Finding the Green to Go Green

By Sherri Butterfield

The changes needed to make your home and yard green or greener can be expensive, but help is available in the form of renovation mortgages, home energy upgrade financing, product rebates, federal income tax credits, and—in some instances—reductions in municipal permit fees.

You’ve probably thought about going green—or greener. Whether your goal is to reduce the burden of your monthly utility bills, increase the value of your home, or save the planet, the obstacles are twofold: (1) summoning the will to tackle the project and (2) finding the money to pay for it.

There are many good reasons for going green—or greener—and many good ways to get there, but you have to begin someplace. If you are wondering where that place is, you may want to recall the instructions that the King of Hearts gave to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

In this instance, the beginning is deciding whether you will go large or small. Will you follow the whole-home approach and undertake a major remodeling project or will you make greener replacements on an incremental basis, as the need and opportunity arise? The answer to that question will likely depend on your budget and on your tolerance for living with under-construction chaos.

Whole-Home Approach

If you decide to undertake a major remodel, then the beginning is having a home energy audit. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a home energy audit is “the first step to assess how much energy your home consumes and to evaluate what measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient.”

During this audit, a professional technician will check for leaks, examine insulation, inspect the furnace and ductwork, perform a blower door test, and give your home a thermographic scan. An audit of this kind will identify problems that may, when corrected, save you significant amounts of money over time and is required to qualify your home improvement project for certain types of loans.

Next, you’ll need to hire a contractor. Remember, California law requires you to hire a licensed contractor for a project having an aggregate contract price of $500 or more. The word “aggregate” is important here because it means that dividing a large job into smaller parts will not enable you to ignore this requirement.

One good place to look for contractors is at the Public Works counter in City Hall. While cities generally will not recommend specific contractors, many do keep lists of contractors who have recently completed projects in the city and, if you ask, will give you a copy of that list.

The advantage to you is that you can contact several contractors on the list and ask them to give you estimates of cost and names of customers who live nearby and might be willing to answer questions, provide recommendations, and show you examples of finished work.

And while you are at City Hall, you can find out what permits are needed for the project you propose and what incentives your city may offer for going green.

As-Needed Replacement

If a large project seems daunting or well outside your budget, the other approach you can take to going green is to upgrade and replace structural parts of your home and various appliances as needed with greener counterparts.

For example, if your home is twenty years old or more, it may be time to have the roof inspected. Over time, heat, sun, and wind take their toll on most roofing materials, causing them to dry, crack, and leak. If your roof needs to be replaced, select a material that is fire resistant and able to stand up to the Southern California weather.

When it comes to roofs, though, not all the “green” is in the material. Some of it is in the way in which the material is installed and the features you choose to add. For example, you may want to ask for a radiant barrier to reduce both summer heat gain and cooling costs. You may want to add vents, which will allow hot air to escape from the attic in the summer. And you may want to plan up front for the installation of solar panels or a skylight.

Another likely candidate for replacement is your water heater. According to, the average storage water heater lasts ten to fifteen years. If yours is on borrowed time, consider replacing it with the tankless type. Although they cost more initially, they last at least five years longer and are 8 to 34 percent more energy efficient.

Help Is Available

Regardless of the approach you take to going green, help is readily available in the form of free advice, specialized loans, product rebates, federal income tax credits, and—in some instances—reductions in municipal fees. But as is so often true of special offers, some restrictions apply.

Read the fine print. By doing so, you may learn that you must make application before a certain date and meet project completion deadlines. You may also discover that some types of loans will affect your ability to refinance or sell your home. And you are likely to read that multiple offers cannot be combined.

When you do come, at last, to the end, then stop, admire, and enjoy!

Loans and Mortgages

Energy Efficient Mortgage. Offered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM) Program enables current or potential homeowners to lower their monthly utility bills by making energy-efficient improvements without having to take out an additional mortgage. Instead, the cost of the improvements, up to a specified maximum, can be incorporated in the existing mortgage. These loans require an energy audit. For additional information, visit

PowerSaver Loan Program. Also offered by the FHA, this program offers three financing options for homeowners to use in making energy-efficient and renewable-energy upgrades to their homes. These loans allow you to borrow up to $7,500 for smaller projects, up to $25,000 for larger retrofit projects, or up to FHA limits (generally from $217,000 to $625,000) for a combined purchase and retrofit project in which at least $3,500 of home improvements consist of eligible PowerSaver measures. To learn more, visit

HomeStyle® Energy and Renovation Mortgages. These Fannie Mae programs allow borrowers to make energy-efficient or utility-cost-reducing upgrades within the mortgage when purchasing or refinancing a home. The Energy mortgage also offers $3,500 for certain types of weatherization and water-saving improvements. The Renovation mortgage allows borrowers to make renovations, repairs, and improvements totaling up to 50 percent of the as-completed appraised value of the property with a first mortgage. For additional information, visit

Freddie Mac Renovation Mortgage: This program allows borrowers to repair, restore, rehabilitate, or renovate their existing site-built homes within a Freddie Mac mortgage. For additional information, visit

Southern California Gas Company Home Energy Upgrade Financing (HEUF). This program offers loans ranging from $2,500 to $30,000 for the purchase and installation of energy-efficient upgrades. Eligible technologies include water heaters, refrigerated air conditioners, evaporative coolers, double-paned windows, building and equipment insulation, and roofing. Terms range from three to ten years. For additional program details, visit


Rebates are offered by water districts and utility companies and will differ slightly in product, dollar amount, and requirements depending on where you live. Some are funded by government grants and may be withdrawn, or may expire, when funds are no longer available. To obtain the most up-to-date and accurate information about rebates, visit the websites for the water districts and utility companies that serve your area.

Water-Saver Rebates. In general, water-saver rebates are available for the following items:

  • Rotating sprinkler nozzles, which help you reduce your outdoor water use by as much as 30 percent (up to $6 per nozzle)
  • Rain barrels and cisterns, which allow you to capture the rain that falls onto your roof and use it later to water your garden (up to $35 per barrel; cisterns start at $250)
  • Weather-based irrigation controllers (up to $370 per controller)
  • Soil moisture sensor controllers, which have been shown to reduce outdoor water use by as much as 70 percent (up to $330 per sensor)
  • Turf removal ($2 per square foot)
  • High-efficiency clothes washer, which uses up to 55 percent less water (up to $285)
  • Premium high-efficiency toilet, which uses 1.06 gallons of water per flush or less (up to $40)

Energy-Saver Rebates. In general, energy-saver rebates are available for the following items:

  • Energy-efficient washers ($25)
  • Smart thermostats ($50)
  • Gas water heaters ($100)