The Appraisal

by Heather Rae

A homeowner who recently relocated from New Jersey to one of the swishier towns of Maine asked me last week, in the context of his search for a home energy renovator in the State, ‘why is Maine so far behind?’

That same day, a friend delicately offered, in the midst of admiring my taste in a wood burning stove and counseling me on my life, ‘you’re at the beginning of something that hasn’t really caught on yet.’ She was refering to home energy renovations.

My mood mercurial around this topic of tightening up homes, Matthew Wald’s informative article “Emphasis on Weatherization Represents Shift on Energy Costs” in the New York Times brought a twinkle of promise.

Yet, it was just this past week when the results of an appraisal on my renovated home arrived by mail. (The upside to the downside of this latest financial debacle is the opportunity to refinance at a lower rate and take out some cash to pay for that new wood burning stove…or insulating the attic roof…maybe better yet, use the dough for a trip to Asia to visit family; it’s been a rough year. Then again, with employment — even in the “green” sector — an unknown, the money will likely be parked in a bank account.)

The house appraiser was an attractive, communicative and intelligent, middle-aged woman. I showed her the air sealant and insulation in the basement with its moisture-remediating rubberized floor covering. I described how the roof over the bay windows had been rebuilt and filled with air sealant and insulation to stop the air flow between the floors of the balloon frame and add thermal resistance. With a Vanna White wave at the new Rinnai energy efficient on-demand water heater, I described how the old leaky electric water heater and the leaky ductwork for the old furnace had been heaved, along with the furnace which was replaced with a Monitor. I told the appraiser I was directing money to reducing energy demand in the house, rather than on increasing energy supply. I noted that the new refrigerator and the new high-end dual fuel stove were energy efficient. Where once were window weights, I fingered over the cavities that are now filled with foam. These improvements should result in “deep energy” savings. The appraiser was concerned about the interior doors that I still have yet to scrape, sand, paint and rehang…and the old windows that will be refurbished (not replaced) as time goes on. She said the house is pretty. (It is.) I should have mentioned that there would be a test to measure the reduced air infiltration from the improvements — that along with the other improvements translates into energy and carbon savings. Though it might not have mattered a whit.

Matthew Wald’s article describes the sleuthing skills of building evaluators very well (“Call is CSI: Thermal Police”). He writes of the macro upsides of tightening up homes: reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and relief for the national energy grids. But when it comes to the micro upsides of weatherization (what it might mean to the homeowner needing assistance in financing the energy improvements), the article takes the common veer into the world of low-income weatherization and federal funding of those programs. The segue is so deft, I reread the article a few times to pinpoint the detour. A similar detour is found in Senators Snowe and Feinstein letter to President-Elect Obama urging tax credits for energy efficiency in the built environment.

The road not taken seriously enough is weatherization for everybody else, those who do NOT qualify for low-income programs. What of weatherization (or home performance or whole-house energy renovations or whatever you like to call it) for the middle class — my class with its sinking wages and layoffs? I am no stranger to it…or the enormity of tightening up a leaky old house, financially, emotionally and physically — or the turning of the stomach at the site of the oil bill.

Maine has a robust program under the community action programs and financing through the State’s housing authority to weatherize homes of the poorest (a designation that was expanded by the governor to include more families.) In a recent study by Efficiency Maine, 82% of the 80 new homes evaluated throughout the State on energy performance failed to meet the International Energy Conservation Code.

Before the New Jersey transplant called, another man had called to ask if the State had any rebates or incentives for insulating a home. The answer has always been easy: no, there aren’t any. I direct these callers to Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiencies and Tax Incentives Assistance Project rather than follow closely the policy twists and turns of legislators near and far. I hear rumors of all kinds, but as yet, the answer is still, no, there are no incentives or rebates for energy efficiency measures from the State.

In the “Improvements” section of my home appraisal, under “Additional features (special energy efficient items, etc)” the appraiser wrote: “Open deck (7×27), covered entry porch & attached barn (15×27). No addditional value considered for woodstove due to being considered personal property.” Not one word about the energy efficiency improvements — nor that the old wood stove is leaky and extremely inefficient.

I feared the appraisal would not account for the money dumped into the house, spent to upgrade plumbing, heating, electrical and structure — many with “green” elements. It barely did: One of the many downsides of this latest financial debacle is falling real estate prices, reflected in the appraised value.

The energy-efficiency improvements might have found a home in an energy-efficient mortgage. These mortgages were rolled out beginning the fall of 2008, but my lender, a large State-based bank, never mentioned them. The efficacy of “EEMs” in achieving “deep energy” savings is being questioned in other parts of the country.

I described the appraisal to the man who called looking for insulation rebates; he said that the energy improvements will make a difference at time of sale. I can only hope.

The Catholic Church has been in the news recently, defending its treatment of Gallileo, a man who dared to assert heliocentricity as fact in the halls of theology. Give our addiction to oil the weight of theology, and an analogy to the man with a telescope is apt. We are all at the beginning of something that hasn’t really caught on yet — and it challenges nearly everything in which we have had faith.

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