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10 Ways to Make Your Fixer-Upper More Energy Efficient

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People buy fixer-uppers for all sorts of reasons, but the main reason is usually to save money. From lower list prices and smaller down payments to historic charm and opportunity to personalize, fixer-uppers offer a number of benefits to buyers. Fixer-uppers are especially popular amongst Millennials, who represented the largest share of homebuyers in 2021. A 2021 Bank of America Research survey found that 82% of Millennials were more likely to purchase a fixer-upper than a new build. As Hillary Hoffower notes in an article for Business Insider, “buying old homes and renovating them has made homeownership more attainable for the generation.” Of course, fixer-uppers also present a series of challenges. Chief amongst these challenges are the higher repair, maintenance and operational costs incurred when caring for an older home. For Millennial home buyers, one of the biggest concerns is energy efficiency. According to last year’s Business of Sustainability Index from GreenPrint, “75% of Millennials are willing to pay more for an environmentally sustainable product.” This percentage is impressive, especially when “compared to 63% of Gen Z, 64% of Gen X, and 57% of Boomers.” The 2019 NAHB Eye on Housing report found that 71% of Millennial home buyers want “an Energy Star® rating for the whole home.” Additionally, 70% “want efficient lighting [and] 63% want more insulation than what code requires” to simultaneously lower their utility bills and their carbon footprint. In this article, we outline ten ways to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient, many of which are quick and inexpensive. From replacing old windows and lightbulbs to insulating the roof, follow below for our top tips to make your home energy efficient. 

How Much Does the Average American Household Spend on Natural Gas and Electricity Each Year?

How Much Does the Average American Household Spend on Natural Gas

Hanna Kielar references spending data from the US federal government’s ENERGY STAR® program in her December 2021 article for Rocket HQ. Kielar writes that the average American household spent more than $2,000 on utility bills in 2019. This amounts to a little over “$167 a month.” Natural gas contributes a significant share. California’s consumers pay $538 per year, those in Massachusetts paying $1,285 and those in New Hampshire paying $1,158 for natural gas. Electric bills are relatively high for consumers in these states too. Each month, the average Californian household pays $101.92, while those in New Hampshire and Massachusetts pay $120.04 and $125.89 respectively. In a year, this adds up to $1,223.04, $1,440.48 and $1,510.68 spent on electricity.

Energy Costs Set to Skyrocket in 2022

This winter, homeowners who use natural gas or propane to heat their houses expect to pay much more than usual. These rising energy costs are due largely to the pandemic-induced inflation that has also hit many other sectors. In her December 2021 article “Inflation could mean a big heating bill this winter. How to prepare” for CNBC, Carmen Reinicke explains. Referencing the US Energy Information Association’s Winter Fuels Outlook report, Reinicke elaborates. She notes that “nearly half of U.S. households who heat with natural gas are projected to spend 30% more than they did last winter.” Those who heat their homes with electricity will only spend 6% more than usual. Of course, this is because “energy prices are up 33.3% on the year.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “fuel oil is nearly 60% more expensive than last year.” Electricity is also up — about 6.5% — and natural gas is up 25%.

Quoting Kelly Speakes-Backman from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency, Reinicke writes “‘it’s important for homeowners…to keep costs down as best they can.’” Doing so not only reduces one’s carbon footprint and utility bill but also takes pressure off the already stressed supply chain. As one might imagine, older homes use more energy than newer homes and thus produce higher utility bills for their owners. Arik Levinson elaborates in his 2016 paper “How Much Energy Do Building Energy Codes Save?” for the American Economic Review. According to Levinson, “houses built after 1990 are using up to 25 percent less energy than those built before 1978.” Follow below for a list of ways to make your older home more energy efficient as heating and cooling costs continue to rise.

