Why do we keep making it so hard for people to get what they want?

by Aug 3, 2017

If you haven’t read my piece from last week, take five minutes to scan it. It lays out one utility’s excellent approach to simplifying energy efficiency retrofits – making it easier for people to get what they want.

I got several comments, individually and in our blog forum, where folks pointed out that a straightforward, all-inclusive, good-better-best approach is what works best in terms of helping people see what they’re really buying (the benefit) and moving them to action.

One other piece of context: we’ve written a lot over the last year about the trend we’re seeing in our data related to a massive cultural shift we’re in the middle of. Americans are increasingly greener – in preferences, attitudes and behaviors – and they expect the same from the brands they buy from and in the products and services they buy. This is especially true in the homes market.

In fact, the profile of the folks who want greener, better performing homes is essentially the same profile as that of people in the market for a new home.

The profile of folks who want greener homes looks like a barbell – they’re either in their early 30’s, well educated, with good, well-paying jobs and they have young kids; or they’re older empty nesters, also well-educated with good, well-paying jobs. They want similar things: low, predictable monthly costs, good indoor air quality (they won’t say it this way…they’ll express concerns about moisture or mold and possibly about chemicals in the materials used in the home), comfort (meaning ambient temperature, consistent throughout the home), quality (and they believe a high-performance home is a higher quality home) and walkable communities.

If you were to profile people in the market for a new home, you’d create a very similar profile. Again, people looking for a new home are essentially looking for a higher performance home. And, again, as Americans we’re all getting greener and our baseline expectations on that front are increasing.

So why do we keep making it so hard for folks to get what they want?

I’m actually going through the home buying process right now. I’ll be purchasing an existing home with lots of air quality, moisture and energy efficiency problems – largely because it was built in 1928, but also because it’s been added on to/updated over the years without any thought about building performance. I could tell in my first visit in the house that it’s wasting energy, and there are air quality issues in the finished basement and attic. I pointed all of this out to my realtor, who’s a personal friend and knows what I do for a living and that I have high performance and quality expectations of a home. Yet, does she recommend, “let’s make your offer on the house contingent on a comprehensive energy and air quality inspection?” No. She says, “let’s make your offer contingent on a home inspection.” In my experience that’s almost an automatic now. Every realtor I’ve worked with over the years has recommended a home inspection, never an energy/air quality inspection. My guess is they simply don’t know to. And what a missed opportunity! Imagine if every realtor in America recommended making home offers contingent on an energy audit as well as a home inspection! Imagine how we’d open eyes and change the game!

So that’s not where we are. We’re also not at a place where I can make one phone call in Knoxville, TN, and hire a home inspector who’s also an energy auditor. No such thing in Knoxville, TN. In fact, all my searches turned up only one BPI-certified energy and air quality inspector within a 50-mile radius of Knoxville, TN. And he’s not also a home inspector.

That means I hired two guys (one of whom was literally my only option) to crawl through the house and give me their recommendations. My feeling was that the home inspector was a lot more thorough than the energy/air quality inspector. And the report from the energy guy included lots of recommended air sealing and insulation actions with price points – but no comprehensive recommendation on the HVAC. And, as has been my typical experience, no statement of the end benefit – if I do all the things he recommends how much will I improve the comfort, how much will I improve the air quality, how much will I lower my environmental impact?


Let me recap again:

  • The folks buying homes – particularly higher-end homes – want higher performing, greener homes.
  • In my experience realtors are not set up/not trained/not inclined to recommend an energy audit as part of the offer process the same way they recommend a home inspection.
  • It’s hard/impossible to find one person who can do both a home inspection and an energy/air quality inspection.
  • Energy/air quality inspection reports often lack a statement of benefit – what are you really buying/what improvements can you really expect? And they’re often not comprehensive – you have to call someone else to give you a recommendation on the HVAC system. And who knows if that person knows anything about building science and can size the units right for a home that’s been tightly sealed? Sounds like a set-up for a lot of finger-pointing down the road to me.

So let’s change this game! Let’s get every realtor in America trained to recommend energy audits! Let’s get every home inspector trained to do an energy audit! And let’s train those auditors to give comprehensive prescriptions for truly improving a home’s air quality, comfort and energy waste!

