The big green guide to home buying and renovating

In a time where one might have assumed home buying would slump, there’s been a frenzy of buyers hoping to secure a place to roost over the past six months. This is partly due to the pandemic’s ability to elevate ‘your own space’ to the top of the most wanted list, but mostly due to the stamp duty holiday that the government implemented midway through last year. If you’re thinking about, or in the process of, buying a home over the coming months, this guide should come in handy. Because, whilst stamp duty is paused, the climate crisis is not. So, whether you’re going to go the whole hog or simply make one green choice at some point in the process, your actions are important. We’ve created this guide to help you make your home buying and/or renovation as green as you feel you can.

1. Green banking

[W]hy should we allow our money to work to different ethical principles from those we apply to ourselves every day?” - Alastair Sawday, spokesperson for Your Ethical Money

When buying a home, it’s a little terrifying how quickly money flows into and out of your account. Banking with an institution that has green credentials is a great way to minimise the impact of the whole process.

Your Ethical Money has compiled a handy comparison table that can help you make an informed choice about the work your money will do in the background—click on a bank in the table to learn more about its policies and practices.

A particular shout-out must go to Triodos Bank which is the only one on the list with a green dot next to every one of the table’s criteria. This bank really tries to walk the talk and would be an excellent choice if it suits your needs.  

2. Green mortgages

Our scientific advisor, Mike Berners-Lee, gives a ballpark figure of 191kg CO2e for every pound spent on the average, not-so-eco-minded mortgage. But for an eco-lender like Ecology? Only a quarter of that. Clearly, the provider you choose for your mortgage has a big impact.

At the moment, there’s only a handful of businesses offering green mortgages in the UK. We must point out that a ‘green mortgage’ does not necessarily equal an environmentally ethical mortgage; the ‘green’ typically comes from the house you choose, or the improvements you make, rather than anything to do with the lender. The ones we at Pawprint have heard of are:

Ecology Building Society. It offers a range of green residential mortgages. According to The Ethical Consumer, ‘Building societies are seen as a more ethical option than banks due to the fact they lend mainly in the housing market rather than other more unethical sectors.’ Mike describes Ecology as ‘a simple, lean operation run out of eco-friendly premises that makes a real effort to walk the talk.’

Saffron Building Society’s Retro Fit Mortgage is a residential mortgage that will reward you with a rate reduction if you carry out works that improve the energy efficiency of your home.

Nationwide offers something called a Green Additional Borrowing mortgage designed to help you to make energy-efficient home improvements.

Natwest and Barclays now offer a range of green mortgages that reward buyers for choosing a home with an energy efficiency rating of B or higher. That being said, both companies are known to invest heavily in fossil fuels, so it’s up to you to decide what’s important. If a green mortgage isn’t an option for you, then spend a little bit less and use the savings on something that decreases carbon emissions (like a solar roof, an air source heat pump or biomass boiler, double-glazing, and/or better insulation). See grants/funding options for energy-efficient home improvements here.

We’re not saying these banks or mortgages are perfect, but they’re a start. Ecology’s offering is certainly the greenest of the lot, but remember: regardless of which option you go for, choosing one helps to create a market for greener mortgages in the future.  Already got a mortgage, but want to switch to a more ethical lender?

According to Ethical Consumer, the end of your fixed-term low-interest-rate period is a great time to do this. Even if you have to have the property re-surveyed to remortgage, you could still end up saving money in the long term.

3. Green insurance

When buying a home there are some types of insurance that you have to get (life insurance, for example) and some that you might want to get. Whatever you choose, remember that your money is going to be spent by the institution you invest in, so it’s important to do your research and align your choice to your principles.

Green life insurance (which you’ll need to complete the purchase of your home) isn’t particularly easy to come by in the UK. The best we’ve found is The Co-Operative Life Cover, which was ranked third on The Good Shopping Guide’s Ethical Insurance comparison table. This table marks insurers on factors like environmental devastation, political donations, and ethical accreditation.  

When it comes to home insurance, there are some great green options out there:

Naturesave donates 10% of its income from its home and travel premiums to the Naturesave Trust.

ETA is an insurance company owned and run by environmentalists that are committed to promoting sustainable transport.

If you’re looking for a provider to take the hassle out of insurance shopping, Evergreen Insurance Services is worth checking out. They give up to 25% of their income back to a wildlife charity.

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4. Greening your will

In his typical tongue and cheek style, Mike Berners-Lee cites ‘dying’ as the most carbon-friendly thing you will ever do’ (‘it’s a full-stop on your carbon footprint’). If, however, you’d like to go a step further and offset some of the carbon you’ve left behind, you’ve got a few options…

Consider leaving a legacy donation. Some of Pawprint’s favourite charities chasing environmental justice and restoration include:
Rewilding Britain
Global Green Grants Fund
The Woodland Trust
Cool Earth

And while we’re on the subject, if you’d like to plan for a sustainable funeral, Return to Nature offers rewilding burials that prioritise positive impact.

5. Green renovation

Whether it’s a lick of paint or a major upgrade, home renovations are an exciting (albeit stressful) time. They can also be quite carbon expensive, if you’re not careful. Below we’ve outlined the best ways to keep your renovations as eco-friendly as possible—nice for you AND nice for the planet!

Eco-friendly builders
When choosing the company you want to use for your renovation, you’ll obviously have to consider your budget. Outside of this, we recommend asking yourself three questions:

1. Are they local?
Support your local economy by investing your money in a local business. It will also reduce the number of road miles your builder/s need to travel to get to the site every day.

