Function, Not Fashion, Rules In Home Buying

April 11, 2005


NEW YORK - In the excitement of purchasing or building a new home, buyers often find it difficult to tell which features add real value to the home and which are merely "window dressing."

Buyers need to look "below the surface" to evaluate what they're really getting, says Tracey Lynn Shifflet, manager of Marketing and Communications for the American Gas Association. Eye-catching décor items like granite countertops are nice, but over time they may not contribute to a home's resale value, and they won't help you manage your day-to-day energy bills.

A good place for buyers to start their evaluation, she says, is with the home's heating and cooling system. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), heating and cooling are a home's biggest energy users. To find out if your "dream home" is energy-efficient, ask your builder or realty agent a few basic questions.

  • Does the house use natural or bottled propane gas, fuel oil, or electricity for space heating?
  • If it is an existing home, how old is the furnace?
  • Are tax incentives available from the state, or rebates from the builder, if you install a newer, more energy-efficient heating system?

If the answer to the first question is gas, you'll be happy to know that natural gas will cost less in 2005 than any other home energy source, according to DOE estimates. Bottled gas costs slightly more, but is typically lower in price than oil. Electricity is the most expensive option - costing twice as much as natural gas, on average.

In a resale home, an old or worn-out furnace or boiler will eventually need replacing - something buyers should factor into the purchase price. A modern, high-efficiency gas heating system often pays for itself within a few years of installation, however, and it continues to pay dividends in lower energy bills as long as you own the home. In many states, homeowners can also earn tax rebates for upgrading to energy-efficient heating equipment. Check with your local utility for details.

When considering a home's energy needs, you'll want to include appliances as well. The variety of energy-efficient gas appliances available today is virtually unlimited, and includes stainless steel barbecue grills, indoor/outdoor fireplaces, professional-grade ranges and ovens, and heaters designed especially for garage, pool, patio or spa.

If the home you're buying doesn't have gas service, installing it before you move in can save you money in the long run. Municipalities and gas utilities frequently offer incentives for doing so, and installation costs are typically low. And even if you can't afford that gas fireplace in the master bedroom just yet, having gas service gives you the option of adding appliances throughout your home at a later date.

According to the Copper Development Association, the best choice for fuel-gas installations in both new construction and renovations is flexible copper tubing. Unlike rigid steel "black" pipe, copper tubing is easily maneuvered through confined spaces and requires few, if any, joints. And unlike corrugated stainless steel tubing, or CSST, flexible copper tubing is far less expensive and readily available at most plumbing supply houses.