Green friendly repairs and upgrades
September 13, 2010 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Help me narrow down remodeling ideas with $10,000 to spend. I am not upgrading anything but repairing and replacing things in a 100 year old house as green and environmentally sound as possible with a thought to what is advantageous tax-wise and eventual resale value.

I have an old house that needs paint and a couple of new windows and should be better insulated. That's a start, but with an old house there are innumerable things that can be done. Right now I have a budget of around $10K and will spend an equal amount (maybe) in 3 to 5 years before I sell it.
Ideas? I will be starting to get bids until the end of the month with work being done between now and December. I am in the upper midwest (Chicago) with no south facing roofs. There are no glaring problems with porches and the roof had a complete tear-off fairly recently.

posted by readery to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I like to start with bathrooms and kitchens. Here are some ideas:

Bathrooms: replace toilets with low-flow. Replace faucets (including shower faucets) with low-flow. The modern low-flow toilets are pretty darn good. Check customer reviews online at before making a decision. The low-flow shower faucets now mix air into the water to reduce the amount of water used without sacrificing pressure or sensation. If you are going to do new floors, look into underfloor heating systems ( has kits at the best price I've seen).

Kitchens: look into replacing countertop surfaces, backsplashes and other cosmetic things with nicer materials. Low-flow faucets. Put in a garbage disposal if you can. Update/increase lighting to include pendant lights or can lights.

Whole home: maintenance issues like replacing HVAC systems, or switching to a tankless water heater. Updating the landscaping or outside rooms--surely there is some good weather in Chicago part of the year to enjoy a patio. :) If you have wood floors, are they are in good shape? Do they need to be refinished? Your painters can probably do any siding replacements that need to happen when you have the exterior painted.

Just remember that if you're doing things for pure resale value, don't make your house the best one on the block. But if you're doing it because you like it, do whatever you'd like.
posted by FergieBelle at 11:59 AM on September 13, 2010

Regarding windows - consider making/having made some exterior (removable) storm windows. This can be much cheaper than replacing windows with insulated units, and is very nearly as energy efficient.
We have a 65 yr old house, with original double-hung windows; my SO made storms and we had an energy audit which proved the above. The payback period on new windows ranges from 10-50 years.
Fergie Belle has got it.
Also, in terms of insulation - blown-in can be a very good value, and is often made of fairly 'green' materials; and what's greener than burning fewer dinosaurs in the winter?
posted by dbmcd at 12:10 PM on September 13, 2010

the payback on upgrades to most properties is less then 100%. That isn't an argument against making upgrades, just to point out that "towards an eye on resale value" doesn't really mean anything.
posted by JPD at 12:14 PM on September 13, 2010

Get rid of any remaining knob-and-tube wiring. Get your electrical up to code.
posted by mhoye at 12:16 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: the payback on upgrades to most properties is less then 100%. That isn't an argument against making upgrades, just to point out that "towards an eye on resale value" doesn't really mean anything.

I guess what I meant is, if I have say low flow toilets or a solar water heater (probably not possible for me) future owners would appreciate the lower costs of ownership.
posted by readery at 12:19 PM on September 13, 2010

FWIW Knob and Tube wiring and blown in insulation may be against code. If it were my 10K I'd take a serious look at the furnace and ducts.
posted by Gungho at 12:34 PM on September 13, 2010

If "going green" is your primary focus, a friend of mine works for recurve which specializes in environmental retrofitting. I've never gone through their process, but my understanding is that one of the services they offer is "oh, you only want to pay for things that will pay for themselves in decreased utilities over the next 5 years? Here's the list."

They're a bay area company, but I think if you call them they will put you in touch with the right people in other areas. The also are extremely awesome people, and for anyone in the bay area that wants to get their home more insulated or whatnot, I recommend giving them a call.
posted by Phredward at 12:44 PM on September 13, 2010

I guess what I meant is, if I have say low flow toilets or a solar water heater (probably not possible for me) future owners would appreciate the lower costs of ownership.

but they won't pay more for them embedded into the house then they would to buy them and have them installed, indeed they would pay less because they've already been used. Upgrading a home is not an "investment" in the sense that it yields a return above the original expense. Not an argument against upgrading things, but an argument against making upgrades you yourself don't find desirable.
posted by JPD at 12:46 PM on September 13, 2010

IMHO, if I only had a little bit of money to spend (and $10k is a little bit in remodeling terms), I'd focus heavily on things that are likely to make a home inspector complain, which in turn will prompt a lot of buyers to bail (not always rightly, but that's not within your control). It might even be worth it to spend a few hundred dollars to have an inspector come through and tell you what he'd flag for a potential buyer. Only once I had all of those things under control would I consider other changes.
posted by sharding at 12:49 PM on September 13, 2010

You should probably start with an energy audit if you're looking at any HVAC or building envelope work. Should cost around $500 and give you tons of useful info. I had an audit this morning, and it was well worth the time and expense. It may also qualify you for some state, federal, or gas/electric company incentives (not sure what's available in your neck of the woods)

In terms of insulation, the attic and basement are the most important areas. Spray foam and dense pack cellulose are the state of the art. Cellulose is ideal for walls and attics, and the foam is great for sealing air leaks or in potentially damp areas. Professional installers/insulators are probably worth the cost (but do your research and check references).

If you're looking to spruce up your kitchen, plan to spend most of $10K for quality cabinets and counters. It just costs a metric ton for decent stuff. Insist on formaldehyde free materials. There are a slew of green-ish counter materials (we liked paperstone, but it's pricey) - Google is your friend on this.

And re: knob & tube wiring - many insurance companies won't cover you if you have it. We had to call four places before anyone would even issue us a binder when we bought our place, and that only on the condition that we get it replaced within a year. If you have it, don't panic, but definitely consider having it all replaced. We spent something like $2700 for a 1400 square foot house, but we did the drywall/plaster repair ourselves. If you don't want to/can't do that, it'll cost a bit more.

The problem is that often the biggest resale value boosts come from curb appeal stuff, but the biggest "green" boost comes from actual performance stuff (insulation & air sealing, high-efficiency HVAC equipment). If it were my house I'd do the performance stuff.
posted by that's candlepin at 1:17 PM on September 13, 2010

First, check with your utility companies and see what they're giving away.

The local water company gave us a brand-new, low-flow toilet a few years ago; they even paid for a contractor to come out, install it and take the old one away. Last year, they were giving away rain barrels, and they had other programs that we didn't qualify for because we don't use enough energy (!).
posted by mogget at 2:13 PM on September 13, 2010

Insulation and replacement windows. There are probably still good tax credits available to help you pay for this. New fridge if the old one is 10 + years old; energy star appliances save a lot, and new appliances are appealing to buyers. New stuff - cabinets, countertops, sinks, etc., - is anti-green. If it's in good condition, clean it up and make sure it's in good repair. If you put in low-flow, dual-flush toilets, improve the insulation, etc., then find a selling agent that understands and will present those features. More buyers will be looking for sustainability, esp. with the experience of the Great Recession. I bought my house 3 years ago, and looked carefully at insulation and windows.
posted by theora55 at 5:04 PM on September 13, 2010

As on old house guy, the thing you don't want to do is replace windows. Original windows are usually character defining elements of the home and folks interested in old homes want to retain those elements. As mentioned, storm windows are a good option for energy savings on the window front and with some research, storms can qualify for tax credits too. Insulate the attic and weatherizing/caulking are great ways to save. If the eye is towards future sales, then make sure that you can legitimately claim whatever number of bedrooms/bathrooms are good for the home (i.e. find a space for a bath or half bath if there's only one or remove that old partition wall that made two tiny bedrooms from one). If you can reclaim additional heated square footage in a basement or attic, that's also a way of increasing value. Also, look at ads for homes that are for sale that fit what you're going for. If you note that bamboo floors or tankless waterheater are common sales pitches in your area, then those might be a worthy investment when you upgrade (well, if you like them and will get some use from them).
posted by pappy at 8:41 PM on September 13, 2010

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