Despite rising costs and a growing awareness that housing is a major contributor to global warming, buyers rarely put energy efficiency high on their list of priorities.
When Alistair and Susan Leslie moved into their new house in Chelmsford, Essex, they had no idea how much it would cost to run. Three years on, they are poorer but wiser.
'There were uneven temperatures all over the house,' Mr Leslie says. 'The living-room was really cold.'
All the windows had to be realigned because they were letting in draughts around the frames. Now the Leslies are engaged in a second battle against the elements, after an 'energy audit' revealed simple ways of cutting a further 25 per cent off bills of more than pounds 800 a year.
This time, however, it is more a matter of conscience than cost. 'We have a four-year-old daughter, Annaliese, and are acutely aware of protecting her future,' Mr Leslie says. 'It is so selfish to be churning through all that energy, pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.'
Pauline Land of Laing Homes makes much of the fact that the company's designs cut average fuel bills by a quarter. 'Yet buyers still look at the price, then location and quality, and even the type of kitchen and bathroom, before thinking about fuel costs,' she says. 'But ask them six months later what they think of the home and they always mention comfort and savings first.'
The average three-bedroom semi uses about pounds 1,000 worth of fuel a year. VAT will add pounds 80 to this figure in 1994 and pounds 175 the following year, which should concentrate more attention on energy-saving. But just as important are new building regulations that will demand an energy rating for every new home by the mid-Nineties. Buyers no longer will be able to claim ignorance over how much they are likely to pay.
According to Megan Flack, of the National Energy Foundation (NEF), this greater awareness of costs will spread to older homes, and those that leak warmth will suffer. Yet the solution is simple and relatively cheap, she says. Draught-proofing and better insulation would more than outweigh tax increases by cutting the running costs of an average home to pounds 660. Taking into account the extra VAT burden, that produces a total saving of pounds 400 per annum from next year.
New homes have a head start, scoring an average seven out of 10 in an energy audit that the NEF devised. That compares with three or four in older homes.
But, as the Leslies found to their cost, new is not always better. It depends on builders' attitudes, and some, at least, are pushing back boundaries.
Laing boasts a score of nine for its flats, which generally cost about pounds 5 a week to light and heat. Wilson Homes has invented a new form of construction that does away with wall cavities, and Wimpey has just launched a 'green' scheme in Newcastle that has scores of more than nine.
Buyers are also beginning to catch on. Admiral Homes, one of only a few firms to provide buyers with an NEF energy score for every property, has been overwhelmed by demand for a simple energy-saving package. This involves doing without a chimney and spending the pounds 2,500 saving on extra insulation.
'We always thought an open fire was essential to sell a family home,' says David Holliday, the chief executive. Now he knows better.
Stephen Price developed a powerful aversion to the cold while growing up in a 30-year-old bungalow where ice formed on the inside of the windows, and he has religiously insulated his last three houses. When home- hunting with his partner, Lesley, he refused even to look at anything without double-glazing.
'I have to admit that price was the first thing we considered, but after that it was the cost of heating,' he says. Gas bills on the three-bedroom detached home in Hemel Hempstead bought from Admiral will be about the same as the pounds 20 to pounds 25 a month on his previous terrace house. 'It has a lot more facilities such as power- showers and en suite bathrooms, yet the boiler is only half as big. I even had to check that the radiators were correct because they were so tiny.'
Older homes are not beyond redemption, however, and the National Energy Foundation's audit is directed towards showing owners how to raise the efficiency of such dwellings.
Anne Cooper and Simon Ruffle had an audit two years ago after moving into their detached Fifties home in Cambridge. With a fuel bill of more than pounds 1,000 a year, the house, not surprisingly, rated just above three.
Since then, the couple have concentrated on solving the main problems. Up to half the heat loss from homes goes through the walls, so the cavities have been insulated. Another 25 per cent escapes through the roof, so this has also been treated.
'We have got the bills down to pounds 900, but aim to hit pounds 600 by uprating to a score of 8.2,' Ms Cooper says.
All this costs money, of course. A typical Nottingham semi on the foundation's files required work costing pounds 2,300 to achieve a reduction in fuel bills from pounds 1,248 to pounds 756, so it would take five years merely to break even. But pounds 1,500 of this went on a high-efficiency condensing boiler (the next item on Anne Cooper's list). There is plenty of scope for cheaper jobs that have a significant impact on bills: insulating the cavity walls for pounds 400, for example, would pay for itself in two years.
Energy saving would all be a lot cheaper if new homes took advantage of modern systems, Ms Cooper, an architect, says. The houses she designs always have a minimum score of 8.5.
But the National Energy Foundation believes it is up to buyers to force an increase in standards. Ms Flack says they should demand information on the running costs of homes, or face hefty costs later on.
Contact: National Energy Foundation, Rockingham Drive, Linford Wood, Milton Keynes MK14 6EG (0908 672787).
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