John McManus Photo: Katherine Lambert

The words “learn now or pay later” carry a threat—one we believe should grab home building executives by the collar and shake. Three of every four dollars of residential energy costs in the United States come from owner-occupied, single-family homes, according to a Wells Fargo white paper on the “Green Home Market.”

Whether it's energy independence, climate change, fuel costs, or all of the above, the biggest risk to home builders would be to take an inflexible position on the debate and await the outcome.

After mortgage principal and interest payments, energy is a monthly home budget's second or third biggest expense line, depending on property taxes. Even ass housing's downturn relents glacially, energy is the wedge factor that can swing a buyer to new versus used in a heartbeat. Energy efficiency, coupled with your ability to close on your sales, is a foreclosure fighter strategy.

Moreover, energy and climate are on the national agenda shortlist. On the heels of financial reform legislation, attention will shift to immigration reform. After that, one or more of dozens of energy proposals will slog toward reconciliation and then to the president's desk.

Not acting would be foolish.

And yet today, we still collectively support a housing finance complex that rewards home buyers' trade-ups for extra square footage and less energy efficiency, and punishes the purchase of a home that doesn't guzzle energy.

What's even more scary is that a good percentage of our audiences' eyes glaze over at the mention of “green building.”

Builders' big takeaway from all the green talk that has gradually become a global bid for survival? Home buyers generally won't pay for green. Put that together with mistrust and disillusionment with elected officials, who all seem bent on passing laws and building codes that add to the building costs, and you'd appear to have a pretty good argument for just trying to keep selling homes while others figure out what's going to be energy law and when. Wrong.

Two vital down-the-road issues require action from a unified home building voice. One is the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio, whose dire end game we can see in sneak-preview mode if we take a look at Greece and the other weak Eurozone economies getting crushed under their own debt weight. Home builders must get out ahead by finding ways they can team up on reducing public debt to a more manageable level, or their businesses will be decimated in the long run.

Also, energy and the climate. The time to hesitate is through.

Among the next steps to fixing housing will be to fix housing finance. Part of the solution would be in changing how mortgages are approved by adding “E” for energy to the time-honored formula for calculating a buyer's monthly ability to pay to operate his or her home.

This was an idea Bigelow Homes founder Perry Bigelow first brought to Capitol Hill in March 1991. It would introduce a free-market catalyst to build and renovate homes by setting a loan amount based on the actual ongoing operating costs of the home in addition to paying the seller's sticker price. Bigelow Homes has guaranteed energy costs for its home buyers for more than two decades.

Bigelow's 1991 idea ran afoul of Fannie and Freddie interests, which ultimately foundered. Today, the theory, verbiage, and conviction that the Leading Homebuilders of America group has adopted as a rallying cry to alter mortgage underwriting and appraisals around energy efficiency uncannily resembles Bigelow's original position on the issue. “I don't care about authorship on this,” he says. “I care about getting it done.”

The gnarly knot is affordable sustainability. Untie it, and the future brightens. Learn now or pay later.