New Study Reveals What Buyers Want in an Energy-Efficient Home

Have you ever been at a dinner party and the person next to you starts telling you what they do for a living, and before you know it you have no idea what they’re actually talking about, but you just keep nodding politely, smiling and saying, “u-huh” in all the appropriate places?

That’s what most Americans are doing when you’re talking to them about energy efficiency and sustainability. And that’s a shame because there’s a REAL opportunity for you in selling more efficient, greener homes. Let’s start there, and then we’ll dive into how to change the language.

In our just-published tenth annual Energy Pulse study (a national study performed with 2,009 Americans that mirror the U.S. population) we found that the percent of respondents saying they are likely to buy or build a new home has remained consistent over the past three years, hovering at around 15 percent.

Respondents who were likely to buy/build a new home were asked, “In comparing two homes for purchase, how much would energy efficiency impact your choice, assuming other features like price, size, location and major amenities were comparable?” Consistent with previous years, 80 percent responded that energy efficiency would have somewhat to very much impact on their selection decision. We also asked how much water efficiency would impact their choice; very similarly, 78 percent responded that it would have somewhat to very much impact on their selection decision.

We added a new question asking potential home buyers how likely they would be to actually pay more for a home built to higher-than-Energy Star standards. (This kind of “higher price” caveat often “tamps down” the enthusiasm on aspirational questions like this, resulting in more realistic answers.) We actually framed the question as a value proposition, asking, “How likely would you be to pay more for a home that is a high-performance home, built to standards that are higher than Energy Star? Your monthly mortgage payments might be slightly higher, but your ongoing monthly energy costs would be lower.” Seventy-one percent of potential new home buyers said they were likely to very likely to pay more for a high-performance home.

Obviously, there are often wide gaps between attitude and action on surveys such as this, and buying a more energy efficient home is certainly an attractive (aspirational) idea. But this indicates that the market for Energy Star and better-than-Energy Star homes is quite large. Even if you only counted the very likely percentage, almost half of new home buyers are interested.

AVOID BUZZWORDS. When talking with customers who are interested in energy efficiency, you've got to get the language right and that starts with avoiding buzzwords (even if they don’t seem like buzzwords to you). More and more construction industry terms connected to green homes and building standards are beginning to pop up in consumer-facing communications. Again this year, we provided Americans a list of terms and phrases we often hear and see and asked them to check the terms they could confidently (and correctly) explain to a friend.

You’ll probably be shocked to learn that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans aren’t sure how to explain many phrases that seem so self-explanatory to you.  “Efficient home” was the term that more people felt they could explain, but that was only 38 percent of respondents. Only 14 percent felt that they could explain a new phrase that’s lately gaining in popularity: “high-performance home.” And what’s even more incredible is that more than three-quarters of the potential home buyers who had just seen an explanation of the term “high-performance home” in a previous question could not confidently explain this phrase.

Your communication materials and sales team talking points are likely riddled with these terms, and they’re obviously not speaking the average consumer’s language. So stop assuming they know what you’re talking about. To be safe, start providing definitions for many of the industry words and phrases that are part of your everyday vocabulary. And focus your marketing message on the BENEFITS of what you’re selling, since that’s what they actually want to buy.

By Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO, Shelton Group. This article was originally published in BUILDER November 2014.