While walking from the parking lot into class for a three-day seminar on green real estate, Lindsay Dofelmier took note of what her fellow realtors were driving: hulking, gas-guzzling Escalades.
It was one of many frustrating moments for Dofelmier during the EcoBroker International program, which was recently held in Boise. Dofelmier, an agent with Boise Urban Agent, kept her eye on other realtors during the rest of the seminar.
"After three days, they still didn't know what PV stood for," she said.
PV is short for photovoltaic, the industry term for solar panels. "And they walked away with an EcoBroker certification. There was no testing for accountability. It was a lot of greenwashing," she said, referring to the practice of marketing a building or a product as green even if it isn't.
Real estate is the latest consumer product to go green. And in this housing market, any extra edge can spur sales.
Developer Scott Kimball recently won Idaho Smart Growth's Grow Smart Award for infill projects for his 17-story mixed-use condo building, the Aspen Lofts. The project was lauded for using land in the center of downtown Boise instead of adding to urban sprawl, incorporating energy-efficient design, using local materials, and including moderately priced housing for downtown workers so they can cut down on driving.
The award brought a lot of attention to the Aspen Lofts, including from potential buyers, Kimball said. After the awards ceremony, a lot of people called to ask about condos in the building. "It helps," he said. In this market, "everything helps."
The green label doesn't always translate into more demand. Dofelmier said she hasn't noticed a lot of people seeking out green real estate. She said some people consider energy-efficient mortgages—a method of packaging the cost of home repairs with the home mortgage so consumers don't have to pay for energy-efficiency improvements up front—to be a pain. Jill Giese of Mosaic Properties and Laurie Barrera of Sel-Equity Real Estate said they don't think their EcoBroker designations have made much difference in terms of marketing themselves or having clients seek them out.
But they expect interest in green real estate will pick up before long. "Maybe in a year or two it will be something that's more in demand," Barrera said. "Energy costs aren't going to stay down."
Barrera isn't the only one who expects demand for green property to rise over time. Many builders, realtors and home sellers are starting to latch onto the green and energy-efficient building movement as a selling point in a poor market, as evidenced by the 60 realtors in Dofelmier's EcoBroker class. Barrera, Dofelmier and Giese are concerned that some of these people either don't know what they're talking about or are misrepresenting themselves as eco-friendly.
"Greenwashing is an issue you have to be aware of," Barrera said. It's best for home buyers and real estate agents to do their research together to verify all information about energy efficiency or green claims, she said.
Researching green claims isn't always easy because some developers such as Kimball who build projects that are recognized as being environmentally friendly don't get their projects certified as green. Kimball said the certification process for the Aspen Lofts would have been too time-consuming for him to pursue.
Meanwhile, some home sellers market their houses as energy-efficient, but have no proof to back it up, Dofelmier said. It's important for homebuyers to get up-to-date tests and information about energy-efficiency claims. The home may have been Energy Star-certified when it was built, she said, but if the previous owners installed a stereo system or something else that involved poking holes in the walls, they may have contributed to heat loss and made it less efficient.
Often, it takes a good realtor to help investigate these claims. So how do you know if a realtor is genuinely interested in doing the work to find an environmentally friendly home or if the realtor just took an EcoBroker class become more marketable?
Giese said the best way to tell if realtors are committed to the environment is to look at their office practices. Someone who's serious about the environment should work on ways to reduce the impact their business has on the planet, she said.
Giese said she reuses all the paper in her office, printing on both sides, and the entire Keller Williams brokerage—of which Mosaic is a part—is trying to go paperless, she said. A single real estate contract can generate 1.5 to 2 inches of paper, so going paperless can make a huge difference, she said. Paperless contracts can also reduce car trips to take the contract from office to office.
Giese said she frequently takes clients on bike rides to look at properties, and when they have to use a car, she'll get them to carpool in her diesel Volkswagen Golf.
Dofelmier is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional certification, an accreditation she said is much more rigorous than EcoBroker certification. But according to the U.S. Green Building Council Idaho Chapter's Web site, there are no LEED-accredited real estate agents in Idaho.
Without that accreditation to go on, Dofelmier agrees with Giese that the best way to find a good realtor for green real estate is to look at their environmental practices. She's convinced that not every EcoBroker from her class would measure up.
"How many of them have energy-efficient cars?" she said. "How many of them recycle? Are they just doing it to sell more houses? ... If they want somebody really green, it's still up to the consumer to make sure it's someone who really knows what they're talking about and really does live the lifestyle."
Green real estate can be a great way for real estate agents to stand out from the competition, but it shouldn't be a gimmick, Giese said. "In this market you have to do everything you can to differentiate yourself, but for me, I don't want to greenwash myself. I really want to have an impact."
Realtors need to start becoming good examples, Barrera said. A starting point is with the Ada County Association of Realtors office building, she said. The association is having an energy audit done on the building to find where it could be made more energy-efficient. Barrera said she's adding insulation to her own home and putting in more energy-efficient windows.
A few efforts are under way to improve access to green and energy-efficiency information, however. Dofelmier is leading efforts by the Idaho chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council to create a greener Multiple Listing Service. For instance, they may want to require sellers who market their homes as Energy Star or green to have the home tested before it's listed and post the certificate with the listing. They're examining rules like this in other states.
Barrera is heading an Ada County Association of Realtors task force that will push to change subdivision codes that don't allow homeowners to install solar panels and lobby for more sustainable land use ordinances to prevent sprawl and encourage mixed-use development.