5 Things to look for when buying an old home to greenovate

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips, House Styles, Green Renovations, Garden And Lawncare, Historic Preservation

I’m often asked what Kelly and I looked for when we decided to renovate an old house to net zero energy.  If you know what to look for it’s surprisingly simple.

We fell in love at first site of our home, despite the asbestos siding, carpeted floors, lead paint, drop foam ceilings and even the pink Formica walls in the bathroom.  What we found was a home with great bones. The cosmetic stuff that scared other buyers away were easy to remedy.

Our attic had no insulation, but that allowed us to make sure we chose the correct product and have it installed properly.

Our attic had no insulation, but that allowed us to make sure we chose the correct product and have it installed properly.

But, when you want to make an old home green or even to eliminate your energy bills forever with net zero energy, what should you look for when shopping for that fixer upper?  It may not be what you think. You don’t necessarily want to buy a home that has had prior renovations.  You may just have to undo what was done.  Starting from scratch just might be the best route.

After finding a home with good bones you’re going to then determine what upgrades you can make that will help make the home more comfortable, energy efficient and affordable to operate.

Here’s the top five things to look for:

1.  You want a home with no insulation.  You may be surprised that I recommend looking for a home with zero insulation.  Yet when there is no insulation you have more choices about what to install.  More importantly, you can make sure that the installation is done correctly.  Poor insulation choices or installation can ruin an old (or a new) house.  Hire a trustworthy contractor with good references to make sure the job is done right.  If there is insulation in the house, get an energy audit before purchasing the house to see whether the insulation is adequate and installed correctly.  If not, determine what it will cost to remove the old insulation and start over.

2.  Landscaping for energy efficiency and health.  Trees are always appealing and a well-shaded lot can be a dream come true.  But, the trees must be in the right places.

You want to find a home that has the right types of trees located in places that help make the interior of the home more comfortable.  A well-designed landscape not only can add beauty to your home but it also can reduce your heating and cooling costs. On average, landscaping for energy efficiency provides enough energy savings to return an initial investment in less than 8 years.

Overly shaded homes and trees located too close to the house can actually cause more harm than good. Thick evergreens pressed up against the side of an old home can add and trap moisture, moss and sometimes mold.  To block solar heat in the summer but let much of it in during the winter, look for deciduous trees.  On the northwest corner, you might want to see some evergreen trees that will create a wind block against prevailing cold winter winds.  Finally, look for a property that does not have trees obstructed the roof on the south side of the house.  This will help when you’re ready to produce your own energy with rooftop solar.

3.  Natural ventilation features.  Old homes often have wonderful features that naturally ventilate and cool the house.  Look for design that work with natural weather patterns instead of against them.  If the home has these features (like cupolas, gable windows, basement windows) make sure they are operable or repairable.  Avoid homes that have gutted these useful features.  It can be costly to replace entire historic features that have been removed or “renovated” beyond repair.

4.  Good old windows that can be restored.  Find a house with the original windows.  Don’t be fooled by the seller who brags about the new “energy efficient” vinyl windows they installed last year.  Trust me, you want windows with a proven century long track record.  Even if the old windows have broken locks or are painted shut, they can be affordably repaired and weatherized.  We restored our original windows and made them nearly as tight as new ones. Check out this VIDEO of our window repair: Video: Windows - Going Green without Replacement Windows

5. A big roof that faces south.  Finally, before you even walk into the house, you should get very excited if you look up and find a large roof area, unobstructed by trees, that faces the southern sky.  This means you may have the potential to produce all of the energy you will ever need.  The latitude of your location will determine what the optimal roof angle is for the most solar energy potential.  In general, you want your roof angle to be the same degree as your latitude.  Our home in Ann Arbor is at about 43 degrees latitude.  Our roof angle is 45 degrees, which makes it nearly perfect for solar.