When we accomplish that, we’ll make it a heck of a lot easier for today’s home buyer to get what they really want.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Chie Kawahara

    Hi Suzanne, I was in your shoes 7 years ago. My husband and I bought an old home originally built in 1922, a charming Arts and Crafts style home with good bones. The abundance of deferred maintenance (no insulation, original windows, rusted water pipes, water heater in the kitchen) presented an opportunity to do a gut remodel. We wanted the house to be green and sustainable. In 2010, my idea of green home was simply a house with solar panels and liberal application of reused or recycled material. Back then I didn’t “get” energy efficiency. That all changed when we attended a Passive House (Passivhaus) workshop. By shifting our expectation from “heating or cooling the house quickly in response to the weather” to “maintaining a comfortable temperature inside the house by letting the house wear a good windbreaker over a jacket,” the lightbulb of comprehension turned on in my head. We used the Passive House Standard to guide our remodel and succeeded in reducing the energy consumption by 80% (without PV!). I feel fortunate that we’ve locked in our energy performance for decades to come. What we’ve done is not for the faint of heart. But, for those in the “barbell profile” who are interested in making a significant change to a old home ripe for deep energy retrofit, I’m sharing my story of the Passive House retrofit journey (through the homeowner’s lens) in a forthcoming book, Midori Haus.

  2. Ron Horstman

    Suzanne, you nailed it in this article! I was especially in favor of providing or requiring energy audits with the home inspection – something I have been doing for over 30 years. Many of my clients have modified their offers based on the results of the energy audit and the sellers often agree to their terms. The next step is getting the home to net-zero and providing the roadmap and timetable to get them there. My reward comes several years later when the client calls me to tell me they reached the net-zero goal and want me to come and celebrate with them. 🙂

  3. wayne

    Realtors and brokers are behind the curve, They are both failures as I have been stating now for over 15 years. Now there is a failure of their fiduciary responsibility. What you have witness is the divide between green homes and conventional homes. The price gap, comfort ability, and appraised value. In the near future if and when these intermediaries ever get it together, you will not get suggestions of a home or energy inspection. You will get a discounted price on a conventional home. And the discount will be substantial..like 10% or more. These amount exceeds the commission of the real estate agents.

  4. Greenman

    Much of the payback or gain is subjective. The way the seller lives and uses energy in a home may be very different from the way a buyer lives and uses energy in the home. Often fixing one problem creates others. Sealing, caulking and other draft stopping can make interior air stale. The solution is to install an MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery) unit. Increasing ventilation can help with moisture buildup but that can make a properly heated home feel dry and cooler. So you need to increase humidify in the heating season and dehumidify in the cooling season. BPI’s can perform a door blower test and provide quantitative numbers but most buyers are not willing to pay for the test and even less likely to pay for the retrofit that has a payback of more than 20 years.

  5. John Mitchell


    As an energy auditor, I greatly appreciate the nod to the value we bring. But as a former sales person for an insulation contractor, what we found is that a comprehensive report – one that documents EVERYTHING that needs attention in an older, existing home – leads to analysis paralysis. If you give a homeowner a report with a list of 25-30 things that need attention in their home, they tend to do nothing. I’m just guessing (cause I don’t do focus groups for a living) that they don’t know where to start or see large $ signs in their heads. So our approach was to give them a list of the top 3 priority items (plus a rating of all the other remaining energy-related components of the home), an estimate to fix those 3 things (or referral to an HVAC contractor), and information on utility rebates that we would process for them. Our closing rates were very good at 40-70%.

    Plus, I’m convinced that realtors don’t want someone like me doing a thorough inspection of the homes they’re trying to sell. I frequently catch things that an inspector has missed, such as live knob-and-tube wiring, vermiculite insulation, or evidence of ice dams. My job is to find problems (where they exist), and that will just slow down the sale. In addition, most homeowners find their home inspector through their real estate agent. So my question is, for whom does the home inspector really work? From whom will their next referral likely come? If I was that home inspector, and my reports were killing deals left and right, how long do you think I’m getting referrals?

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