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What would catch your attention?

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

No matter what, energy use and sustainability seem to play second (or third or fourth) fiddle to the other key criteria for tenants. But is that the way it has to be?

When we've been out talking to tenants about what's important when they search for rental housing, it's almost guaranteed that energy efficiency and sustainability aren't the first thing they mention. Location, cost, number of bedrooms, whether pets are allowed, safety, noise: these are all factors that dominate the conversation. But buried in there are bright spots.

Location includes an implicit interest in walkability, bikeability, transit access, or, at the very least, a reasonable driving distance to destinations like work, services, and amenities (is anyone ever looking to maximize the time they spend in the car?). And while those transportation decisions may or may not be driven by environmental concerns, the outcome is positive: the closer you live to the places you need to go, the less you pollute.

Cost - another priority for most renters - also gives us something to work with since more efficient homes can have lower costs. The trouble is that most renters, especially younger renters like college students or early-career professionals, may not be including the full cost of living when they compare rental options. That means that efficiency features (like attic insulation) don't register because prospective renters don't directly connect those features to cost - unless, that is, they've lived through a cold winter or a hot summer in a place without any.

So cost sensitivity can also translate into an interest in sustainability, even if the tenant might not identify the environmental impacts as a major concern. The challenge, then, is to pry open the typical understanding of what a rental "costs", and to start comparing rental options based on more complete information.

Shameless plug: RentLab is completely focused on figuring this out, and building tools, visualizations, and messaging to help drive change. But it's not easy.

Getting renters' attention for anything but the basics is a big challenge, especially when some of these features are so boringly functional. Doors that close and seal properly and insulation in the walls are definitely not to be compared with the on-site gym or the balconies or the weekly pet massages. Still, a cost-sensitive renter with good information about what's normal for utility costs in their community helps us make progress. The potential for impact is especially significant when we're dealing with some of a community's worst-performing rentals, where the per-bedroom cost may exceed the community average by hundreds of dollars a year.

Ultimately, there are lots of us out here who want to understand what it will take to get renters' attention. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently completed a study comparing different approaches to grabbing the attention of homebuyers. They found that graphical representations of energy scores (as opposed to simple numbers) resonated more, as did ensuring that all listings included an energy score (as opposed to just giving special recognition to the most efficient listings).

Earth Advantage, a consultancy in Portland OR, has also conducted extensive work to determine what works in energy labeling (see their publications library here, and this specific report here) again with a focus on homebuyers and homeowners. Their recommendations:

  • Ratings should be objectively created and credible.

  • The information delivered must be consistent across geographies, time, and personnel (i.e. the score should be the same regardless of who does the assessment).

  • Obtaining ratings should be affordable.

  • Information should strengthen consumer interest and literacy.

In the long run, we just need more information about what works. In our next phase, it's a big part of what we aim to find out. What will help us shift attention from basic costs to full costs? When people perceive sustainable housing as more valuable and more cost-effective than the alternative, the market will make more of it.


Further reading:

Home Energy Labels Playbook

How efficiency programs are benefitting from energy labeling requirements

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