as ‘GREEN’ — www.realtor.com/realestateagents

National Association of Realtors Green Resource Council (www.greenresourcecouncil.org)

Pima County Green Building Program (www.pimaxpress.com/green)

Radon information for Arizona (www.arra.state.az.us/RadonWeb)

Tucson Clean & Beautiful (www.tucsonaz.gov/tcb/)

Tucson Multiple Listing Service (www.tarmls.com/)

Deborah Mayaan is an energy work practitioner and writer based in Tucson. www.deborahmayaan.com.