How to Make Your Fixer-Upper More Energy Efficient in Ten Steps

#1 Start With an Energy Audit

Start with an energy audit to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

The first step in boosting your home’s energy efficiency and lowering your energy bills is to undertake a professional energy audit. A home energy audit surveys and analyzes how energy flows through your home. It assesses where and when energy is used most and how energy consumption can be reduced. In their resource “Energy Advice for Owners of Older and Historic Homes,” the EPA explains how energy audits work and who to hire. According to the EPA, “energy audits provide the best way to identify air leaks” and air infiltration in the home. Depending on your state or local government, you might be able to get a free energy audit. For example, the Energy and Sustainability Division of Sonoma County in California encourages homeowners to undertake a free energy audit at the government’s expense. 

While you could get a free audit, the EPA resource notes that “it may be worth the expense of hiring a professional energy auditor.” Not only will a comprehensive energy audit “identify obvious energy upgrades.” It will also “create a roadmap of where and how to best make improvements in your home.” In older and historic buildings, “this is even more critical” because they were built far differently from newer homes. Those who opt for a private audit will pay “anywhere from $100 to $1,650 with an average of $414” according to HomeAdvisor.

#2 Replace Old Windows

Replace old windows to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Next on our list of ways to make an old house more energy efficient is to replace older windows. After all, it is through older windows that cold air enters and heat loss occurs. In her article “So You Bought a Fixer-Upper to Save Money—Here Are the Projects to Prioritize” for Better Homes & Gardens, Mia Taylor explains. Quoting home improvement project contractor Andrew Wilson, Taylor writes that “’old windows might have air leaks.” Wilson notes that these leaks can cause your heating and cooling system “to work overtime and increase your bills.’”

Unfortunately, the upfront costs to replace older windows with more efficient versions is high. According to HouseLogic, “Energy Star-qualified windows start around $120 for a 36-inch-by-72-inch, single-hung window and can go up to 10 times that.” After you factor in the cost of labor, “you’re looking at about $270 to $800+ per window…[and] windows at the low end of the price spectrum are less energy efficient.” 

Energy Savings From Replacing Old Windows

Your energy savings, however, will be immediate and could be quite sizable. Writing for Realtor.com in her article “​​Energy-Efficient Windows: How Much Will You Really Save?,” Stephanie Booth explains. Referencing data from the U.S. Department of Energy, Booth “estimates that you’ll save between $126 to $465 a year.” These savings are for those who replace single-pane windows. If you already have double-paned windows, you can expect to save between “$27 to $111 per year.”

These energy efficient upgrades not only save you money initially but also add to the value of your home. Quoting Michal Bohm, Booth writes homeowners can expect “‘to recoup about 70% of the purchase price” of their energy efficient windows when they sell. If you cannot afford low e storm windows, consider buying heavy curtains. These will help block warm air from escaping during the winter and cold air from escaping during the summer.

#3 Fit Draft Excluders to Mail Slots, Door Gaps and Other Openings

Fit draft excluders to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Third on our list of the best energy efficient upgrades for an older home is fitting draft excluders to openings. Draft excluders are available in a variety of forms – from foam tapes to cloth door snakes – and are relatively inexpensive. Daniel Bortz explains how you can save on energy bills by plugging these leaks in an article for The Washington Post. Bortz writes that “reducing drafts can cut your energy costs by up to 20 percent per year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.” 

The best way to prevent drafts from entering your home is to seal windows, doors and cracks in the walls and roofs. However, weatherstripping door jambs and window frames is cheap and easy to do without any training. According to Bortz, “caulking and weatherstripping are two simple, affordable and effective techniques for plugging leaks around windows, doors, electrical outlets and other openings.” The energy audit mentioned in Step #1 of this list should help you identify any leaks and determine how much weatherstripping you should buy. 

