EAST LANSING, Mich. - Krista and Micah Fuerst were looking near here to buy their first place together, and had narrowed it down to two houses: One built 25 years ago of standard materials, the other brand new and built to strict energy efficiency standards.
The couple's choice was easy: They picked the Energy Star home, the U.S. Environmental Program's top energy ranking.
But they're in the minority.
About 17 percent of new homes built in 2008 earned the Energy Star label. The proportion - which is expected to reach 20 percent when 2009's figures are tallied - marks a five-point increase from 2007 and "indicates such incredible success," said Sam Rashkin, national director of the program's section for homes.
Home energy use accounts for 16 percent of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the EPA's gains, some 99 percent of American houses are "sick" - damp, drafty, dusty, noisy and expensive to heat and cool - and "could be made at least 30 percent more energy-efficient with highly cost-effective, tried-and-true energy-efficiency improvements," according to Rashkin.
The Energy Star program won't solve this. Energy Star is meant to reflect the cream of the housing stock, and thus, program officers say, will always represent a minority of American homes.
Experts say economics and regulations are the root of the problem: Mortgages are structured in ways that fail to recognize efficiency's benefits, while a patchwork of inconsistent and ill-enforced energy codes provides conflicting signals to industry.
Meanwhile consumers remain largely unaware of efficiency's advantages, advocates say, thereby bypassing an easy target for considerable cuts in national carbon emissions.
In this sense the Fuersts are typical of many homebuyers. Both in their late twenties, the Fuersts were aware of Energy Star-rated appliances, but didn't know the label also applied to homes, said Krista Fuerst, a childcare director. Their house's environmental bona fides were icing on the cake, she said, but they mostly just wanted a place big enough to raise the family they're planning.
"We're certainly conscious of the environment," she explained, "but we're not hyper-conscious. We're not extreme green."
Their home, which wouldn't stand out in any new subdivision, is a bit farther from conveniences and their jobs - Micah Fuerst is an insurance actuary - than some others they considered. But they decided that was a reasonable tradeoff for smaller energy bills and freedom from costly renovations.
Retrofitting older houses can drastically cut their energy use, but it's also a lost opportunity. Once a home is built, experts agree, it gets much more difficult and costly to improve energy efficiency.
That's where Energy Star comes in. Run jointly by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy, the program uses third-party inspectors to ensure that qualifying homes are 20 to 30 percent more efficient than typical houses. It has made considerable strides since its 1995 inception. The number of certified homes recently reached one million, which the EPA says indicates a savings of $1.2 billion in energy bills and 22 billion pounds of greenhouse gases kept out of the atmosphere.
Of course, the ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems, high-performance windows and other features that make the homes exceptionally comfortable also make them a bit pricier. The added cost for a new Energy Star home may only be about the price of a night at the movies on each month's mortgage payment, but it's enough to scare off many potential buyers.
"It's an incredibly smart choice," Rashkin said, since smaller utility bills more than offset the higher price. "But consumers are overwhelmed by first cost."
To get buyers over that hump, a handful of specialized mortgage options have for decades given buyers more cash up front, since they'll save on energy costs. But nobody's buying.
Before the mortgage crisis, when loans were easier to come by and energy was relatively cheap, energy-efficient mortgages weren't very enticing, experts say, and lenders didn't bother with them. Now the specialized options are more valuable, but lenders have grown accustomed to ignoring them.
"It's really unfortunate," said Jennifer Amann, buildings program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "Energy-efficient mortgages have been available now for 20 years or so, but they're a really underutilized tool."
Sam Rashkin agrees.
"We need a massive education of how to use energy-efficient mortgages, now that they can offer a meaningful solution," he said.