Is a New Home or an Energy Upgraded Home more efficient?

home energy score upgrade

Purchasing a home in Portland can be a challenge, especially if you’re looking for energy efficiency. Many buyers assume that if they’re willing to spend more and purchase a newly built home, it will be energy efficient by default. Unfortunately, unless you’re building a custom home and energy efficiency is part of your design, that’s not necessarily true. Yes, new homes cost more. But are you paying for fancy finishes and expansive square footage, or are you paying for features that will save you money in the long run by using less energy?

Fortunately, the Home Energy Score is here to help. Looking at the Home Energy Score report can help you choose the most energy efficient option, but there are factors to consider that are beyond the scope of the HES. Read on to weigh the pros and cons of buying a new or pre-owned home in Portland, if energy efficiency is one of your concerns.

New Home: Pros and Cons for Energy Efficiency 

Ahh, that new-home smell. Although there actually isn’t much new construction happening in the city of Portland proper itself these days (we’re full, its mostly infill new homes), the suburbs are booming, and many home builders tout the energy efficiency of their homes. In fact, though the Home Energy Score is not required outside of Portland, most new homes now have either an Energy Star or Energy Performance Score rating. We’ll get into those differences in a moment, but first, lets look at some of the pros and cons of buying a new home to save energy. 

Pro: It’s an Energy-Efficient System

Think of a home as a cake: It’s not just flour, sugar and butter, but those are your key ingredients. In a home, the orientation to the sun, overall shape and structure and construction materials are the starting ingredients for an energy-efficient system. For example, a home with south-facing windows is going to gain much more solar heat than one without. 

Home Energy Scores — which are required for new construction homes in Portland starting in 2020 — looks at the “ingredients” of a home as well as how it is put together. Did the builder mix high-efficiency windows with low-efficiency ones? Did they pay attention to the way air moves through the building? What are the R-values of the insulation?

Things like solar panels and LED bulbs are the “icing on the cake” for an energy efficiency-designed home, because the home itself doesn’t require much energy to begin with. The Home Energy Score does not take solar panels, appliances and fixtures into account because their usage reflects the owners’ behavior more than the efficiency of the home. 

Bottom line: It’s much easier to build a new home to be energy-efficient than to retrofit an existing home. It’s also easier to make a home “look” energy efficient with snazzy consumer-end products than to actually design in that way. That’s why its incredibly important for buyers to check the Home Energy Score before making a decision. 

Cons: Embodied Emissions

No, this is not a Halloween spook (that’s disembodied). When building and climate scientists refer to “embodied emissions” they’re talking about those carbon emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting, and assembling the materials the building is made of. 

If reducing the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere is your goal, buying a new home is problematic. According to a 2018 study of Canadian homes, it would take an average of 168 years for a high-efficiency home to make up for its embodied emissions in energy savings for the home’s residents.

New home builders can reduce the carbon footprint of the home by choosing energy-efficient materials. If you’re building a custom home or choosing some of the finish materials on a spec home, Building Green has a product guide that can help.

Previously Owned Home in Portland: More energy efficient than new?

Many home buyers prefer a home with character, that uses mostly wood construction and has a history behind it — in other words, a pre-owned home.

These older Portland homes have some energy-efficiency strikes against them. Most were built before energy efficient building codes were put into place, and for most of their existence, homeowners found it more affordable to heat and cool them than to make energy efficient upgrades. Now that we have Home Energy Scores, the financial incentive is there to improve the situation in Portland. 

Pros: The Smaller Home Wins Big

The main thing that pre-owned Portland homes have going for them, efficiency-wise, is that they tend to be smaller than newly constructed homes. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1950, the average new home was built to less than 1,000 square feet. The size of homes has creeped up decade by decade, to 2,355 square feet in 2019. 

For energy efficiency, every square foot added is another square foot to heat, cool and supply power to. Higher ceilings mean that more heated air hangs out up above livable space. It’s no wonder that square footage is one of the first thing Home Energy Score assessors look at when they score a home! 

In addition to being smaller, pre-owned Portland homes have the energy advantage of already being built. That means the “embodied energy”, by the time you buy the home, has already been expended (see the section above on new homes for a detailed explanation of this). 

Finally, the “pro” of buying a pre-owned home, from both a financial and an energy efficiency standpoint, is that they tend to cost less than new homes. That means that more cash can be put into energy efficiency upgrades after purchasing the home. See our blog post on financing to learn more

Cons? It depends on the home

The average home in Portland has a Home Energy Score of 4.6. That means there are typically improvements that need to be made before the home is functioning at its most energy efficient. Some might be easy — air sealing, for instance — while others might be more involved.

A pre-owned Portland home is never going to reach the levels of energy efficiency of a new home built to super-efficient standards. With the right home, however, and a dedication to following the recommendations of your Home Energy Score Assessor, you can make some significant improvements. 

New or pre-owned — it’s really up to you, the home buyer. Just don’t forget to check the Home Energy Score report that should be available for every home on the Portland real estate market. If they don’t have one, ask for it! It’s your right as a buyer to know the full energy story on the home.