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For 'green,' buyer beware
Homes may not be that environmentally friendly.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP, Times Staff Writer
Published December 30, 2007
Chris Dewey examines a sprinkler system during an inspection to grant certification of a Florida Green Home in Wesley Chapel.
[Stephen J. Coddington | Times]
Sharon Simms, a St. Petersburg Realtor with a specialty in selling environmentally friendly homes, has learned to be careful about what she says when she goes to work.
"The term 'green' is often used very loosely," Simms said. "So many of these things have not been explained enough. It's not that the seller is hiding something. It's just that you didn't ask."
As home building slumps and environmentalism becomes a business advantage, a fast-growing market for green homes is becoming synonymous with "buyer beware."
Building green means incorporating environmental features over and above mandated code standards, which also means it is a field that exists largely outside official regulation. Industry practitioners say there's no legal definition of what a "green" building is, and there are dozens of industry standards that can vary across different regions in the country.
Agencies like the Florida Green Building Coalition -- a nonprofit partnership of builders, consultants and academics founded in 2000 -- set key statewide standards. Its green home designation covers conditions across eight categories, including well-known green features like energy and water efficiency, but also lesser known aspects like site, lot choice and disaster mitigation.
Here's where things start getting murky.
"Builders out there may be doing three or four 'green' items, but they call themselves a green builder but they have no documentation," said Drew Smith, president of Two Trails, a green certification firm. "Three or four things do not make a house green. The media needs to put it out there about 'buyer beware.' If there's no third-party certification, then the house isn't green, and the builder isn't really building green."
In the green home designation the coalition offers, builders can choose any way they want to score at least 100 points on the checklist out of the 300 maximum, so a buyer may never know -- unless they ask -- why a home is "green."
It's a small but swiftly growing market.
Statewide, the Florida Green Building Coalition lists only 1,227 homes that have its certification. But in coming years, thousands more will be built across the Tampa Bay area alone, in an industry that is expected to double in value nationwide to reach $38-billion by 2010, according to McGraw-Hill Construction.
Those in the industry say just two green certification firms -- companies that independently certify buildings for their green status -- take 90 percent of the certification market: Two Trails and Trifecta Construction Solutions.
Trifecta takes a large share of certification contracts, and 80 percent of its market comes from residential projects, according to Jennifer Languell, president of Trifecta.
These are small firms. Trifecta, including Languell, has only seven full-timers. Two Trails has five, though it's trying to grow to seven, Smith said.
They warn buyers to look more closely.
"I've seen people in newspapers that say they are green, but I know they're not my client," said Jennifer Languell, president of Trifecta. "So who are they working with? There's nothing that says a person can't use the word 'green.' Just like the ad for the 'environmentally friendly' Hummer. It's just so full of crap it doesn't mean anything. But there's nothing that's untrue in the ad."
There's even a term for it: greenwashing.
But ask the industry experts for examples of greenwashing and they clam up.
Both Languell and Smith decline to cite greenwashing builders. They say these builders are still around, and it's bad business to badmouth them.
Pierce Jones, who leads the University of Florida's extension program on energy efficiency, ventured to speak of a builder in Gainesville who built just one green home but marketed its other uncertified products as green. But Jones stopped short of identifying the builder.
"The Florida Green Building Coalition had to speak to this builder," he said. The builder has since desisted, he said.
Who enforces green standards on builders?
"It depends on what they're saying," Languell said. "It's up to that organization that issued the standard."
The incentive for faking green -- avoiding certification -- is cost.
Nohl Crest Homes, the Tampa Bay area's leading purveyor of upscale green homes, began its quest last year to build only officially certified green homes. It says the green label adds thousands of dollars to its home prices.
"When we started, it was close to $1,800 per home," said Judy Preston, Nohl Crest's vice president of marketing. "It's going up. Now it's $2,600 to $2,800."
Still, Trifecta and Two Trails say they have never failed any builder who sought certification.
"If they fall short on the checklist, sure you can fail," said Smith. "But no, we haven't failed anyone. If there's missed items, they go back and correct them."
Builders sense the market appetite for green.
Siebel Falls Homes in Land O'Lakes in Pasco County is building an all-green community called Alsace. Major developers like Newland Communities and Crosland have signaled their desire to build entirely green projects.
In the Tampa Bay area, Nohl Crest is acknowledged as a leader in green homes. So is Hannah Bartoletta. But others like M/I Homes and David Weekley are said to be working toward all-green products too.
"Green, organic -- these are powerful marketing tools," said Chris Dewey, who runs Pasco's Florida Yards and Neighborhoods conservation program. "Two or three years ago, you had to win the lottery to buy a home. Now, builders have to provide a reason why what they're offering is a better product."
Simms, the St. Petersburg Realtor, said that green awareness gives her an advantage, but it comes with an edge.
"It's easier to sell because it has that extra salability," she said. "But you need to do a little more research. You have to ask when someone says something is green."
Buyers who get a green home should know that these homes are supposed to get inspected every two years to see if their green features remain intact.
But here's the kicker: The law doesn't require it.
"We go in and recertify that the home is still green and that the homeowner hasn't made changes," Smith said. "Currently reinspection is not a mandatory thing. ... The home buyer will hopefully ask to see the green certificate, and then decide if they want it to be reinspected."