This Charlotte, N.C., LEED-Certified dwelling from Banister Homes has a HERS rating of 63.
Courtesy Banister Homes This Charlotte, N.C., LEED-Certified dwelling from Banister Homes has a HERS rating of 63.

Selling clients on the environmental benefits—rather than the added value—of green homes is akin to asking them to write a check for charity. That wake-up call was delivered in a Greenbuild education session by Kathy Spence, LEED AP and marketing and sustainability director for Charlotte, N.C.-based Banister Homes. In the session, Spence discussed how to show clients that a sustainable home can save them money and improve their lives. The highest-priority green feature for most clients is energy efficiency, Spence said, followed by indoor air quality, water efficiency, and materials. She provided advice on marketing each of these green features.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY. For most customers, the most pivotal benefit of a green, efficient home is reduced cost of ownership. “People want to be insulated from future expenses,” Spence said. “No one knows what energy will cost. We provide information on what might happen [to energy costs] in the future.”

During an economic downturn, reducing operating costs is particularly important to customers, many of whom are buying or remodeling their homes to stay for the long term, rather than sell in a few years, Spence said. She pointed to an NAHB study that found buyers are willing to pay $6,000 more on average for a home that saves $1,000 per year in energy costs, indicating a desired payback of six years. “A reduction in operating costs adds value to a purchasing decision,” she said.

Renewable energy will come up in a conversation with clients, so be ready to discuss alternative energy sources intelligently, Spence suggested. In particular, builders and remodelers need to know about available tax incentives and how the local utility handles energy generation—will they allow you to interconnect solar panels with the grid? The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency is a good place to start.

Be honest when explaining the potential costs and payback times for renewable energy, Spence recommended. “You need to be an expert on green features, but you’re not making the decision for them,” she said.

INDOOR AIR QUALITY. While energy efficiency is a popular benefit, indoor air quality is critical to many buyers, Spence said. To avoid disappointing clients, find out in advance what their expectations are. You don’t want to specify low-VOC paints only to find out after painting that they were expecting zero-VOC finishes.

MATERIALS. Green materials can mean different things to different clients, so don’t assume you know what your clients want, Spence recommended. “Some customers may want construction waste to fit into the trunk of a Prius,” she said. “Some may want everything to come from within a 100-mile radius. Some want everything to be reused. Some want low-VOC.”

While fulfilling those wishes can sometimes be costly or difficult, you may be able to find mainstream products that are friendly to those goals but less expensive and easier to acquire, Spence said. She suggests explaining to your suppliers the qualities you’re looking for in green products. On one project, for instance, Banister chose lumber from Weyerhaeuser because it was sourced from a local Carolina forest, even though it carried SFI certification instead of the more stringent FSC certification.

DOCUMENTATION AND VERIFICATION. Certifying and documenting your green home adds credibility, Spence noted, and helps take away the liability that comes along with green claims. It can also help at appraisal time: “Appraisers need documents, not verbal assurances,” Spence said, adding that utility bills also provide a powerful way to tell a home’s energy efficiency story.

With all of these factors playing a role in the purchasing decision, don’t assume you know what motivates a client, Spence said. Remember that many clients are at least two people, and each is likely to have different motivations. The wife may want efficiency, while the husband simply wants a high-quality home.

“Green” can mean saving the planet, the latest fad, lower utility bills, comfort, or health, she said. The fact that the home is better for the environment is just one of many possible selling points.

Jeffrey Lee is Managing Editor for EcoHome. 

For more from the 2011 Greenbuild Conference and Expo see these related stories:
Common Failures in LEED for Homes Projects
6 Secrets to Building a LEED-Certified Community
Greenbuild Audience Encouraged to Face Challenges with Innovation
2011 Greenbuild Product Preview