Editorials

EDITORIAL

Pass the home energy audit measure

A fluorescent light bulb can reduce energy costs.
Getty Images/Blend Images
A fluorescent light bulb can reduce energy costs.

If a house costs a fortune to heat, wouldn’t most home buyers want to learn that up front?

They would, if the Legislature includes a common-sense measure in pending energy legislation that would require a free energy efficiency audit when a home changes hands. In a state like Massachusetts, where many houses use oil heat and some are centuries old, it’s a consumer protection worth creating.

Here’s how the rule would work: A seller would need to get a free audit, which would spot problems like inefficient heating systems, and disclose the findings to buyers. That’s it. The law wouldn’t require the seller to spend any money, and buyers would be free to ignore the audit if they wished.

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Environmental advocates, who are pushing the measure in a broader energy law, hope that it will nudge homeowners to upgrade, so that they’ll get better audit results to show to potential buyers. Insulating drafty homes or replacing antiquated heating systems also helps the environment, since efficient homes consume less energy. It’s not much different from the home inspections usually required when houses are sold, which can also flag potential problems for buyers.

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If there’s a valid criticism of the proposal, it’s that it’s so modest: The measure would have no impact on the vast majority of homes that aren’t on the market.

Still, the real estate industry has pushed back and has resorted to the last refuge of the scoundrel: concern-trolling for low-income homeowners. The theory is that low-income homeowners have less money to invest in energy efficiency upgrades, and thus will have worse audits results, so when they sell their home they’ll get less for it.

The problem with that logic is that it also provides an argument against providing any information about a house, all of which disadvantages homeowners with less money to spend to make theirs more desirable. Nice-looking houses are also worth more; should buyers be forbidden from looking at them, to protect low-income sellers who can’t afford a fresh coat of paint?

The industry’s position also ignores the needs of low-income buyers, who may have the greatest need to know whether the home they’re buying will run up huge heating bills. While federal heating assistance helps many low-income homeowners, those funds can run out in especially cold winters.

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Moreover, state aid programs already in place provide help for low-income homeowners to replace heating systems and weatherize homes. And another provision in the pending legislation would create a new way for homeowners to finance upgrades. The Legislature has a chance to help both home buyers and the environment, and should take it.