Start small, with LED bulbs, or go for a bigger project, like replacing your windows.
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Tree Inside a Light Bulb. Green Energy Concept.
Credit: Olivia Barr

For those who bought a home in the past few years or are looking to purchase a house in 2022, we know that costs are rising—but so is the overall value of owning a home. While homeownership can come with many major costs, smart investments can pay off over time. Many homeowners today are particularly looking to cut their costs and increase their home value with eco-friendly features. 

Investing in energy-efficient home upgrades can be pricey (my husband and I just spent $25,000 on new windows and a new deck), but it can save in the long run by cutting down on your utility bills and ultimately making it easier to sell your home in the future. If like me, you are a new-ish homeowner (or a current homebuyer), you may be wondering what eco-friendly upgrades are worth the price tag and which ones won't do much. 

We asked top experts in real estate and home repair what their recommendations are to make a home greener. Keep reading for the ultimate eco-friendly features that homebuyers want in today's market and what homeowners should invest in if they're looking to get the most bang for their buck when it comes to eco-friendly home upgrades. 

Eco-Friendly Features in a Competitive Housing Market

According to a TD Bank survey, today's competitive housing market and growing inflation have made many first-time homebuyers doubt whether it's the right time to buy a home. But despite their findings that 65 percent of those surveyed think that home prices are too high, experts are not seeing a slowdown anytime soon. And in a competitive market with rising costs, homebuyers are beginning to look more at a home's eco-friendly features as a way to save money down the road.

"With the competitive market atmosphere, buyers view houses not so much on what features a property has but on the potential of the home," says Jamie Mayborn, a broker associate at Coldwell Banker Mason Morse. "The interest surrounding energy-efficient homes is popular and the demand will continue to rise with living cost increases and climate changes." 

Jennifer Baptista, a licensed realtor and Fresh Starts Registry expert, says that her clients are still very much concerned with location, price, and size—but she is also increasingly seeing that clients are "interested in houses that are able to upgrade to solar panels" and want to "invest in eco-friendly homes." 

What Homebuyers Are Looking For in Eco-Friendly Homes

Those who are shopping for homes today with a focus on eco-friendly features tend to focus on sustainable materials and saving costs through more efficient use, according to real estate broker Egypt Sherrod and builder Mike Jackson, hosts of HGTV's Married to Real Estate. "Many of these sustainable materials look just as good, if not better, than their non-sustainable counterparts and offer lifetime warranties," Sherrod said. "Plus, they require little to no maintenance, which provides long-term savings for the homeowner and actually increases the value of the home."

Meanwhile, Jason F. McLennan, the co-founder of Living Deep and CEO of McLennan Design, says that he sees consumers who "want to feel like they are making a responsible choice for their families and the future." The most significant change that he emphasizes homeowners need to make is to transition away from fossil fuel use by doing things such as using "induction cooktops in the kitchen and swapping that gas-powered car for an electric one." 

For buyers looking for eco-friendly upgrades or owners looking to add value, he reminds people that going green is well worth it. "Done right, none of these things have to cost much more if considered early in the design [of your home]," he says. "However, as retrofits, they might carry a small premium that pays itself back over time. The way I see it, green buildings add value. This isn't a cost—it is a positive return on investment." 

Eco-Friendly Upgrades That Will Pay Off Over Time

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1 Home Features That Save You on Utility Bills

Almost every expert we spoke with emphasized that homebuyers and homeowners all want to save money on utility bills, which can be done through many eco-friendly features. Baptista's top recommendation is for people to invest in new windows. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "Heat gain and heat loss through windows are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of residential heating and cooling energy use," so upgrading your windows can make a big difference in making your home more energy-efficient and cost-effective. "Windows are not only the eyes of the home but the grain of your wallet," Baptista says. "Up-to-date windows are a huge component that will definitely raise the value of the house while saving you money and adding aesthetics." 

Mayborn agrees that quality windows are an excellent investment. Other cost-saving features, such as more energy-efficient water heaters or instant hot water systems, will also make a home more desirable. Should you want to sell your house in the future, these changes "could garnish a higher offer on the property," Mayborn says. 

Baptista also says that more straightforward upgrades like getting low-flow toilets and showerheads (which can cut back your water use) can help homeowners "save a few bucks and add value later." 

"I also recommend spraying insulation instead of traditional insulation," she says, "which is eco-friendly and saves money while adding to the home value." Spray foam insulation has a higher R-value (resistance to heat flow) than the more traditional fiberglass insulation, giving you more control over the heating and cooling of your home—and your bills.

2 Upgrades to Your Outdoor Space

Over the past couple of years, having a nice outdoor space became more important to those looking for a new home—and that trend hasn't slowed down, says Sherrod and Jackson. "One of the most common ways to refresh your outdoor space and increase resale value immediately is with a deck, which not only addresses the demand for indoor-outdoor living but increases the total livable square footage and home value," Jackson says. "Installing or upgrading your deck with a sustainable, composite product like decking boards from TimberTech can make your outdoor space more beautiful and permanent."

According to TimberTech, the average lifespan of a wood deck is 10 to 15 years. "Upgrading decking or porches to a composite product is one of the best and most common eco-friendly upgrades to make for long-term cost savings and an easy way to increase home value," Sherrod says. While the initial cost of composite decking is higher than wood decking, the yearly maintenance costs are significantly lower, since composite materials don't rot or splinter and are more resistant to weather, stains, and insect damage. 

McLennan also recommends that people consider local sources when upgrading their homes outdoors. "Locally sourced eco-friendly building materials like FSC-certified wood or salvaged materials could offer consumers fairly affordable, much more sustainable alternatives to those that are shipped globally," he says. "Buying local helps support your community and local economy and also tends to reduce the carbon footprint of the product as well."

3 Smaller, More Budget-Friendly Upgrades

For those not willing or not able to afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars for big eco-friendly home upgrades, there are plenty of cost-effective and budget ideas that homeowners can tackle. Think of what energy-efficient features you can add on your own that would reduce monthly energy bills, says Scott Thomas, director of systems at Dryer Vent Wizard, a Neighborly company. "Besides air conditioning and water heaters, dryers consume the most energy of all home appliances. When looking into new appliances, homeowners should consider cost-efficient, reliable, eco-friendly dryers."

Another budget idea is to install smart power outlets, says Ben Kolo, owner of Mr. Electric of central Iowa, a Neighborly company. "Smart power outlets help eliminate phantom loads," Kolo says. "The loads are referred to as vampire energy, and by reducing their energy use when not in use, homeowners save on their energy bills." 

Sherrod and Jackson recommend an even simpler idea: "You can easily make your home more eco-friendly on a budget by swapping out all bulbs to LED bulbs to reduce energy usage," Sherrod says. The duo also says that getting a recycling or compost bin, buying a water filter, and using a programmable thermostat can help reduce the cost of your bills while increasing your home's value.

Although there is no ideal way to add to the market value of your house, any of these lower-cost ways to be eco-friendly while adding to the house value can be easily achievable, says Baptista. Even doing something like investing in low-VOC house paint can help. 

At the end of the day, think about the big picture of how long you plan to live in the home and what upgrades are most needed—as well as what you can afford right now. Bigger upgrades can add a lot of value, but if you have to take out a loan to install solar panels, consider whether the interest payments will be worthwhile. It's okay to start with something small, like your lightbulbs, to slowly move into owning a more energy-efficient and eco-friendly home.