2. Are they eco-minded?
An eco-minded builder/construction company will help you embed green thinking into your renovation. For example, they might suggest you move a window to make the most of natural light or recommend an extra inch of insulation that’ll save you heaps on energy bills. Of course, you could also do this research yourself if your preferred builder is less experienced in the area (although most builders are well versed in energy efficiency improvements at the very least). Examples of eco-minded companies we’ve come across include Eco-Renovation UK (Hertfordshire and surrounding areas), Bright Green Homes (Brighton and surrounding areas), and Econstruct (throughout central Scotland).

3. Will they do a good job?
Renovations aren’t cheap. Moreover, they create waste, use energy and often disturb nature. Use a good builder that will do the job right, first time. Reviews, recommendations and case studies/portfolios are a good place to start.

Energy-efficiency improvements
Better insulation, double or triple glazing, solar panels, renewable heating solutions, draft proofing, rainwater harvesting systems and LED lighting will all contribute to making your home more energy-efficient. Of course, the upfront cost of these renovations can be difficult for new homeowners, which is why the government has started offering grants to help make it more affordable.
If you live in England:

The Green Homes Grant will cover up to two-thirds of the cost of eligible improvements, up to a maximum contribution of £5,000.

The Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive gives you money towards the cost of purchasing or installing a renewable heating system. You can claim both RHI and the Green Homes Grant.

If you live in Scotland, Home Energy Scotland offers free advice on how to keep your home warm, and an interest-free loan up to £5,000 to make your home more efficient.

Wales’ Nest Scheme also offers free advice, and if you are eligible, a package of free home energy efficiency improvements.

Northern Ireland has an Affordable Warmth Scheme for low-income households to improve energy efficiency.

If these improvements are still not something you’re up for, or able to afford, there are plenty of other ways you can use less/better energy in your home:

Sign up to a renewable energy provider: Good Energy and Ecotricity are the UK’s greenest options at current. Click here to learn more.

Get a smart meter: seeing how much you’re spending and using makes you more conscious of your energy use.

Use Pawprint to measure your carbon footprint, learn how to reduce it at home and track your carbon-reducing actions. It’s fun and free!

Construction and demolition (C&D) recycling
C&D waste includes anything from electrical wiring, to cement, to tree stumps, to toilets. So, if you’re knocking down walls, inserting windows, or chucking out old and grotty and inserting new and shiny, then you’re going to find yourself with a heap of waste that needs to be disposed of. You have options, ranging from the not-so-eco-friendly landfill dump through to the wonderfully circular marketplaces which enable you to get rid of unwanted materials and others to nab them for a good rate. Enviromate, Ebay, Gumtree or Freecycle are great for this.Assuming that if you're reading this blog, sending waste to landfill will be the last resort, your next option is to recycle through your local household waste recycling centre. Depending on how much C&D waste you have, you might be able to recycle it all free of charge. If not, make sure you budget the recycling costs into the renovation at the beginning so there are no nasty surprises.For more information on sorting your rubbish and disposing of asbestos, check out Homebuilding and Renovating’s article: How to get rid of rubble.

Eco-friendly DIY
Desperate to get a power tool in your hand? Can’t wait to Handy Andy the heck out of your new home? We love it! Nothing makes you appreciate your space like doing it up yourself.Of course, DIY paraphernalia is a bit of a sinkhole for carbon; you tend to only use the tools a couple of times a year, which means there’s no reason to have a set of your own (as nice as it would be). So, resist the urge to splash out on a brand new Bosch Advanced Impact drill and instead turn to a neighbour, a family member, Fat Llama or Hire Station to see what you can get your hands on. You won’t only save yourself a pretty penny, you’ll also be doing the planet a solid.

Often when you buy a new home, it needs a lick of paint (or your dream of emerald green walls is finally feasible—just us?)

But did you know, traditional paint, varnish and wax contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These are both bad for the planet and bad for your health in equal measure! The first thing to do when it comes to eco-painting is to check what type of paint is currently on the walls—paints used before the mid-60s contained lead, so need to be removed carefully. See the government’s guide to identification and safe removal of lead paint. Regardless of the type of paint you have on your walls, if you’re stripping it opt for solvent-free, water-based paint removers as they’re better for the planet and better for your health!When it comes to choosing paint, ‘low VOC’ indoor paints (which most household names now offer) aren’t much better than traditional paint; they typically contain nasties like formaldehyde, ammonia and acrylic softeners which create air pollution. Here are some eco-friendly alternatives:

Paint for walls: clay or casein paint is free from VOCs and formulated to reduce condensation and mold, so great for kitchens and bathrooms. They aren’t washable though, so you may need to do touch-ups every so often.

Paint for furniture: chalk or mineral-based paints are pretty much VOC, formaldehyde and ammonia-free. Wax/varnish: choose water-based, non-toxic products—plant-based versions are available if you care about bees (who doesn’t?).

Wallpaper: buy recycled wallpaper, wallpaper printed with non-toxic water-based ink, and/or wallpaper made from FSC certified paper. Also, use an adhesive that is fungicide, acrylic and solvent-free.The Guardian has a handy article that lists five of the best eco-friendly paints if you’re looking for more information.

How to dispose of paint: Check online for charities that take leftover paint, or ask your local council how to recycle it.

Furnishing the place
IKEA, although wonderfully affordable and accessible (and even making inroads to become more sustainable), shouldn’t be your first port of call if you want to furnish your home in an eco-friendly way. You should always look to buy second-hand if you can; by prioritising items already in the system, there’ll be less need to produce new stuff.  Second-hand buying can be quite exciting if you let it. