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The least sexy part of your budget: Utilities... Energy efficiency tips for first-time home buyers and renters.

The least sexy part of your budget: Utilities... Energy efficiency tips for first-time home buyers and renters.

2012 US Census data indicates that the average American household spends roughly $200 per month on their energy bill. Although we enjoy being warm and cozy in the winter and cool and collected in the summer months, this is another budget category where it pays to be well below average. Luckily, things like home updates, inexpensive projects, and minor changes in routine can create notable savings. We've tried out a few of these things.  

Before buying a home.

House hunting was absolutely about finding a place that looked and felt like home for us, but it's also important to keep an eye toward practical considerations. A house's square footage and practical considerations like updated windows and a sufficiently insulated attic change the monthly cost that a homeowners must pay toward utilities. Some specific home features can also have an impact. For example, cathedral ceilings and sunrooms can increase energy costs. House shoppers in hot climates may want to keep an eye out for homes with cool roof features to prevent the air conditioning from having to work overtime.

When we found a place that felt like home, we lined up a home inspector with a great reputation. Walking through the home alongside the inspector was a great education in our home's energy efficiency as well as the maintenance projects we should take on to protect our property value. We learned how our levels of insulation compared to standards in our region and the age of major appliances and equipment in the home. 

If your dream home doesn't come with an energy efficient water heater, there's no need to despair. Issues that show up during a home inspection can give you grounds to negotiate with the seller.  

In the end, our family of three ended up choosing a modern cottage (just under 800 square feet) in a great neighborhood with a large garage for hobbies and storage space. We get a lot of use out of our generous outdoor entertaining space and garage, while the modest size of the home keeps our monthly utility bills low. It's a choice we don't regret! 

Major appliances and equipment.

I don't have to tell you that appliances and equipment tie directly to overall energy use. Shopping for efficient new appliances and equipment is easy thanks to the independent certification done by Energy Star. Most modern appliances will feature an Energy Star label that will give you a yearly estimated operating cost:

Image source:  Federal Trade Commission

Older appliances may not be as easy to assess, but you can use the US Dept of Energy's Appliance Energy Calculator to get an estimate.  

With roughly half of all energy expenses going to heating and cooling, high performing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment should be a priority for every homeowner. However, overall efficiency isn't the only factor to consider when evaluating your heating and cooling system.

When we initially bought our home, the furnace installed by prior owners was over-sized. It might have been an efficient choice in a larger home, but not ours. The furnace would inefficiently "short cycle" during the winter months, creating a negative impact on our budget while causing excessive wear and tear on the furnace itself. When we replaced it with a model half the size, we saw an immediate savings on our monthly utility bill. We even got some money back on the cost of the furnace itself by researching tax rebates.

Quick fixes for greater energy efficiency...
Including tips for renters!

Not a lot of dollars to put down on a new HVAC system? No problem. Not every move toward energy efficiency requires an expensive home upgrade

There are quick fixes that owners and renters can do to cut back on energy costs. Energy Star has simple money saving tips that anyone can put in place today. Easy tasks like replacing weather striping on a drafty front door, washing laundry in cold water, and updating to energy-efficient light bulbs can all make an impact on your budget's bottom line.

Even the way your operate your ceiling fan can surprisingly make a difference.

Seeking expert guidance.

We learned about our over-sized furnace from the home inspector that we consulted before buying our home, but expert help doesn't have to be expensive.

Many local utility companies will provide an energy audit, and they often offer them for no charge. We'll be signing up for one of these appointments with our local utility company. When they come out, they'll give us free advice on how to lower our energy bill even further. As a part of their visit, they'll update up to 20 light bulbs, increasing our home's efficiency on-the-spot. They offer high-performance shower heads and other perks at no charge as well. (If they have enough good tips, then we'll be sure to share them in a follow up post!)

These types of audits can be helpful for identifying other major contributors to HVAC costs as well, like insufficient insulation and drafts. 

Lower your utility bill... and then save a little more!

Making your home more efficient can provide a whole lot of bang for your buck. In addition to lowering your monthly utility bill or making your home more comfortable in extreme weather, you might also be eligible for tax credits, rebates, and additional kinds of savings. We saw huge savings on updated windows and our furnace replacement by using tax credits.

The number of programs offering additional savings can be overwhelming. Luckily, homeowners can conduct some quick research online to ensure they're not missing out: US Department of Energy's Searchable Tax Credit, Rebate, and Incentives Database

Additional resources for energy efficiency

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