The Puzzle of Selling Green Homes

Builders and buyers are at odds about what is most important about green homes

February 1, 2019
selling green homes can be puzzling, much like finding your way through this green hedge maze
The difficulty builders have selling green homes is puzzling, given that many surveys of consumers show buyers increasingly likely to select green products, with nearly half of those surveyed saying they're willing to pay more for them. (Photo: PickPik)


This past October, I attended the EEBA (Energy & Environmental Building Alliance) High Performance Home Summit in San Diego in an effort to learn where the builders that are most interested in energy efficiency and sustainability are concentrating their efforts. 

EEBA, a highly respected national organization that has been around for more than 30 years, provides training and education about resource-efficient, durable, and healthy homes for residential builders and designers. I joined the conference’s many attendees who sat in on and took copious notes about a variety of technical presentations concerning indoor air quality, building science, and resilience, along with getting to net zero—an especially important topic for the local builders facing the deadline for California’s 2020 mandate

But another important thread ran through the Summit’s offerings: sessions on “Perspectives from ZNE Homeowners Who Don’t Know What ZNE Is,” “Selling & Marketing: A How-To By & For Builders,” and “Builders vs. Buyers: What’s Real, What’s Imagined, and What’s the Way Forward?” These items were on the agenda in response to the fact that many builders find that selling a green (or high-performance or sustainable or net zero) home is at least as hard as building one. 

The difficulty builders have in selling green homes is a little puzzling, since many surveys of consumers show that buyers are increasingly likely to choose green products, and nearly half say they are willing to pay more for them. As far as the builders themselves are concerned, a 2017 Dodge Data & Analytics report on green building activity and the costs and benefits of building green found that single-family builders are increasingly determined to build a larger percentage of green homes, and 71 percent of them believe that their buyers are willing to pay more for them.

What, then, is the problem? In the months before the conference, Professional Builder partnered with both EEBA and Shelton Group, a marketing communications agency focused on energy and the environment, in a joint effort to determine where the disconnect between builders and buyers lies. Two surveys were developed, one each for home builders and consumers, to discern what the perceived value of green homes is for each group. Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group and the presenter of the “Builders vs. Buyers” session at EEBA, says the builders she has worked with are often frustrated by their inability to connect with buyers on the importance of the green aspects of the homes they build and that buyers seem to place more emphasis on a home’s price or design features. After reviewing the results of the surveys, the data gives a pretty clear picture of why.

Shelton’s article on the conclusions that can be drawn from the research, lays out the differences that keep builders and buyers at odds about what each cohort thinks is most important about green homes. Many buyers are primarily concerned with what green homes can provide for them and their families: for example, a quality home, a healthy place to live. Buying a green home is also a way to demonstrate they are concerned with the environment and are doing their part to be aware of the issues and taking some responsibility for the outcome. Builders, on the other hand, are focused on the actual mechanics of what they are providing: materials, insulation values, and construction techniques—information that doesn’t resonate with buyers.

Shelton contends that these disparate ways of thinking about a home’s value are often what impel buyers to purchase a home where the value is concrete and visible, such as price and granite countertops. Her article offers another option: how to tailor marketing and sales approaches to reach buyers where they want to live, in a home that both meets their desires and responds to their concerns.

editorial director

Denise Dersin, editorial director of Professional Builder, Custom Builder, PRODUCTS, NKBA Innovation+Inspiration, and co-editor of Multifamily Design+Construction, has been in publishing as an editor and writer for 30 years and has worked in the housing industry for much of that time.