For me and Brian, buying this house and paying it off early was definitely a wise move, one that has opened up the new goal of FI a real possibility for us. But all the same, I'm not prepared to declare flatly that everyone should own a home. As this Money Crashers article (not one of mine) shows, there are significant downsides to being a homeowner. For one thing, in some parts of the country, it's really expensive to break into the housing market, making homeownership impractical for young people and anyone with a low income. Buying a house you can't really afford is certainly worse than renting.
Plus, homeownership carries extra responsibilities. When something breaks, you have to fix it yourself (or hire someone to do it) instead of just calling the super. And owning a home ties you down to one location, which can be a real problem if you have the kind of job that might require you to pack up and relocate to a new city at a moment's notice. Moving is hard under the best of circumstances, but it's much harder when you have to sell your old house and find a new place to live at the same time. And if you can't find a buyer right away, you could be stuck with double payments—one on the old house you haven't sold yet, and one on the new one—for months at a time.
So while owning your home can be an ecofrugal choice, it's not necessarily the best choice for everyone. I think it's much more useful to focus on making the home you have as green and efficient as possible. Boosting your home's energy efficiency, lowering water use, and adding edible landscaping are money-saving moves that can work well for both buyers and renters—and help keep the planet healthy at the same time.
Making your home greener is a topic I've covered quite often on this blog in the past, from lots of different angles. Here are just a few of the ideas I've explored:
- Energy-efficient lighting. I was an early adopter of compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, because even back when they cost $25 a pop, they were so much more efficient and long-lived than old-school incandescent bulbs that they were a better deal in the long run. However, when the current generation of LED light bulbs came on the market, I was skeptical about their benefits, pointing out that their lifelong costs were nearly identical to my existing CFLs and there was probably no point in switching right away. I was betting that the new technology would get both cheaper and better over time, and sure enough, it has—so much that last year, I was finally prepared to take the plunge on my first new LED bulb. Over time, I'm sure, these will gradually take over my entire house. For anyone who's still using antiquated incandescent bulbs, I think upgrading directly to new LEDs is definitely the way to go and will net you significant energy savings (plus cut way down on time spent changing bulbs). However, if you already have a houseful of CFLs, I wouldn't recommend throwing them all out; it probably makes more sense to eliminate them by attrition, gradually replacing them with LEDs as they burn out. Who knows—perhaps by the time the last of your old CFLs expires, there may be super-efficient incandescent bulbs will be on the shelves that offer even bigger savings.
- Efficient appliances. If it's not worth spending $6 on an LED bulb to replace a reasonably efficient CFL, then it's even less of a bargain to throw out a working appliance to upgrade to a newer, more efficient model. That's one reason Brian and I took so long to upgrade our old refrigerator; we knew that a new one was never going to pay for itself in energy savings alone. However, once we'd made the decision to take the plunge and replace it, it definitely made sense to spend the little bit extra it would cost to choose a new one that was Energy Star certified, which would pay us back with a 9 percent savings on electric use every month for the rest of its life. So while I wouldn't recommend discarding an old appliance (unless it's a really old energy-guzzler) just for the electric savings, I would say that when the time comes to replace, paying extra for a more efficient model is a choice that will pay off.
- Clotheslines. One appliance that's unlikely ever to pay for itself in energy savings is a new dryer. Since all a dryer has to do, pretty much, is convert fuel to heat, there aren't any big differences in energy use between models. However, there's one kind of dryer that cuts power use all the way down to nothing: an outdoor solar clothes dryer, better known as a clothesline. Based on my calculations, the savings from hanging a load of laundry is pretty paltry—maybe 25 cents for 20 minutes of work, and maybe 3 pounds of CO2—but for me, at least, the time spent outdoors in the sun and wind is a reward in itself.
- Insulation. One of the first big projects we took on after buying this house was to insulate the attic. We boosted its R-value from around R-14 to R-38, which, according to this Inflation Savings Calculator, should save us about $898 over the first ten years. So the $743 worth of insulation we bought and installed ourselves has probably paid for itself already and is continuing to save us money every winter (and perhaps some in summer too). If your house is under-insulated, you can probably get a similar return adding insulation yourself, and a more leisurely payback if you hire someone else to do it.
- Solar panels. When I first looked into the costs and benefits of a solar array for our house, I found that it probably wouldn't be able to pay for itself. However, solar prices have dropped precipitously since then, and when I got some quotes on a solar electric system two years ago, it looked like it would actually yield about a 10 percent return on our investment over its 20-year lifetime. So this is something I'm thinking we might actually go for at some point—though since our roof is going to need replacement pretty soon, it makes sense to wait until we've done that first. I can't extrapolate from my experience to say whether going solar will work for you, since there are so many variables, but you can use a calculator like this one to crunch the numbers for yourself.
- Edible landscaping. In 2013, I calculated that our vegetable garden had produced about $233 worth of food from about $42 worth of seeds, plants, and compost. That same year, we expanded our edible landscape to include raspberry canes, which gave us about $50 worth of fruit in their first year alone; cherry bushes, which took a couple of years to produce but eventually gave us about two quarts of cherries; plum trees, which so far have provided only a handful of plums—but they were very tasty, and the trees are still growing. And that's not counting our asparagus patch (which unfortunately isn't all that productive), our rhubarb (which is ridiculously productive and could keep us in pies all year), and all our fresh herbs. And we're still coming up with new plants to add. Admittedly, edible landscaping on this scale is hard to do if you don't have a yard to landscape—but even apartment dwellers can grow a few herbs in pots on a windowsill, or maybe even a tomato plant on a balcony, and enjoy a little home-grown goodness at a bargain price.
- Rain barrels. Our rain barrel, a gift from a friend, saved us about 1,000 gallons of water in its first year of use. It's hard to translate that directly into dollar savings, but with a little guesstimating, I put it at about $15. So if your water situation is anything like ours, you could build a barrel yourself with $30 worth of parts, as described at Instructables, and it should pay for itself in about two years.
- Compost bins. We built our first compost bin out of shipping pallets harvested from Brian's workplace, and we proceeded to make compost in it the lazy way (more respectably known as "cold composting"): just throw everything in and wait for it to break down. It takes practically no work, cuts way down on our household garbage, and gives us enough compost each year to nourish at least half our garden. Anyone with a bit of spare yard space and a source of to shipping pallets could do the same thing and get homemade compost with very little effort. (We'll need to replace the bin this year, as pallets aren't the most weatherproof material, but seven years of use from a bin that was practically free ain't too shabby.)
And these ideas are only the tip of the iceberg! My various articles on Money Crashers offer lots more suggestions, from reducing paper use with cloth napkins and electronic newspapers to decorating your home on a budget. All these ideas will make your home greener and put more green in your wallet at the same time—a thrifty choice that can work for anyone.