Is Greening Your Home Worth It?

At least one part of the slowing housing market is accelerating: the shift to green. Propelled by the promise of cutting energy costs, saving the planet and one-upping the Joneses, homeowners are investing in environmentally friendly upgrades. But is going green really worth the green? Will all those eco-friendly touches add value to your home when it's time to sell? Home-building coach and author of "Housebirth: Your Guide to Buying an Energy-Efficient, Healthy New Home That Pays You Back" Sara Lamia spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ashley Harris about the reasons going green is more than just a fad, and offered advice on where to invest money in your home. Excerpts:

You speak a lot about the well-built home. What exactly distinguishes it from a poorly built home in a "green" world?
The concept of a well-built home is one that is energy-efficient, meaning that it is functioning like a human body, with all of the systems in sync. This is a concept that is beginning to catch on and pick up steam.

If you're going to build a green home or embark on an eco-friendly remodeling, what's important to remember?
There are five essential things to keep in mind: Aim for a tight thermal envelope. Getting the outside tight so there is no leakage of conditioned air. Thinking solar doesn't just involve solar panels. Pay attention to where the sun streams into your house. Controlling the amount of light coming in can drastically affect your heating or cooling bills. Consider your home's circulatory system. Evaluate the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems and make sure they are running at peak efficiency. Factor in fluids. If it's time to upgrade your washing machine, consider water-saving and energy-efficient front loaders. For the yard, think about sprinkler systems that automatically respond to weather conditions. Power-up. Always consider Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent lightbulbs and flooring and paints with low-volatility organic compounds. They're less toxic and may leave you breathing easier.

With hybrid cars—given their high purchase price—consumers don't see savings until after owning the cars for a number of years. Will we see the same trend with these high-performance homes?
No, these homes aren't like cars. With these homes you should see immediate or near-immediate return on your investment coming directly via lower energy costs. The monthly energy bills would be less than half. The payback on the high-performance home should be seen within the first few months.

Is it more costly to get older homes green?
It depends on the house. The main thing is to have your house diagnosed and see how it fares on the Home Energy Rating System. Once you've identified problem areas, fixes can be relatively cheap. Whether it's replacing windows or fixing insulation problems, most upgrades don't require a major overhaul of a house. Also, contact your local utility and inquire about a "blower" test, which will pressurize your house and calculate how much air conditioning or heating is leaking out. That costs about $300.

Why is there so little push for legislation on green building standards?
There are so many parties involved, it's difficult to pin this thing down right now. You get legislation moved only when someone is pressuring someone else, or when you've got someone like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Green Commission working on it. These entities do commercial buildings, but now they're working on bringing their expertise to residential. But it's costly. There's also the National Association of Home Builders, who want to see energy efficiency, but the home builders don't want to see this thing legislated to death.