When you apply for a mortgage to buy a house, how often does the lender ask detailed questions about monthly energy costs or tell the appraiser to factor in the energy-efficiency features of the house when coming up with a value?
Hardly ever. That’s because the big three mortgage players — Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration, who together account for more than 90 percent of all loan volume — typically don’t consider energy costs in underwriting. Yet utility bills can be larger annual cash drains than property taxes or insurance — key items in standard underwriting — and can seriously affect a family’s ability to afford a house.
A new, bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill could change all this dramatically and for the first time put energy costs and savings squarely into standard mortgage underwriting equations. A bill introduced Oct. 20 would force the big three mortgage agencies to take account of energy costs in every loan they insure, guarantee or buy. It would also require them to instruct appraisers to adjust their property valuations upward when accurate data on energy efficiency savings are available.
Titled the SAVE Act (Sensible Accounting to Value Energy), the bill is jointly sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). Here’s how it would work: Along with the traditional principal, interest, taxes and insurance (PITI) calculations, estimated energy-consumption expenses for the house would be included as a mandatory underwriting factor.
For most houses that have not undergone independent energy audits, loan officers would be required to pull data from either previous utility bills — in the case of refinancings — or from an Energy Department survey database to arrive at an estimated cost. This would then be factored into the debt-to-income ratios that lenders already use to determine whether a borrower can afford the monthly costs of the mortgage. Allowable ratios probably would be adjusted to account for the new energy/utilities component.
For houses with significant energy-efficiency improvements built in and documented with a professional audit, such as a home energy rating system study, lenders would instruct appraisers to calculate the net present value of monthly energy savings — i.e., what that stream of future savings is worth today in terms of market price — and adjust the final appraised value accordingly. This higher valuation, in turn, could be used to justify a higher mortgage amount.
For example, Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group and a major supporter of the new legislation, estimates that a typical new home that is 30 percent more energy efficient than a similar-sized, average house will save about $20,000 in utility expenses over the life of a mortgage. Under the Bennet-Isakson bill, appraisers would be required to add those savings to the current market valuation of the house. In this instance, Callahan says, the increase in value would be about $10,000.