Utility Bills: How to Estimate Costs for a New Home

pile of money to pay utility billsAfter a winter like the one we've just had, a lot of people are fed up with utility bills. The most recent forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration put the cost of home heating for 2011 at $2,400 if you heat with oil--a 26% increase over last year. On average, U.S. households can expect to shell out about $1,000 on heating this year.

If you've owned your house for a while, you have a sense of the seasonal fluctuations in utility bills. But what if you're moving into a new home? You'll have enough change to deal with without also having to worry about a budget-busting difference in utility bills.

So before you buy, take the following steps to estimate utility costs for your new home and plan ways to shrink them by improving energy efficiency. That way, you'll be able to live a truly happy future in that new-to-you house.

Ask for the utility bills
If you're getting serious about purchasing a particular home, ask for a record of utility bills spanning the past 12 months. Your realtor can arrange this through the seller's realtor, or, in the case of a house for sale by owner, ask the seller directly for the tally. Use this information as a guide, remembering that year-to-year changes in climate conditions and energy use patterns by a new combination of residents will lead to variations. You might also like to supplement the seller's utility information by doing your own estimate using online tools like Consumers Power Inc.'s Utility Usage Calculator.

Get a HERS evaluation
"If you're about to buy a home and you want to know how much your utility bills will be and how quickly energy efficiency improvements can pay for themselves, a HERS rating performed by a home energy auditor is a great place to start," says John Milligan, owner and president of Goals2Green, an Indiana-based energy auditing firm. "You can also use it as a tool to compare with other homes you're considering."

This thorough prepurchase evaluation by a certified home energy auditor uses the HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index, a scoring system established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). The lower a rated home's HERS index, the more energy efficient it's regarded to be.

Hiring a qualified auditor to perform a HERS rating on the home you hope to buy can help clarify trouble spots and opportunities for improved efficiencies. Some sellers may also have their homes rated before putting them on the market, advertising a positive HERS rating as a feature of the property. To find a qualified HERS rater in your area, visit www.resnet.us. RESNET also offers information on tax incentives and Energy Efficiency Mortgages that can help buyers pay for the costs of home improvements.

Look for clues to energy waste
Knowledge of the pros and cons of home features, systems and design can help you spot energy inefficiencies well before you schedule an energy audit or ask for past utility bills. Watch out for cathedral ceilings that can draw conditioned air away from comfort zones, older water-chugging plumbing fixtures, high-maintenance spas and landscaping that requires a lot of water and care. Also be alert to drafty, single-pane windows, and sun exposures that could make it hard to control resulting indoor temperatures without heavy-duty use of cooling equipment.

Plan for after you buy
If you've fallen hopelessly in love with a home that requires a bit of an efficiency tune-up, budget for immediate improvements that will trim your new utility bills. Switch in Water Sense certified fixtures, and take the opportunity to set up zoned hot water service with tankless water heaters. Install ceiling fans to help direct and circulate heated or cooled air, and select light fixtures that make the most of LED and CFL technologies. Bulk up insulation, and choose efficient replacement windows for a better outlook when you open those utility statements. Also spend time outside your home, revising landscaping plans and installing smart drip irrigation systems. And finally, stay tuned in to local power rates and track you power usage, allowing flexibility for small home and lifestyle adjustments that can help you save money on your electric bill.

Tom Kraeutler is a home improvement expert for AOL Real Estate and host of "The Money Pit," a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program offering home improvement and remodeling tips and ideas, as well as help tips on home energy audits.

Want more information on the costs of home ownership? Here are some AOL Real Estateguides to help:

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