Suzanne Shelton
Suzanne Shelton

A few short years ago, when the economy and the housing market were going gangbusters, people buying or renovating a home were focused primarily on such features as hardwood floors, natural stone countertops, commercial-style stoves, and deluxe cabinetry, according to my company’s proprietary surveys, which track shifting attitudes and opinions about energy efficiency and sustainability. Not many sought Energy Star-rated appliances, energy-efficient windows, or increased levels of insulation.
Then everything changed. Stock prices collapsed, the housing market fizzled, and America’s home builders braced for lean times. As a result, consumers are not as concerned about making their homes more beautiful. Instead, they want their homes to be more energy efficient. A room full of new carpeting is out; an attic full of new insulation is in.

Based on recent research by my company, the Shelton Group, here are some other characteristics of American consumers that influence how builders should market their green homes and products: 
They want to save money. The economy is clearly driving consumer thinking right now. The good news is that although they’re worried about the recession, consumers are willing to pay a premium for a green home--but they want it to translate into savings. Our Eco-Pulse survey recently found nearly two-thirds of consumers surveyed would be willing to pay a 10% or higher premium for a home with a number of green features. Nine percent were willing to pay 30% more.

Why? Consumers aren’t interested in saving the planet; they want to save the green in their wallets, and an energy-efficient green home will do just that.

They want to feel in control. In one of our new surveys, nearly three-quarters of consumers cited saving money as a reason to buy energy-efficient products. Only about half chose “to protect the environment” and “to protect the quality of life for future generations.” That is a significant change from surveys we conducted before the recession, when Americans chose “to protect the environment” most often.
This is more than just a dollars-and-cents issue. Now more than ever, Americans have a deep desire to be in charge of their lives. They want control. And seeing utility bills drop brings much-needed peace of mind. 
They don’t want to break the bank. Builders, however, should be careful about how they market their green homes. Our Eco Pulse 2009 survey shows that 90% of people believe “green” equals “more expensive.” So when consumers see a home branded as “green,” they hear “cha-ching.”

About half of the respondents to our survey were able to name at least one green home feature unaided, and the feature they named most often (33%) was the most expensive: solar. This contributes to the consumer perception that buying a green home would break the bank.

They have high standards. While there is no established industry benchmark for the number of features required to categorize a home as green, consumers have high standards. When asked to pick the three required features from a list of 17 possible features, one-third of respondents said all of them would be required. The green home features chosen most often were:
--Renewable electric power generation systems such as solar, geothermal, or wind (25%) 
--Higher-efficiency Energy Star-rated appliances (25%)
--Water-conserving features such as low-flow showerheads and rain water collection systems (21%)

Respondents’ all-or-nothing mentality that every one of these features should be in a green home contributes to the perception that such a home is a luxury. It’s something only Hollywood celebrities can afford.

Green Marketing in a Recession
Here are some ways that builders can reach out to this new category of eco-conscious, budget-conscious home buyers:
--Market homes as energy-efficient instead of green and play up their money-saving features. Our recent Green Living Pulse survey found almost three-quarters of respondents (72%) were interested in owning/renting an energy-efficient home versus a green home (47%).
--Make sure that prospective buyers know that green homes have lower operational costs due to their energy efficiency, water conservation, and longer-life components.
--Talk in concrete, specific terms about money-saving features and how a particular home will pay the buyer back: “This home’s mortgage payment plus its utility bill will cost you less each month than a cheaper home that’s not as energy efficient.”
--Position the homes’ long-term healthcare savings, linking the improved indoor air quality  to a better quality of life for residents.

The bottom line: Green homes give consumers more control over their finances and their lives. Builders just need to make sure they know that.

Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group in Knoxville, Tenn., an advertising firm that is entirely focused on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices. The firm tracks consumers’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors through four annual, proprietary studies:  Utility Pulse, Eco Pulse, Green Living Pulse, and Energy Pulse. You can learn more at