Would-be buyers of "green" homes may not be speaking the same language as the builders who are putting them up.
The verbal disconnect between builders and buyers is evident in a 2015 study of consumer preferences by the National Association of Home Builders, which focused exclusively on green features in homes and communities.
The primary objective of the study was to ascertain consumers' level of awareness of various Earth-friendly home features. But what was more striking was that buyers and builders are not always on the same page when it comes to terminology. In other words, perception and reality are not always the same.
For example, a builder might describe his offerings as "green," which has become the go-to euphemism to describe a house that's more environmentally friendly than the everyday, run-of-the-mill new house. According to the study, though, people tend to believe they receive more value from one that's described as "eco-friendly."
Both terms mean roughly the same thing, but 68 percent of the 3,370 consumers who bought a home in the last three years, or are planning to do so within the next three years, said they feel the most value comes from an eco-friendly home, compared to the 32 percent who said a green home offered more value.
This wordplay problem continues throughout a number of terms builders use to describe their sustainable products. Take the words "comfortable" and "livable." If the builder advertised a house as livable, according to the study, he might miss the mark with 83 percent of potential customers, who find more value in a property that's said to be comfortable.
Similarly, "low-flow," a term used to describe fixtures that use less water, means little to consumers, only clicking with 18 percent of them. But the same fixtures described as "water-saving" tend to resonate with 82 percent of consumers. Ditto for the term "environmentally friendly" versus "green-conscious" -- 81 percent to 19 percent, respectively.
The same disconnect can be found throughout the 26 pairs of words or phrases builders might use in promoting their "high-efficiency" homes. Even that term isn't immune: Respondents believe there is more value in an "energy-efficient" house than in a "high-efficiency" one.
Some of the other popular terms thrown around by builders that may not be universally embraced by buyers include "low-impact," "reduced energy use" and "nontoxic materials." Buyers, on the other hand, said terms such as "environmentally conscious," "lower utility bills" and "healthy living environment" have more of a ring to them.
There were only four pairs of green concepts for which opinions are close to evenly divided: "health" vs. "comfort," "resource-efficient" vs. "zero-waste," "disaster-resistant" vs. "resilient" and "net-zero energy" vs. "carbon neutral."
Despite the marked differences in semantics, the study found that energy efficiency is now paramount to consumers, who rank that attribute as the second most important to them. Only safe communities ranked higher.
"More than 50 percent of respondents in every age group, income bracket, household type, race, ethnicity, gender, census division and home price point ... agree that being energy-efficient is the most important attribute when facing a home purchase or remodel decision," the study found.
The builder's reputation, proximity to shopping and amenities, proximity to work, preferred school district -- all advertising hooks often used to lure buyers to various subdivisions -- are all further down the list of features that buyers said would influence their purchase decisions.
The study's results don't surprise Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group, a marketing and communications firm focused exclusively on energy and the environment. She says builders and product makers often use technical language that doesn't mean much to consumers, who mostly want to understand the benefits of a given feature -- not the building specs.
"The industry throws around a lot of words consumers don't understand," Shelton says. For example, the term "net-zero" means the house uses no energy -- a good thing, surely. But the term "sounds negative, and registers negative" with homebuyers, she says.
Her company's own study of energy-related buzz words found that the terms "green," "eco-friendly" and "sustainable" registered as "expensive" with about 3 out of 4 consumers. Negative-sounding terms such as "net-zero" were even less popular.