By Steve Law, 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.
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 Realtors. 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 is one of the city’s implementation partners helping to develop and publicize the new program, because of its considerable experience in the field.
Enhabit is one of dozens of entities that can perform home energy assessments under the new mandate, but it’s conducted 14,000 of them over the years. It also refers clients to trained contractors, and 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, was contracted by the city to oversee training of home energy assessors and do quality control for the program
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 undertaking such projects.
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.
Portland is using a Home Energy Score developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, with one major 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 also 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 home energy assessment 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 issues pinpointed by the Home Energy Scores to bargain with sellers to rectify those weaknesses, such as adding insulation. Such bargaining happens routinely now based on home inspections that are required by lenders.
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.”
How it works
Portlanders hoping to list their homes in the new year are advised to start planning now. Home energy assessors will punch 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.
Local hikers know this: while spring brings flowers and summer a warm reprieve from rain, the very best time to hike in Oregon is fall. During this all-too-fleeting shoulder season, the air is crisp, not sweltering, wildlife busily makes hay (or gathers nuts) while the sun still shines, and determined late blooms still appear here and there, alongside trees newly ablaze with color.
“It’s a refreshing change after the summer,“ he says. “The days that we have blue skies are a good time to soak it up before it gets too rainy.”
Here are five Barker-approved hikes.
Location: Forest Park
Distance from downtown Portland: 3 miles
Trail length: 8.4 miles
Even in summer, when Forest Park is crowded with Portlanders trying to escape city life, the centrally located Maple-Wildwood Loop tends to be less thronged. In fall, look for bunches of bluish-purple Oregon grapes, our state flower. Look, but don’t taste; this native fruit is face-twistingly tart. (It’s much sweeter cooked, or perhaps jellied.)
Location: Washington Park, near the Oregon Zoo
Distance from downtown Portland: 4 miles
Trail length: Varies
There is no one right way to explore Portland’s living tree museum. Whether you want to relax or challenge yourself, there is a trail for everyone. Looking for some guidance? On Saturday, October 21, you can take the Fall Color Tour. But, if you want to wander by yourself, we recommend the southern urban terminus of the Wildwood Trail, where you can see the dramatic hues of the small but mighty Franklinia altamaha, or Franklin tree, decked out in fragrant white flowers.
Location: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (Washington)
Distance from downtown Portland: 29 miles
Trail length: 2 miles
The refuge trail is a great place for viewing wildlife, particularly the many migratory birds that pass through this rich wetland ecosystem from September through December. (To quote the journals of one Captain William Clark, passing through here in 1805: “I slept but very little last night for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by the swans, geese…brant (and) ducks on a small sand island…they were immensely numerous and their noise horrid.”) There are more tranquil attractions here, too—witness the refuge’s numerous Oregon white oaks, whose fall leaves turn copper as their branches grow heavy full of acorns. If you’re lucky (and quiet), you might even spot a coyote or the adorable red fox.
Location: Columbia River Gorge (Washington)
Distance from downtown Portland: 70 miles
Trail length: 9.4 miles
Desperate to get back to the Columbia River Gorge? There are a few trails that were left undamaged by the Eagle Creek Ffre, including this challenging loop, which not only boasts three gorgeous waterfalls but also, during fall, a fringe of yellow maples bordered by huge green Douglas Firs. If you go before the weather gets too cold, you can also see wild roses lining the trail.
Location: Indian Heaven Wilderness (Washington)
Distance from downtown Portland: 105 miles
Trail length: 3.3 miles
Warning: this trail is steep; you’ll climb 1,000 feet in two miles. But there’s a benefit to the climb: spectacular views of Mt. Rainier once you reach 5,100 feet. On the trail, look for plentiful larches, which in summer resemble regular evergreens; come fall, however, their needles turn a golden yellow. Also look for bushes filled with huckleberries—they can be picked until mid-November.