Is it possible to build a green home in southeastern Pennsylvania for $200,000?

Asked by Jenamarie Daviton, Rochester, NY

My fiancé and I are considering living in southeastern Pennsylvania. This will be our first home, and our budget is $200,000 or less. There is land available in the area, but real estate is expensive. Would we be better off buying an old house and converting it into a green-friendly home, or buying land and building a green house from scratch? Is it possible to build a home within our budget? It would be nice to have a 2-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom house.


John Messerschmidt

Answered by John Messerschmidt

New York, NY

Four Points Consulting Group

May 10, 2007

Unfortunately, $200,000 will not go far toward purchasing a lot and building a new house. The sad truth is that in some parts of the country you would pay more than that to remodel a kitchen. As a young couple on a modest budget, you would be better off making green upgrades to an existing home. Even then you may find that much of the initial $200,000 will need to go toward the cost of the home. I hope you will not be discouraged. You just need to make sure the house you buy has good potential for green improvements, then prioritize your renovation projects and complete them in stages.

Budget aside, in most cases it is greener to renovate an existing house than to build a new one. The house is already there, so you aren’t manufacturing and transporting building materials and using up more natural resources. There’s no well to dig or trees to cut down. You are not creating a new "footprint."

You’ve got to be careful, though. Some houses offer more options for green upgrades than others. If you love the house and property and it’s the right price, interview several building engineers, architects, and contractors before you buy it. They will give you plenty of advice regarding what you can and can’t do with it. With an existing house, you may not be able to go 100 percent green (if there is such a thing), but you can still improve what you have in an environmentally conscious manner.

With your limited budget, you should start with projects that will lower your energy bills. You can do a lot of these projects yourself, without hiring a contractor. Use fluorescent light bulbs, insulate like crazy, seal up air leaks, and replace single-paned windows with double-paned glass. You can put the money you save in energy bills toward future green home-improvement projects.

As you move on to larger projects, decide what your green priorities are. Do you want healthy indoor air quality? Focus on using low-VOC materials. Do you want to save energy? Think about upgrading your plumbing and HVAC systems to be more efficient. Is it important to you to protect old-growth forests? Consider using FSC-certified wood when making additions to your home as your family grows. GreenHomeGuide’s Know How articles can help you choose the best green products for these projects and will give you tips on getting started.

The last bit of advice I can give you is the one you probably won’t want to take: Don’t be in a hurry to hire a contractor. Good builders are very hard to find, and they are expensive. Get everything in writing, check references, and look at their work. Ask around about them. Many times people will call three contractors and hire the only one who calls them back. If you do this, you’ll be sorry.

After you hire a contractor, you should be there watching everything they do as much as possible. (Your role will be to learn, not to do the work yourself.) One easy way to save a bit of money is to take painting off your contractor’s scope of work and do that yourself, using low-VOC paints.

Tagged In: embodied energy, low voc paint

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