#4 Insulate the Roof Instead of the Walls

insulate the roof to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

The fourth way to save money and reduce energy usage in your home is to insulate the roof instead of the walls. In an older or historic house, insulating the roof is usually more cost-effective for the homeowner. In his article “How to make old homes energy efficient” for The Guardian, John Vidal explains. Quoting historic home advisor Robert Lloyd-Sweet, Vidal writes that “‘about 25% heat is lost through the roof.'” This is “‘in comparison to 35% through the walls, 15% through the floor and 25% from windows and drafts.’” However, the cost to insulate a roof “‘is usually much lower than the cost of solid wall insulation.'” As such, “‘it is often more cost-effective to do the roof first.’” 

Best of all, energy savings could amount to hundreds of dollars each year. Writing for Realtor.com in her article “How Much Money Will You Save Insulating Your Attic? A Whole Lot,” Stephanie Booth estimates homeowners could “trim [energy] expenses by as much as 30%.” Homeowners can also expect a high ROI if they insulate the attic of their older home. Referencing data from Remodeling Magazine, Booth notes “buyers are willing to shell out an extra $1,446 for a home with an insulated attic.” With the average cost of insulating an attic amounting to $1,343, “that’s a 107.7% return on your investment!”

#5 Fit Fixtures With Efficient Light Bulbs

fit led bulbs to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Fifth on our list of ways to make your older home more energy efficient is to fit fixtures with LED light bulbs. According to the DOE, “residential LEDs…use at least 75% less energy, and last up to 25 times longer, than incandescent lighting.” Thus, replacing halogen, fluorescent or incandescent light bulbs with LEDs is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce energy usage. In her article “5 Best Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs of 2022” for EcoWatch, Christian Yonkers reports savings of $225.00 annually for the average American household. 

Not only do LED bulbs reduce your energy usage, but they also contribute to a safer home and a healthier planet. Yonkers notes that LED bulbs are much safer than incandescent bulbs. This is because incandescent bulbs “emit up to 98% of their energy as heat.” In doing so, they produce “dangerously high temperatures that can cause burns or even start fires.” Energy efficient lighting is also better for the planet. Christian Yonkers writes that “upgrading the planet’s light sources to 100% LED could…prevent nearly 18 gigatons of CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2050.”

#6 Insulate Your Fireplace

insulate your fireplace to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

As one might imagine, fireplaces are more common in older homes than in new builds. According to the National Association of Home Builders, “only 41% of single-family homes started in 2018 included fireplaces.” This represents “the lowest percentage on record since NAHB began tabulating the data in a consistent fashion in 2001.” While antique and vintage fireplaces are romantic and visually stunning, they can actually contribute to heat loss in your home. Insulating your fireplace and replacing the damper in your chimney can help reduce heat loss. Chris Deziel explains in his article “How to Prevent Heat Loss From the Fireplace” for SF Gate. Deziel writes that “the fire probably is sucking the warm air out of the room” because hot air rises.  

Even when there is no fire in the fireplace, “you can be losing heat to a poorly-sealed fireplace and chimney.” To solve this problem, first check the condition of your chimney’s damper. According to Deziel, “if the damper is in good condition, you can keep warm air in the room…by closing it.” If your damper is in poor condition and “doesn’t seal properly,” consider buying an inflatable chimney plug to keep heat in. Fireplace inserts also help reduce heat loss and are much more effective “than simply putting a glass barrier in front of the fire.” Consider both options to ensure your fireplace is not raising your energy bill.

#7 Replace Inefficient Appliances

replace inefficient appliances to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Next in this article about how to make old homes energy efficient is replacing inefficient appliances with Energy Star Certified versions. Energy Star Certified appliances might be more expensive than less efficient versions. However, they are more environmentally friendly, easier to use and less expensive to operate. The HomeAdvisor resource “Pros, Cons and Costs: Energy Star Appliances” explains. According to HomeAdvisor, “Energy Star appliances can reduce your home appliance energy usage, and costs, by as much as 10 percent to 50 percent.” Since the label was established by the EPA in 1992, these standards “have already saved American homeowners…$200 billion to date.” This amounts to “about $2,000 per household.” Best of all, Energy Star appliances “reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and our reliance on dwindling fossil fuel resources and foreign oil.”

