smart spending

Energy tax credits tempt homeowners

Many public utility companies offer free energy audits. Another option is to hire a professional energy auditor, such as one certified by the Building Performance Institute in Malta, N.Y., Barrows says. These audits may be more comprehensive than a free energy audit.

Most people "need someone to help them sort through the different choices they are going to be making," to determine the costs of the projects and the return on investment, Simansky says.

"There's really no house that couldn't benefit from a good energy audit," he says.

Audits typically range from $250 to $1,000, and some utility companies offer customers a rebate if they have an audit done by a private company.

A survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that in the third quarter of 2009, the most commonly installed energy-efficient products were:

  • Energy-efficient windows.
  • Upgraded insulation.
  • Insulated doors.
  • Energy-efficient HVAC units.

Requests for tankless water heaters also have risen significantly in recent years, according to the NAHB.

John Barrows, a Long Island, N.Y., builder and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Green Building and Remodeling," advocates starting with "low-hanging fruit," such as caulking around windows to make sure they are airtight.

Green financing

Once you've decided on a project, you may need financing. Some financial institutions also offer lower interest rate loans for green projects.

For example, Addison Avenue Federal Credit Union -- based in Palo Alto, Calif., but with branches in 16 states -- has partnered with SunPower Corp. in San Jose, Calif., to provide up to $50,000 in financing for solar energy products for its customers. Homeowners who install solar energy products may be able to write off up to 30 percent of the cost.

The product was introduced this year, and already the credit union is doing more than $1 million in loans each month, says Scott Pellegrini, Addison Avenue consumer lending product manager.

At Technology Credit Union in San Jose, Calif., Living Smart home equity loans were introduced in August with a fixed rate of as low as 5.75 percent for amounts up to $50,000, says Kathleen Litman, vice president of marketing.

The loans can be used for improvements such as upgraded windows, doors and insulation. The included products are listed on the Energy Star section of the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site.

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