Although the market for certified green homes is growing, a new national poll has found that consumer interest in owning a sustainable or energy-efficient home has declined.

The annual Green Living Pulse survey by Knoxville, Tenn.-based ad agency Shelton Group surveyed 1,098 Americans who at least occasionally buy green products and found 64% of respondents were interested in owning or renting an energy-efficient home, down from 72% last year. Interest in green homes also decreased, from 47% last year to 43% this year. (The survey asks about both energy-efficient homes and green homes separately because an energy-efficient home does not necessarily include the other elements that make up a green home.)

Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton attributes the slide to the struggling housing market and to the end of federal tax credits for new home buyers in April.

“It may simply reflect the general anxiety in the housing market, which plummeted 30% in May as this study was fielded,” she noted.

A common misperception likely helps explain consumers’ lower interest when polled about “green” homes compared to “energy-efficient” homes: Many consumers seem to think green homes are solar homes and most think solar is expensive, says Shelton.

Green homes are a mystery to most consumers, Shelton adds, and other Shelton Group research indicates that the industry is losing ground on educating home buyers about the benefits of green homes. The company’s 2010 Eco Pulse survey found that only 41% of respondents could name at least one green home feature unaided, down significantly from 53% in 2009.

When given a list of features and asked to choose three that must be included in order for a home to be considered green, the findings confirmed that even though they might think of a green home as having solar technology, consumers prioritize energy-efficient features over renewable energy features for green homes. The features perceived to be mandatory were (in order) higher-efficiency appliances, higher-efficiency windows, and renewable electric power generation systems such as solar, geothermal, or wind.

Despite the decline in interest seen in this year’s survey,  the market for certified energy-efficient homes is undoubtedly growing, Shelton says. More than 1 million U.S. homes are Energy Star-qualified, with 106,392 of them built in 2009, nearly a quarter (24%) of total single-family housing starts last year.

In other good news, the survey found 84% of respondents were seeking green products, if not all-out green homes, and participating in at least some environmentally sustainable activities, up 7% from last year.

“For consumers, green isn’t about climate change--that’s too esoteric and impersonal--it’s about matters closer to home,” says Shelton. “Many Americans aren’t trying to save the earth when they buy a green cleaning product, they’re trying to save their children from dangerous chemicals.”

In addition, a newly released ServiceMagic survey found that in the last quarter, 59% of homeowners considered green alternatives for their home improvement projects. Energy-efficient windows topped the list of projects, with an increase in window service requests up 81% from last year in the same quarter. Of those who invested in windows, 83% did so for energy reasons with cost savings from increased energy efficiency being the top motivation.

However, only 19% of homeowners surveyed were motivated to conduct home improvement projects because of tax credits. For homeowners who did not consider green alternatives for their remodeling projects, 50% of them were not aware of the eco-friendly options, while 27% did not like the green product choices and 16% found the cost of green products outweighed the benefits.

Moreover, less than 10% of homeowners requested green or energy-efficient alternatives for their home improvement projects.

“A surprising trend this quarter is what we are learning about consumer purchasing behavior around green and energy efficiency,” says Craig Smith, ServiceMagic CEO. “While we show a fairly decent level of awareness for green and energy efficient alternatives, it isn’t translating to action beyond window projects.”

In light of the new findings, Shelton offered the following tips to help green building pros streamline their marketing efforts:
--Avoid talking about “green” homes. Package your houses as “energy-efficient homes with green features.”
--Tailor marketing messages to an eco-minded audience and eliminate any marketing geared toward customers who are not interested in either green or efficient homes.
--Talk in specific terms of how much lower your home’s utility bills are compared to conventional homes in the same neighborhoods. This gives clients a justification for purchasing a home that may be slightly more expensive.
--Partner with local banks to offer financing; ideally, financing that allows for a better interest rate because of the lower utility bills.

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor Online for EcoHome.