When replacing appliances with energy efficient versions, you might also consider replacing your hot water heater with a tankless one. In her article “7 Tips for an Energy-Efficient Home” for This Old House, Lauren Ward explains why. Ward writes that “your hot water heater is one of the biggest energy consumers of all your home appliances.” Tankless water heaters are “significantly more energy efficient and tend to outlast conventional storage water heaters.”

#8 Install a Smart HVAC System

install a smart hvac to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Eighth on our list of ways to make your older home more energy efficient and lower your heating bill is to install a smart HVAC system. When outfitted with a number of sensors, smart HVAC systems allow you to heat and cool each room separately. In her article “How to Make Your Home Smart and More Energy-Efficient” for Wired, Adrienne So explains how smart thermostats help with energy conservation. So begins by noting that “space heating is the second biggest energy gobbler in US homes,” right after air conditioning. Quoting Katie Wallace from the nonprofit Energy Trust of Oregon, So points to smart thermostats as a solution. 

According to Wallace, “‘smart thermostats use sensors to tell when you’re away.'” Smart thermostats “‘can learn your daily schedule and temperature preferences, and even use local weather data to make energy-saving adjustments automatically.’” Sensors in each room across your house “can also help you save energy [because] the sensors let the thermostat automatically adjust to different conditions.” They help you take advantage of passive forms of heating and cooling even when your home was not planned as a passive house.

#9 Invest in Landscaping That Helps With Passive Heating and Cooling

invest in landscaping to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Next in our article about how to make an old house more energy efficient, we point to passive landscaping. Certain methods of landscaping can passively heat and cool your home. While passive site planning is most effective with new builds, there are ways to retrofit your older home’s landscaping. The Department of Energy resource “Landscaping for Energy-Efficient Homes” explains. According to the resource, “a well-placed tree, shrub, or vine can deliver effective shade, act as a windbreak, and reduce your energy bills.” In fact, strategically planting a few trees “can save up to 25% of the energy a typical household uses.” Where you live – both the region and your property’s microclimate – will inform your landscaping strategy. No matter where you live, “choose trees, plants, shrubs, and landscaping techniques and practices that are well suited to your local climate.”

Rachel Baihn offers a few tips in her article “4 Ways to Use Landscaping to Increase Your Home’s Energy Efficiency” for Better Homes & Gardens. Like the Department of Energy, Baihn recommends planting tall trees around your home. Doing so will protect it “from solar heat and from those cold blasts in winter.” In the South, evergreen trees are best while deciduous trees are most appropriate in the North. Next, consider planting drought tolerant plants that require little watering and are generally low-maintenance. Third, hardscape with “pergolas, fences, canopies, arbors, and trellises” to protect your home from snow in the winter and direct sunlight in the summer. Lastly, consider installing solar panels. After all, “harnessing the sun’s rays is one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to use landscaping to increase your home’s energy efficiency.”

#10 Conduct Routine Maintenance

conduct routine maintenance to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient

Last on our list of ways to make your fixer-upper more energy efficient is to take care of the entire property. Maintaining your home’s energy efficient appliances, checking for new leaks, replacing weatherstripping and other simple fixes go a long way to reducing energy consumption. This is especially true in older homes. Quoted by John Vidal in his article “How to make old homes energy efficient” for The Guardian, Robert Lloyd-Sweet explains. According to Lloyd-Sweet, “a lot of energy waste in old buildings is the result of overdue maintenance.” Lloyd-Sweet recommends routine maintenance like “getting the window panes fixed and clearing out the gutters that make walls damp and cold” to limit consumption.

If you plan to sell your house in 2022, check out our recent post “10 Interesting Features Home Buyers Want in 2022.” In this post, we underscore the importance of energy efficient appliances and other features to prospective home buyers.