Solar Champion Stories

Q&A with Maine Green Broker, Julia Bassett Schwerin

When buying or selling a home, a realtor often acts as a guide, pointing out the parts of your home that will add market value, walking you through open houses with an expert eye trained to spot peeling paint and unfinished ductwork. There’s so much that goes into buying and selling a home, and realtors are always learning about the latest technologies, appliances, and codes – not to mention the new sustainability features.  

That’s where Julia Bassett Schwerin comes in. A Certified Green Broker since 2011, Julia has taught countless realtors the ins and outs of renewable energy, weatherization, and energy efficiency. We spoke with Julia recently to learn more about how the real estate industry approaches solar homes, and what still needs to change for the industry to truly embrace a transition away from fossil fuels.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Q: How did you first get into renewable energy and decide to pursue a career as a Green Broker?  

julia bassett schwerin.jpgA: In my first decade out of college I worked at IIT Research Institute, and I got involved with technology transfer of solar PV and other renewable energy tech from government labs into venture capital and industry. In 2005, I went into real estate in Maine. I saw an opportunity to get the Green Broker designation from the National Association of Realtors, so I took it as I wanted to pick up my earlier work in solar, wind, and geothermal. 

Q: What was the renewable energy and green home scene like at that time?  

A: In 2011 I went out to market my new credential and took over the listing of the first net zero home on the market. It wasn’t selling. It had 4.7 kilowatts of rooftop solar, one heat pump with five heads, a heat pump water heater, and a Passive House blower door test level. To me it was just the most exquisitely perfect home ever built on God’s earth.  

I must have done 50 open houses for that home over the next year. I met many potential buyers who wanted to be green, but their agents’ eyes would glaze over; the buyers would end up with a lower-priced home, still powered by propane. My enthusiasm had kept me from being clear-eyed about the price people were willing to pay at that time.  

By the time I sold it we had all lost a lot of money, but I had created a pretty impressive powerpoint deck on why green homes were beneficial. I had studied the electric bills of this building for a year, and invented the Bill to Building Chart, which shows that if you invest a little more in your building it is more than offset by your utility bill savings. 

Q: Is that when you decided to start educating local realtors?  

A: Yes, then I started to teach a course to real estate agents for continuing education credits over the next eight or so years. I just wanted them to understand the benefits, to recognize the difference between a heat pump and a Rinnai, and a solar PV array and a solar hot water panel. When the Portland chapter of Realtors started a Sustainability Advisory Group in 2019, I became co-chair. We have put on 35 hours of continuing education for the Portland chapter of Realtors since then. 

Q: From a real estate perspective, is solar a good investment? Does solar play a factor in selling a home? 

A: It’s a very good investment, but here’s the thing: people who make the investment in a whole rooftop solar array are typically doing it on their forever homes. We don’t see that many coming up for resale. For that reason, we can’t use the comparable sales method to put a value on a solar house, because there are too few. We do have tools to look at the original value and calculate the value from the utility bills saved. We have an appraiser and a few of us Brokers who know how to do that, and we are continuing to educate more local brokers.  

Like many tech markets before, we must reach a critical mass of homes with a certain feature (like solar or geothermal) before the whole market embraces it. In 2023, there were 13,622 homes sold in Maine; 77 of these had solar. So we’re not there yet, but we will get there in the next decade for sure. We’re already seeing this with heat pumps because Mainers have embraced heat pumps so enthusiastically.  

And to be honest, this market where there are so many more buyers than sellers, and sellers are getting multiple offers over asking while sold prices are still rising in double digits year over year, nothing is really a differentiating factor in selling a home, not even solar.  

Q: What might a buyer consider in terms of energy efficiency and solarization when looking at possible houses?  

A: As a ReVision customer myself, with heat pumps, heat pump water heater, car charger, Tesla Powerwall, and rooftop solar, I can tell you my criteria: a south-facing roof without obstructions such as shade trees, vent pipes, sun roofs, and dormers. Or a clearing for a ground mount. I also looked for a house that didn’t have an extensive network of heating ductwork or hot water piping that would have to be removed, but that is secondary. 

Maine has an older housing stock. We have worked really hard to upgrade our new building energy code to a level that is 3 ACH50, and requires ventilation, which is great. But older homes that are drafty and poorly insulated cannot hope to be electrified and solarized without first addressing the heat loss. So it’s weatherization first, then electrification, then solarization. It can get expensive with older homes but Efficiency Maine has a lot of rebates and so does the Inflation Reduction Act; with the latter, you can keep working away at it for a few years and take credits every year. I first recommend getting an energy audit.  

Q: And what about any advice for someone considering selling their solar-powered home?  

A: Make sure your broker knows how to value your solar home. You can’t do it in a comparison way so make sure you can answer the question “How much energy value do I save every year?”  

Even if you’re not considering selling, document everything: how much solar you have, how much of your electric bill it covers, if it powers your heating/cooling, how it affects your energy costs. Keep this all in a binder and it will be hugely helpful if you ever decide to sell your home or pass your home down to your kids.  

Q: Do you think the real estate industry and the general public now have a better understanding of energy efficiency and solar?  

A: Absolutely. When you cut to the economics of it, how can you not see that you’re saving money? With solar but also heating with electric instead of oil. And nature is helping us out unfortunately, with these increasing storms. People can’t not see what’s happening.  

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