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'Energy hog' older homes push down ratings in city's new energy-saving mandate.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Michael Kronenthal and Lynn Merrick were among the first Portlanders to obtain a Home Energy Score on their house. They were surprised that their Mount Tabor home wasn't as energy-efficient as they thought. Portland has led the nation with environmental initiatives to cut carbon emissions and promote recycling and bicycling, but our old homes aren't exactly on board with this whole "green" thing.

The city of Portland and the nonprofit Enhabit recently released data about the first Home Energy Scores since Portland made the energy reports mandatory in January before a home may be offered for sale. Early numbers reveal that our housing stock's energy efficiency is only so-so.

According to Enhabit, of the first 200 homes it has assessed, the average score was 4.1 on a 10-point scale (1 signifies an energy hog and 10 is an ultra-efficient home). The city's data, culled from a mix of contractors, showed a slightly higher average score of 4.4 on the first 2,036 homes assessed.

The national average and most common Home Energy Score is 5, according to Enhabit.

The nonprofit is finding that Portland is nearly a whole point lower, showing there is work to be done to make homes here more energy-efficient.

Under the new mandate — the most extensive in the nation — sellers must hire a home energy assessor to prepare a Home Energy Score that's made available to prospective buyers. That provides a clue about future energy bills, akin to a miles-per-gallon sticker on a car for sale.

"People now have access to good information about how homes actually use energy," said Peter Kernan, Enhabit Home Energy Score adviser.

Low scores often indicate that home energy costs are higher than they could be. Houses that receive a score of 5 or less will get a list of recommended improvements.

Homeowners can use the lists to boost the score, increasing their home's energy efficiency and cutting future energy bills. Collectively, that will lower the city's overall carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Establishing the mandate was a longstanding goal in the city/county Climate Action Plan. Enhabit estimates that if homeowners all around the country received a Home Energy Score and decided to make upgrades, total carbon emissions in the U.S. could be cut by 20 percent.

Low-key enforcement

So far, Portlanders have been fairly compliant in getting the Home Energy Scores done before putting their houses up for sale. According to Andria Jacob, senior program manager for Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, compliance rates are at about 60 percent right now and going up.

"This is really, really good for something this new, when we aren't doing hard-core enforcement," Jacob said. If rates do go down, which she doesn't expect, the city may start sending letters or fining people.

Scores are set by a certified home assessor based on the physical characteristics of the home, not by how much energy the current homeowner actually uses.

"We'd like folks to get the message that there are opportunities for people in Portland buying older, pre-code homes to improve energy efficiency," Jacob said. "It's possible to get to a higher score by making some investments. Some of these will have long-term payback in bringing down energy costs over time. Hopefully the next step is making these improvements."

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Older homes are often much less energy efficient due to their lack of insulation — one of the biggest things suggested to homeowners to improve after getting their scores.

Old-age problem

The main reason Portland is scoring below average is likely the age of homes in the area. According to Enhabit, most houses in Portland were built before energy codes were established. Older homes are often much less energy efficient due to their lack of insulation — one of the biggest things suggested to homeowners to improve after getting their scores.

"Insulation is always seen as this holy grail of energy efficiency," Kernan said. Enhabit assesses homes and provides homeowners certified scores after 60 to 90 minutes. They also help homeowners find contractors to do the work that needs to be done.

Other common recommendations are improving duct work and upgrading to high-efficiency heating systems, which can cut costs down to a third of the original.

Though some recommendations may seem like a large investment, Kernan says they're going to pay off in the long run.

Enhabit only suggests improvements if the costs can be recovered, via lower utility bills, during a 10-year payback period. Improvements that can take longer than 10 years to pay off, such as replacing windows, aren't typically suggested.

Realtor challenges

Lynae Forbes, president and principal broker at Hasson Company Realtors, said her industry is still facing some challenges with the new mandate. From what she's heard from her brokers, large houses are prone to low scores. Although it's not really affecting the value of the homes, the score is sometimes used by buyers as a negotiating tool after home inspections — something Realtors feared before the mandate went into effect.

Hasson agents are working to educate sellers, Forbes said, but she's noticed many sellers in the area aren't yet complying.

Realtors are experiencing a problem due to a sort of technical glitch on listing sites such as Zillow. According to Forbes, the site doesn't allow links in order to avoid personal marketing, meaning sellers can't link their Home Energy Score on these sites and are thus unable to comply with the city's mandate.

"I'm hopeful they'll work that out," Forbes said. "We've gone to multiple listing systems saying this is a problem for us."

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