Skip to main content
opinion

We undersell the cost of getting into the housing market if all we look at are high prices in cities across the country.

There’s the cost of buying a home today, and then there’s the financial burden of adapting it to climate change in the years ahead. Like no previous generation, today’s first-time buyers will have to juggle current and future housing expenses.

A thought for home buyers on managing the load: Buy a fixer-upper. You’ll pay less for the house, and be in a good position to make state-of-the-art improvements over the years to reduce your carbon footprint and deal with climate change.

The fixer-upper idea comes from Scott Meyer of Ottawa’s EnviroCentre, a non-profit organization that consults on sustainability issues and performs home energy audits. I started our conversation by asking about features that home buyers should seek out and avoid when viewing properties.

A drafty, unfinished basement seems like something to avoid, but Mr. Meyer spotted an upside. A bare concrete cellar may bring down the price of a house compared with a similar property with a fully decked out basement, and you have a chance to do a proper job of insulating it.

“You’ll have a comfortable space, and you’ll really drop the carbon footprint of your house,” Mr. Meyer said.

A basement can account for 30 per cent or more of heat loss in a home, he said. But in his experience, basement renos often don’t do a good enough job with insulation. For example, some renovations insulate only half of a basement area, while others skimp on the amount of insulation.

Another factor is insulation standards are getting tougher – where R12 was fine decades ago, now R20 and up is recommended. A higher R-value means the insulation does a better job of preventing heat loss.

Grants of up to $5,000 are available for upgrading insulation in basements, attics, exterior walls and more through the federal government’s Canada Greener Homes Grant. Worn aluminum or wood siding on a home won’t impress any prospective buyers, but replacing it does offer an opportunity to improve exterior wall insulation with minimal disruption.

“It’s hard to get a lot more insulation into the cavities of the wall from the inside,” he said. “You’d have to rip off the drywall.”

Mr. Meyer said a majority of homes these days have had their attic insulation topped up. Finding a house that hasn’t yet made this improvement offers a chance to upgrade to the recent standard of up to R60, which compares with a standard of R40 a decade ago. That said, the financial benefit of upgrading to R60 from R40 may not be enough to justify the cost, he pointed out.

Grants of up to $5,000 are also available for replacing a fossil fuel-burning furnace with an electric heat pump. Here’s where buying a house with an old air conditioner could make sense. You could replace the old A/C unit with a heat pump that does double duty heating and cooling.

Heat pumps draw heat out of the air but don’t work well in very cold temperatures. Mr. Meyer said you’ll likely have to pair up a heat pump and a furnace of very recent vintage to qualify for grant money. In this instance, buying a house with a brand new high-efficiency furnace would be an asset.

You could go all the way with electrical heating and replace your fossil fuel-burning furnace with an electrical one. But there you run into some harsh economics. For many Canadians, electric-heating costs more than natural gas, even with the high levels of efficiency available from heat pumps. The offsetting benefit from electric heating is that you reduce your carbon footprint.

Don’t get too hung up on new windows when looking at houses, Mr. Meyer said. Replacement windows can be expensive and have less of a positive impact compared with other energy-related upgrades.

Canada Greener Homes Grants are available if you first have an EnerGuide evaluation, which involves a top-to-bottom inspection of your home by an expert who will charge roughly between $300 and $400 or possibly more. Suggestion for new homeowners: Schedule an EnerGuide inspection, find out the benefit you’d get from various upgrades and start budgeting for them.

Are you a young Canadian with money on your mind? To set yourself up for success and steer clear of costly mistakes, listen to our award-winning Stress Test podcast.