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Is green real estate a pipe dream or a real possibility? [opinion]

You can’t go to a real estate convention or read a real estate blog without green/sustainable real estate development mentioned. It’s hip, it’s hot, it’s a growing sector full of buzzwords, but is it realistic? I have my hopes and my doubts.

See, I live in Austin which gives me an extremely unique perspective in that our county is the land of hippies and free thinkers that protest when old oak trees are slated to be removed and go on hunger strikes to protest the police force’s racial profiling. We’re the San Francisco of the Southwest but unlike PelosiLand, we’re not surrounded by like-minded thinkers, we’re surrounded by our more conservative counterparts (you know, the people that were chastised for grasping to their guns and bibles?). We’re full of Tea Partiers and the Super Liberals, all peacefully co-existing within miles of each other.

When it comes to sustainable development, some people believe it’s too costly or it’s dumb or things are just okay how they are right now. Others believe it’s a matter of life and death to care for the planet. Again, because I live in Austin, I live amongst both polar opposites and we tend to coexist quite well- we’re a rapidly growing city yet land is heavily protected. Some people would call our city an anomaly, but I would note that conditions for conservation are high in our city because of the public consciousness as well as local politicians aiming to preserve land.

I believe that sustainable development is only realistic in places where the consumer will buy a green product and politicians want to get reelected, so they give tax breaks for it. If you drive an hour north of Austin, the environment is most certainly no platform to run on, there are no tax incentives for sustainable building, and the public consciousness is not as highly involved with the green movement.

This month, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released their state by state scorecard for energy efficiency as seen below:

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As you can see above, some states are extremely far behind in energy efficiency overall (even Texas ranks low down there). The reason I point this out is because someone like me can get on a soapbox (which I’m not shy about doing) and scream that everyone should be environmentally minded and use green materials, solar panels, grey water retention or whatever, but in some states where it’s not a part of the public conscience, it’s just not realistic. It’s also not cost effective in some rural areas or low income areas… it’s not cheap to slap up solar panels or to buy reclaimed wood flooring or install grey water systems, even if they save money in the long term. Tell a family on food stamps that they need to install energy efficient windows on the house they got when Grandma died. Not happening.

In America, we have a challenge on our hands and I’m hopeful about it, but I believe that sustainable real estate across the board is still a few decades away. So what’s the answer? Collectively, we have to do our part to help make sustainable building methods a part of the public conscience so demand continues to rise so the prices continue to decline and builders and owners have incentives for making the choice to be green. What say you?

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Ruthmarie Hicks

    October 21, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Hi Lani,
    The distribution is interesting. At first blush – it looks as though the “energy efficient” states tend to run along blue/red lines. But I think it might be running more along the lines of cost. CA and the Northwest had the energy crisis when the grids were deregulated c2001. The grid was gamed forcing prices sky-high. New York and New England had similar deregulation of their grids. We didn’t have the blackouts (so our issues never hit the news) but we got socked with price increases. My electric bill doubled in a matter of two months. It never went down.

    Everyone around here LOVES green tech. But I think their passion is in no small part economic. Ideology plays a role, but its not the whole story. We can’t escape that changes came here as prices of conventional gas and heating oil went up to astronomic levels. So, for good or ill, conservation and green technology will spread as the cost of heating, cooling and lighting our homes forces us seek out new solutions. So far Texas has escaped. But I think its only a matter of time for the rest of America.

  2. Sano Stante

    October 21, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Realtors are positioned at the epicenter of the consumers largest purchase decision and developers decision point respecting what to build. Realtors have the ability to provide more influence in these decisions on what to build and what to buy than any other prefession. Problem is that Realtors do not utilize this ability because we believe that we are mere salespersons and we have not taken expanded our sphere of responsibility. When you have the ability, you have a responsibility – and Realtors have yet to own up to this responsibility of educating ourselves in sustainable practice or good urban design. Our sphere of influence is only limited to that which we perceive we will influence. If you decide to influence your family, your community. your city or your world, you will.

  3. Brad Nix

    October 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

    I think people would rather make Smart Living decisions instead of ‘green’ living decisions. I know it sounds like semantics, but it’s a real difference when you start to include ‘reuse’ and ‘return on investment’ in addition to recycle and sustainable. I also think it will take bold steps by innovative companies to disrupt the current consumer mindset. More like this and less like ‘buy green because it’s trendy’.

  4. Bruce Lemieux

    October 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Ultimately, 95% of us make decisions that are based on our own economic self-interest. I would guess that the areas with the highest energy costs are also the most efficient.

    I have never had a buyer who specifically guided a search for a ‘green home’. The top 3 are always Price, Location, Schools. When energy prices went nuts a couple of years ago, buyers actually looked at a home’s energy costs, and put a higher premium for ‘closer-in’ homes given high gas costs. Not so much now.

    I would guess that the average home in the UK is twice as efficient as the avg American home since the cost of energy is multiples higher than it is here. The government taxes energy much higher there giving everyone an economic incentive to be efficient.

    You want people to be efficient and go green (to me, these are the same things), then politicians must dramatically raise taxes on energy. Which won’t happen.

  5. Anna Altic

    October 21, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Hi – I enjoyed the article. I wanted to speak to a few misnomers about efficiency. I’m a fan of systems like solar, geothermal, and energy efficient windows. However, I wanted to point out that some of the biggest return on investment for making a home more efficient really have to do with sealing the walls, attic, and duct work. Much of this can be done with caulk, mastic, and better quality insulation. Many utilities offer major incentives to make these changes and landlords can also get some help to do this in affordable housing.

    In addition, another huge “free” approach is to simply look at your daily habits and figure out where you are wasting. Many utilities offer the ability to track your peak use and often you can find very impactful affordable changes you can make such as programmable thermostats or faucet aerators, or simply attaching your major technology like TV’s, computers, DVD player to power strips that can be turned off completely when not in use. Anything with a small box at the plug or on the chord draws power and if 50 million families made that simple change, imagine the impact.

    I agree that some of the sexier green systems may be a ways away, I hope sooner than decades but we as Realtors can have a tremendous impact on improving our energy efficiency as a nation right now. Knowing what incentive programs are available locally, sharing with buyers and sellers the low hanging fruit as a part of their presentations, advocating for for smaller and better built homes in their community are all things that would tremendously impact the colors on that map today.

  6. Liz Benitez

    October 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    I grew up in a 4 bedroom 11/2 bathroom rambler in southern CA. The whole house was electric. It was on a well and had electric fences for the animals. When my parents purchased the home they looked into converting over to gas. It was $500.00 that they didn’t have. 15 years later they were paying upwards of $900.00 a month for there electric bill.

    I guess my point is, The big picture isn’t always clear or easy to believe in. Right now I am looking into the ipad. No more paper signing contracts, no more having stacks with just one signature lay around my office. In the long run it will save on not only paper but ink and energy but it is a lot of money to just spend for little immediate return.

  7. Troy Roark

    October 24, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    I don’t want to drop a link into your comments without permission, so I’ll encourage you to search “Smart Home Brews Your Coffee” at . It’s a project they are pursuing at Virginia Tech where they have built a completely sustainable and solar powered home. Very nice.

  8. Les

    October 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    If you believe that Carbon is the enemy then you will feel an urgency to be energy independent. If you see how energy efficient buildings provide lower maintenance costs, it just makes sense to go green.

    Going green at the expense of traditional methods is a mistake though. We need traditional building supplies as well as green to be effective in the US and abroad.

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