Buying an eco-home: Finally something's clicked

Many estate agents are still not up to speed on eco-homes. Donnachadh McCarthy puts two new websites to the test

We've all read enough about eco-homes now to know that they're not just important for the planet, but that they can be nice places to live too. And we know that many, many more are being built in across Britain, and indeed around the world. But finding one to live in can be rather trickier.

What if you're not an eco-pioneer? What if you don't want to sort out the solar panels and insulation yourself? Unfortunately, if you look in the window of the average high-street estate agent, you will not yet see a list of local eco-homes for sale.

Sometimes, even the companies you might think are experts don't turn out to be especially useful. I did find a firm called the Eco Estate Agency, so I called them to see what eco-homes they had on their books. It turned out that the company, based in north London, had no eco-homes on their books at all. I was told that although a lot of people had called them to ask about eco-homes, they had not even thought about having eco-homes on their books. They changed their name to the Eco Estate Agency last year because they had greened up their office, using Good Energy as their electricity supplier and, innovatively, cycling to their appointments with clients.

But while there are no actual eco-estate agents yet, there are two property websites that specialise in listing eco-homes for sale across the UK and abroad. One of them, www.greenmoves.com, was set up three years ago by the green consultant Julian Brooks. The website usually has 50 to 100 individual properties and developments listed around the UK at any given time. It also lists properties abroad, but has only two French properties listed at present. Sellers pay a listing fee, but no commission is charged, and properties are only accepted if they have top ratings according to the Bream eco-homes standard, or are clearly genuine eco-homes.

The second site, www.whatgreenhome.com, was set up last October by the journalist Gordon Miller. It lists eco-developments not only in the UK but around the world. It has a very easy-to-use tick system for grading the eco-credentials of the developments, covering carbon efficiency, materials, water use, etc. It does not charge an upfront fee, but does level a commission on some listings. When asked how a holiday home in Belize can justifiably be called an "eco-home", Miller said: "People are not going to stop buying holiday homes abroad, but at least buying an eco-home is better than doing nothing."

Both websites are very clear that they are property listings sites, not estate agents. The fact that such websites now exist, even if the range of homes is still quite limited, shows that the market is taking its first tentative steps forward from the work of the pioneering eco-home makers into the wider mass market. There is still quite a way to go before full commercialisation, but the demand is certainly there, as the good people at the Eco-Estate Agency found to their surprise when they changed the agency's name.

Donnachadh McCarthy works as an eco-auditor and is the author of 'Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth', www.3acorns.co.uk

Long Sutton, Nr Spalding, Lincolnshire

Price: £495,000

Agent: www.greenmoves.com

What makes it green?

A five-bedroom, earth-sheltered self-heating home – they say the back-up heating system only needed to be switched on six times last year. It has an attached self-heating office. Hot water is provided by solar panels. Where is the wow factor?

Being one of only a handful of earth-sheltered buildings in the UK is something to boast about, and the purposely designed workspace makes it perfect for the home-working up-market professional.

Stawell, Somerset

Price: £275,000

Agent: www.greenmoves.com

What makes it green?

This three-bedroom house has solar panels, Warmcel insulation and triple-glazed windows made of wood approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Where is the wow factor?

It has an FSC wood kitchen and a living-earth roof.

Marisia EcoSpa Resort, Ideciu de Jos, Romania

Price: from £60,000

Agent: www.whatgreenhome.com

What makes it green?

These studio apartments are heated by wood-chip boilers, the wood sourced in a local forest. Power is provided by a water wheel and solar panels.

What is the wow factor?

Beautiful wood construction – the only concrete is in the foundations. Near a train station, too, so you need not fly.

Carbost, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Price: £350,000

Agent: www.greenmoves.com

What makes it green?

A five-bedroom detached house, with a frame made from locally grown timber. It has cellulose insulation, solar hot-water panels and wood-fuelled heating, plus a large south-facing glass façade, which facilitates winter-time passive solar warming.

Where is the wow factor?

The stunning location – the veranda has a path right down to the water's edge.

Greenhouse, Leeds

Price: from £59,000

Agent: www.whatgreenhome.com

What makes it green?

These one-, two- and three-bedroom flats are in an eco-refurbished Art Deco building. It is super-insulated, has solar-powered hot water and an electric-car-sharing plan for residents.

Where is the wow factor?

Starting at £59,000, it makes cutting-edge eco-living affordable, and even has its own large commercial-sized wind-turbine.

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