Agents of Change: Promoting Green in Real Estate

Some real estate professionals are transforming the industry by living, working, and educating 'green.'

November 1, 2009

Many real estate practitioners today have a strong interest in energy conservation and the environment, but it can be difficult to imagine how to integrate them into their business. Here are a few examples of how real estate pros are using their knowledge about green building to change how they do business and build their client base.

Seeing the Value of Green

Andrea Galloup of Real Estate One in Traverse City, Mich., listed property for a subdivision called Cedar Valley Ridge—a 177-acre community with 35 home sites and 133 acres of protected natural area. Restrictions written into the master deed ensure preservation of the land. It is only the second subdivision in the country to earn a four-star rating under the National Association of Home Builders' Green Subdivision category. The developer created each site to have minimal environmental impact and offers a $5,000 rebate to buyers who choose to build a home consistent with the green building standards of NAHB.

While representing the sellers of Cedar Valley Ridge, Galloup began to understand the principles behind the development and was inspired.

"It caused me to seek out more knowledge," says Galloup. "The biggest reason for me to get a green designation was to better represent my clients." She traveled to the 2008 National Association of REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Orlando to earn her NAR green designation. She was the first practitioner in Michigan to do so.

The effort paid off. Galloup soon got another green listing—Chrystal Ridge Condominiums, which earned the 5 Star Plus Energy Star Certification and the Green Build Grand Traverse Certification. Because of her training, she can answer questions about the condos' green features.

Her new knowledge has helped her buyers in unexpected ways. One client had severe allergies and was looking for a condo in her price range. Galloup recommended that the client have an affordable detached home built to NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines for improved indoor air quality.

Galloup uses virtual tours for listings to allow buyers and real estate pros to preview properties online. She also encourages buyers to ride with her to showings to save gas and allow time together to talk about the homes. Rather than print flyers, she creates a Web page for each listing and advertises the URL on sign riders.

For every buyer, Galloup points out construction features and how they can affect efficiency.

"Buyers are not necessarily asking me, but I'm telling them. I always get the utility costs for my buyers. For older homes, I recommend energy audits, and I share my own report with them so they see what kind of information they will get. I can also recommend simple measures they can take to save energy."

It's the Little Things

Christina Pitchford of Allen Real Estate Services in Sarasota, Fla., has always made resource conservation part of her business. Pitchford has a Green certification from Green Real Estate Education and makes use of technology to be more green. She does a majority of her transactions over e-mail with PDF files rather than multiple faxes. She prefers linking to disclosures and other documents rather than printing them on paper. Pitchford also cuts down on driving by working with clients over the Internet to screen out listings that don't make the cut.

"My key to success is staying true to myself," says Pitchford. "The environment has always been a concern to me, so I started articulating green features to my clients. I always ask them what green features they're interested in."

It pays off. Pitchford gets most of her referrals from green-minded clients.

"What I hear most from referrals with environmental values is that they can trust me and that I understand what they are looking for," she says. "I won't hesitate to walk into million-dollar homes that are lit up like Christmas trees and turn off all the lights. I do it so my clients can then see how well the home is lit by the sun during the day. Little things like that can make a big difference on an energy bill, especially in a large home."

Pitchford works to educate her fellow practitioners as well. She and Sandra Keith of Lighthouse Realty, also in Sarasota, are founding members of the Green REALTORS® Alliance of Sarasota, which has held two annual Green Home Expos. The expos introduced green vendors to the public and to real estate professionals. Through these events, GRAS has convinced Sarasota County's Green Business Partners to become affiliate members of the Sarasota Board of REALTORS® and to educate and network extensively within the community.

The Green Business Partners program recognizes companies that commit to waste reduction and resource conservation. Several businesses have joined, including recycling, green cleaning, and green pest-control companies. GRAS will soon host a forum, "Green a Little, Save a Lot," to encourage business owners, brokers, and managers to become Green Business Partners.

Keith takes her slogan, "Ready to help you make a wise choice in real estate," seriously. She's been acting in an environmentally friendly way for years and earned her NAR green designation to demonstrate her commitment.

"Before 'green,' the key term was 'environmentally friendly.' I walk the walk and talk the talk. I can discuss with my clients everything from energy efficiency to healthy carpeting, flooring, and walls. Ninety percent of my business is referrals interested in green," Keith says.

Keith uses the phone and Internet to reduce the need for printing.

"I have clients on the phone with me and we look at listings online at the same time to narrow them down."

Keith also educates clients about the value of walkable communities and encourages them to consider the distances to school, work, parks, and other amenities to cut down on driving.

"When I'm with a buyer, I can guide them to homes with solar hot water or photovoltaic panels or point out tax credits and incentives for improvements they may want to make after purchase. I also like to share information about simple retrofit options like tubular skylights, which can virtually eliminate a daytime lighting bill."

Green is a vast topic and can be overwhelming to clients strapped for time. Keith helps her clients cut through the clutter.

"People don't want to go through a lot of information," Keith says. "They want to hear it from us."

Rock the Audit

Michael Kiefer, certified EcoBroker and a REALTOR® with Keller Williams in Washington, D.C., has a passion for the environment, gained from growing up and working on farms. His passion grew during his undergraduate education in environmental science and his time in the Peace Corps. Kiefer was surprised by his fellow professionals' anxiety about energy audits and decided to use his business to demonstrate how audits can be a useful tool rather than a hurdle.

"I wanted to push the envelope and show other practitioners that energy audits are not the big bad wolf. We just have to figure out how to apply them in real estate," says Kiefer.

Through his business, Green DC Realty, he works with area developers to articulate to buyers the value of energy-efficient upgrades to existing homes. Because he's done his homework on what buyers want and knows how to market it, developers listen.

Before upgrades begin, an energy auditor determines which measures will reap the biggest savings in cost and energy. Kiefer then documents the contractors' work with captioned photos so potential buyers can see exactly what's behind the walls and how the improvement dollars were spent. After the work is complete, the auditor returns to document the improved health, safety, and energy efficiency of the property. Kiefer shares a photo tour and the before and after audits with potential buyers on a dedicated Web site and on the MLS. Kiefer is getting calls from developers all over the area who like his approach.

"I tell them studies show that 44 percent of buyers care about this stuff. While we're targeting 44 percent, we're getting 100 percent of the market to come see the house. Developers love that, and it gets me more listings," he says.

Kiefer employs a similar approach with a steady stream of buyer clients.

"At the initial meeting, I explain the importance of looking at homes through the lens of efficiency and putting together a big picture before we make an offer or get the home inspection. People don't read materials. You have to show them, then ask questions to guide their decision-making."

Kiefer doesn't see his approach as a short-term gimmick. For him, it's a business model for the long term.

"It costs more and you have to sacrifice a little at the beginning, but I end up developing my market a little bit better, and get a steady supply of buyers interested," Kiefer says. "For me, this is a solid market for the next seven to 10 years until other practitioners catch up."

Walking the Walk

Michigan practitioner Andrea Galloup says green training influenced the choices she made when remodeling her own home.

“We got an energy audit. It was an incredibly educational four-hour process. They used a thermal imaging camera to find leaks, then did a blower door test and used the camera again to show where additional leaks were. We got a very comprehensive report and suggestions for upgrading.”

She and her husband also chose sustainable cork flooring and paint with no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Because there were no fumes, they could sleep in their bedroom the night they painted it.