Let's say you've decided you want to buy an eco-friendly house. How would you find one?
Not very easily, although the process is getting simpler.
But if you have your heart set on, say, geothermal heating or an enhanced air-filtration system, in most places you'd be out of luck. That's because the vast majority of property listing systems ignore such features altogether in terms of searchability, or relegate them to spaces for optional comments from the listing agent.
On this front, Chicago's MRED listing service is comparatively avant garde. Late last year, it inaugurated nearly two dozen green or energy-efficient features that listing agents could include in their MLS property descriptions, such things as tankless water heaters, native or drought-resistant landscaping, low-flow plumbing fixtures or whether the home's energy-conserving characteristics have been certified by certain third-party organizations, such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program.
Now, the National Association of Realtors has begun a campaign that probably would fall squarely into the realm of herding cats: It's trying to get more of the nation's multiple listing services to do the same, and more.
"My guess is that there are anywhere from 30 to 40 MLS systems across the country that are doing this," said Al Medina, who is the director of the association's Green Designation Program. However, only about half of those have full-blown green search functions built into their systems; the other half have a few features or are just in the process of implementing them.
Thirty to 40 sounds like a lot, until you realize how many MLS systems are out there.
"There are just shy of 900," Medina said. "That gives you a good perspective of how much more work needs to happen out there. It's sporadic."
Medina concedes that the real estate industry lags homebuilders, engineers and architects in catering to consumer interest in green building and related features, and says there are several reasons why it has been a little late to the party.
But one big and obvious reason would be the economy. Homebuilding drives green innovation (as opposed to the existing-homes market), and homebuilding has been pounded to within an inch of its life in the past couple of years. Another reason is that the real estate agent world these days is more focused on short sales and foreclosures.
"Green isn't front-and-center now," Medina said. But he's certain it will be eventually.
"Once the construction industry comes back, you're going to see a dramatic increase in green homes in this country," he said.
So the realtors association is trying to urge those 900 MLS systems to get ready by launching its "Green Tool Kit" program to guide them on creating searchable fields for environmentally friendly home features. It's not something that can just be done by fiat — those 900 listing services are all independently owned, and are notorious within the industry for being independent-minded.
But on a fledgling basis, anyway, Medina said he has data that such searchability can pay off for home sellers. In Atlanta, for example, where last year the local MLS added a green category to its listings, homes that had green certification sold 31 days faster than traditionally built houses in 2009, he said; in Portland, Ore., the MLS reported 18 days' difference.
One of the emerging reservations that some environmental groups and consumers have about the marketplace hugging green almost blindly is that the term has become so abused. "Greenwashing" lawsuits — for making misleading claims — have burst onto the legal scene in force in the last year or so, according to the National Law Journal.
All the more reason to set some parameters for marketing green properties, Medina said. A real estate agent could find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit over vague or even false claims.
In Phoenix, which has one of the more detailed MLS mechanisms for noting environmentally friendly home features, agents who claim that a home has LEED certification have four days from the listing date to provide and post the documentation that proves its status, and if you don't provide the paperwork, the MLS will remove the listing from the system.
"It's similar to (listing) any other feature in a home; you have to be accurate," Medina said.