Last week, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu met at an energy auditing company on Long Island to announce the launch of the FHA’s new PowerSaver pilot program.

Working with 18 lenders across the country, the program will allow homeowners to borrow up to $25,000 to finance energy improvements in an existing home, including improvements to insulation, duct sealing, replacement doors and windows, HVAC systems, water heaters, solar panels, and geothermal systems. Terms can go up to 20 years, and rates will be lower than standard. The FHA will guarantee up to 90% of the loan.

The idea is to generate interest in the private sector, which Donovan is hoping will get on board by providing these types of loans more readily.

Fannie Mae recently came out with a similar offering, a new Energy Improvement feature for mortgage loans. Fannie had already stopped offering its Energy Efficient Mortgage feature, which could have been used to finance the purchase of a new energy-efficient home. The replacement program can only be used to make energy improvements to an existing home.

The financing will cover energy improvements deemed cost-effective by a RESNET home energy rating, and amounts can go up to 10% of the post-improvement appraisal.

Unlike Fannie, the FHA still has a program for buyers of energy-efficient new homes intact. Its Energy Efficient Mortgage program can be used to help home buyers finance energy-efficient features in a new home as part of an FHA insured mortgage.

However, the increasing shift in emphasis toward improving the energy efficiency of existing homes rather than new homes is symptomatic of the disconnect between what government entities see as the market reality and what builders are seeing in the field.

According to a Fannie Mae spokesperson, the company feels that private lenders are meeting the needs of buyers of energy-efficient homes, suggesting that lenders will value energy-efficient features appropriately.

Shaun Donovan agrees. When Builder questioned Donovan after the PowerSaver announcement about why the government seemed to be moving its focus to existing homes, Donovan emphasized that the benefits of energy-efficient building are being recognized by private sector lenders and appraisers.

“We’ve seen greater progress in the new-home market through local building codes,” Donovan told Builder. “What we’ve seen more and more are appraisers and Realtors who see the value in [energy-efficient construction], and lenders are recognizing that.”

But that’s not what builders are saying.

About two years ago, Meritage Homes decided to go all-in with energy efficiency. “We took the approach that we were going to start over and change the way we build,” C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs at Meritage, told Builder. “We frame different. We build different. We use different appliances and features.”

As a result, Herro reports that Meritage can build a home that uses half the energy and half the water of a traditional home with only a 10% increase in the cost of construction. The energy-saving upgrades Meritage includes can save the homeowner between $1,200 and $3,600 a year in utility bills, depending on the home (some of Meritage’s homes achieve net-zero energy efficiency).  

But when asked if appraisers and banks recognize the value of the energy-efficiency benefits Meritage includes, Herro replied emphatically, “Absolutely not! We’re building a lot of significant improvements into our homes. We’re doing net zero. We’re doing solar. And we’re struggling to get a penny out of it.”

“Conventional construction is leaky,” Herro said. “A traditional home will have to recondition all of the air in the entire house 70 times a day. When you rebuild [to high energy-efficiency standards], you can cut that down to five.” According to Herro, such a reduction would cut heating and air-conditioning costs down by 60%.

The trouble, Herro said, is that the people consumers look to when trying to gauge the value of a home—appraisers and lenders—are failing to recognize the value in the energy-efficiency upgrades the homes include, and as a result, the builder is forced to absorb that additional cost.

Despite these challenges, Meritage has been able to make energy-efficient building work as a business model, largely because of customer awareness that sees the value in it. Also, as one of the largest builders in the country, Meritage is able to achieve economies of scale by building all of its homes to energy-efficient standards. “But the average builder is incentivized to build a less energy-efficient home,” Herro said. “It’s ridiculous that you can build to [a high] level of efficiency, but it has a negative effect on your income statement.”

In an effort to remedy the problem, Herro is promoting the Sensible Accounting to Value Energy (SAVE) Act, a proposal supported by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) that would require federal loan agencies to take into account the expected energy costs of a home when assessing a mortgage loan application.

“Homeowners who spend less on energy will have more money to make mortgage payments and to maintain and repair their homes,” SAVE Act press materials say. “A person will be less likely to have to choose between paying the utility company or his or her lender.”

The materials also point out that the average U.S. household will spend more than $2,300 in energy costs over the course of a year, “more than the average cost of property taxes or homeowners insurance, two expenses that are routinely underwritten in a mortgage loan. Energy costs are not accounted for in this process.”

“If you take all the things out of a home that waste resources and money, that innovation costs a little bit more,” Herro said. “The problem is that building better, until the average consumer recognizes the benefits, is disincentivized by the establishment.”

Claire Easley is senior editor, online, at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.