14 Energy-Efficient Home Features to Look For When House Hunting

An energy-efficient home is designed to conserve and reduce energy use. A home’s construction, appliances, and major features can all impact efficiency, so there’s plenty to consider when shopping for your first home. 

More families are considering sustainable options for cost-efficiency and health, in addition to wanting to protect the environment. The growing eco industry means more contractors are conscious of how they build homes, too. 

When looking for a house, sustainability is definitely something to consider. You’ll want to work with a home inspector to assess major sustainability concerns, like insulation, but there are plenty of features you can identify on your own. 

Check out these important features of an energy-efficient home and questions to ask your home inspector.

Energy-efficient homes are designed to conserve and reduce energy usage without sacrificing the comforts of home.

1. Consider Your Home's Size and Shape

Your home’s size and shape can have a surprising impact on its energy-efficiency. A large home requires more raw materials to build and has a large surface area with increased opportunities for heat transfer and drafts, so the extra space will cost more to heat and cool.

The home’s shape can impact efficiency, too. Open floor plans and rooms with high-ceilings are harder to keep warm. These rooms have more space to heat, which requires extra energy to keep things comfortable. Homes with more doors and walls create confined spaces, so your heating and cooling use less energy to maintain the temperature.

2. See Which Directions Your  Windows Face

Illustration shows how the cardinal direction your windows face impacts a room's temperature and natural lighting.

The directions your windows face has a direct impact on a room’s average temperature and natural light. You should consider how different rooms can be better served in different wings of the house.

Rooms with windows facing the North and East won’t get an excess of light and they tend to be cooler than the rest of the house. North- and East-facing rooms are ideal settings for kitchens, which can generate their own heat and aren’t used so frequently that they need the extra light. 

South- and West-facing windows get a significant amount of direct sunlight, which can keep these rooms warm and well-lit without the need for electricity. This is perfect for rooms the whole family enjoys throughout the day, like living rooms. However, the summer months may make these rooms hot, so you’ll want blinds or curtains to manage the temperature. 

3. Check That Windows and Doors Are Insulated

The entry points to your home can drain your home’s energy use. The Department of Energy estimates that 25% to 30% of residential energy from heating and cooling your home is lost through windows. 

Be sure to consider your windows or doors. Windows, in particular, have advanced over the years and you may want to replace older, single-pane windows. Depending on the climate you live in, it may be worth considering storm windows, extra panes, or even gas-filled windows to help insulate your home. 

You’ll also want to check your windows and doors for proper fit and ensure that there aren’t any air leaks. You can check for drafts, noticeable gaps in the frames, and if anything sticks when opening or closing each window and door. It’s a good idea to have your home inspector double-check all entry points, too. 

4. Study Up on Water Heaters

Water heaters account for 19% of the average home’s energy consumption, falling just behind heating and cooling for the largest residential use of electricity.

Traditional water heaters store and heat large volumes of water at a time — and all of that water isn’t always used once it’s hot. Tankless water heaters are much more energy-efficient and only heat water as you need it.

Tankless water heaters are typically boxes fixed to a wall rather than a large tank, so they’re easy to identify. Of course, it’s always a good idea to talk to your home inspector to learn more. 

5. Take a Look at the Insulation

Insulation is essential for maintaining the temperature in your house. It prevents the thermal transfer from inside to the outside of your house, so your heating and cooling systems don’t have to work too hard. 

Cooling alone accounts for 16% of residential energy consumption, so it’s important to know how your home is insulated. Ask your home inspector to make sure the home’s insulation is effective and in good shape — especially if you’re considering buying an older home. 

6. See If the Appliances Are Energy Star Certified

Illustration of a washer with the Energy Star logo — a signal of an energy-efficient appliance.Energy Star ratings are available for EPA-certified, energy-efficient appliances. These certifications help consumers choose energy-efficient products and they’re easy to spot — just look for the blue Energy Star mark on certified appliances. 

When upgrading your appliances, it’s best to start with the appliances that have the largest impact on your energy use. Home experts agree that an Energy Star certified clothes dryer and refrigerator are the most effective energy-efficient upgrades. 

7. Upgrade to Energy-Efficient Lighting

Lighting accounts for 5% of the average home’s energy consumption. Upgrading to LED lightbulbs throughout your home is an easy way to conserve energy. These bulbs only use 20% of the energy a traditional incandescent bulb does, and they last up to 25 times longer.

You may also want to check that your light fixtures are energy-efficient. Check for Energy Star ratings and prioritize replacing fixtures in high-traffic areas like your kitchen and living room. Fixture features, including dimmers and timers, can positively impact your energy use, too. 

8. Look For Moisture Control and Ventilation

An airtight home can prevent energy loss and protect your health. The fewer leaks there are in your home, the harder it is for internal air to escape and outside air to get in. This means that even in extreme temperatures, your heating and cooling don’t have to work as hard.

