The federal government's proposed energy standards for new construction could tack $2,500 to $3,000 on the price of your new home, raise your monthly mortgage payments or even disqualify you from getting mortgage in the first place.
The proposed standards -- little known to the public but a hot topic in the architectural and construction field -- could also save you thousands of dollars in fuel costs over the next decade.
The savings could be twice or three times the initial costs for heavy-duty insulation, solar hot water, triple glazing of windows and other conservation items. Or the dollar-for-dollar savings could be minimal, making the initial expenses of dubious value to you in terms of investment in your real estate.
Net costs will be one of the tough issues for consumers in the coming national debate over the Department of Energy's standards, proposed in the Federal Register last week. The standards would set up "design energy budgets" for houses, apartment buildings, commercial office buildings and most other forms of new construction in every geographic area of the country.
Architects or builders would receive energy consumption maximums for each house -- analogous to automakers receiving miles-per-gallon targets for new cars -- but would have complete design freedom on how they go about achieving the goals.
Some of the energy savings would be accomplished in relatively inexpensive, "passive" ways, such as orienting windows in houses to make maximum use of available sunlight, and sharply reducing window surfaces on the northern exposure. Other steps could be far more costly, such as installing heat pumps, solar heating systems, or doubling or tripling insulation.
The direct costs of these improvement will have to be borne by consumers -- people buying new houses or condominiums and people renting in new apartment buildings -- once the standards take effect some time in 1981.
The standards may be made mandatory by Congress or may be made voluntary. In either case, their impact on housing is certain to be extensive.
Buyers and renters are likely to have legitimate questions about the cost-effectiveness of some of the conservation standards. A conservation requirement that pushes up the price of an $80,000 house by $3,000 may not be worth it to the buyers -- in terms of fuel savings and added resale value -- if they live in it for four or five years. It may take 10 years or more of ownership and operation of the house to recoup the initial added expenses imposed by the energy-saving proposal.
Mortgage lenders may require higher down payments and bigger monthly mortgage payments to handle the extra costs, pushing new housing even further beyond the reach of most American families.
Renters in new apartment buildings may be forced to pay higher rents, to reflect a landlord's higher initial acquisition costs, yet they may not benefit directly from lower fuel consumption unless they have individual meters.
Buyers and renters may also question how much oil is really saved when thousands of dollars are sunk into energy conservation measures that have long payback periods.
A Washington-based consumers' interest group, the Consumer Energy Council of America, has begun posing these and other questions about the new building energy standards. The council, formerly a task force of the Consumer Federation of America, strongly favors the concept of energy consumption limits for new buildings, but is studying the specific performance standards proposed by the government to determine whether they're going to disadvantage anyone unduly, such as moderate- and low-income Americans.