Home experts say these are the five most effective locations to air seal:

  • Window and door weatherstripping
  • HVAC duct sealing
  • Pipe wall penetrations
  • Attic hatch opening
  • Exterior wall outlet boxes

Ask your home inspector to check for any air leaks and advice for improving your home’s air sealing and ventilation.

9. Scan For Smart Tech

Illustration of a thermostat includes the statistic "smart thermostats can save you 8% on heating and 10% on cooling costs."Smart appliances can automate everything from your home security to your morning routine. It’s no surprise that smart tech can also reduce your energy costs.

Heating and cooling systems use more energy than other household appliances, so a smart thermostat is a great way to reduce your energy use. You can monitor and adjust your home’s temperature from anywhere and even set routines.

Smart light systems work similarly to automate your energy use for conservation. Smart appliances like refrigerators and dryers also have creative solutions for energy problems. For example, some refrigerators have cameras inside so you can see what’s in your fridge without opening the door. 

10. Check Out the Roof

Roofs see a lot of sunlight, so your roofing materials and color can impact your home’s efficiency. Cool roofs are becoming a popular choice to reduce the amount of heat your roof retains from the sun.

Roofs stay cool by reflecting the sun’s light instead of retaining it and generating heat. A light-colored roof is a good choice that will naturally reflect the sun’s light. If you want to keep the roof dark for appearances, then you can apply a membrane or other reflective coating to prevent heat retention. 

Cool roofs help maintain your home’s temperature and can also impact the air temperature outside. In fact, when several buildings in the community have cool roofs, cities can see lower energy demands and decreased emissions from power generation. 

Ask your home inspector about the home’s roofing and what options may be available. 

11. Ask About the Construction Materials

The most energy-efficient houses are planned for sustainability from the very beginning. The materials used in a home can affect its overall efficiency, especially when considering the foundation and insulation. 

Here are some eco-friendly materials you may find in a new home:

  • Insulated concrete walls
  • Bamboo wood alternatives
  • Recycled steel
  • Vacuum insulation panels
  • Structural insulated panels

This is another feature that can be hard to spot, so consult with your home inspector.

12. Look at the Landscaping

A home’s landscaping can impact its energy-efficiency externally and internally. First, your landscape likely requires water and the EPA estimates that half of urban water use is for watering grass and gardens. A landscape made of moss or native plants rather than grass can reduce water requirements. The size of your yard also has a direct impact on the energy required to maintain the landscaping. 

Landscaping can also help you conserve energy inside your home. Well-placed trees can provide relief from the sun during the summer months while allowing sunlight to help heat your home during winter. Similarly, a row of trees or hedges can protect the home from wind to better maintain the internal temperature. 

13. Ask About Energy Star Certification for the Whole Home

Homes built with energy-efficiency in mind from the beginning are growing in popularity and often come with an Energy Star Certification. These homes use 20% less energy on average and save you time and money on upgrades. 

Ask your real estate agent if the home is Energy Star Certified and what energy-efficient features are included. 

14. Consider Alternative Energy Solutions

Illustration of a home and sun with the statistic "46% of homeowners in the U.S. have considered solar panels for their home."Solar power is the leading source of residential renewable energy in the U.S. While only 6% of homeowners have made the switch, another 46% have seriously considered installing solar panels for their homes. Solar panels can protect the environment, reduce your energy costs, and may even increase your home’s value

Of course, there are several options to produce energy from home besides solar energy. Depending on your home’s electricity use, climate, and local requirements, there are other possible energy options:

  • Wind energy
  • Microhydro power
  • Hybrid systems (solar and wind)

Check your community rules and regulations to see what renewable energy options are available to you. 

Questions to Ask Your Home Inspector

While there are plenty of energy-efficient home features you can spot yourself, you can’t know it all. A home inspector is a great resource to get the details on any home you plan to buy. Consult with your home inspector to know exactly what you’re getting with a new home and what upgrades could provide the best benefit. 

Here are some key questions that can help you lead the conversation.

Questions about the home’s construction:

  • What insulation does this home have and what condition is it in?
  • Are all windows and doors installed properly?
  • What kind of windows are installed in this home?
  • Are there any air leaks in ducts or energy points to take care of?
  • How is the air ventilation system included with this home?
  • What building materials were used in this home?
  • What materials were used on the roof? Is there a reflective coating?

Questions about the home’s appliances:

  • What heating and cooling systems are installed in the house?
  • What kind of water heater is installed in the home?
  • Are included appliances energy-efficient?
  • Does this house include any renewable energy sources?

There’s plenty to consider when searching for your first home. Knowing what makes a house energy-efficient can help you choose a home that’s great for the environment, your health, and your wallet. Once you’re pre-approved for a mortgage, you can make your list of must-haves and get to house hunting. 

Happy homebuying!

Energy-efficient home features infographic

Dan Green

Dan Green is a former mortgage loan officer and an industry expert. He's appeared on NPR and CNBC, and in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and dozens of local newspapers. Dan has helped millions of first-time home buyers get educated on mortgages, real estate, and personal finance. Have mortgage questions? Ask Dan in the chat.

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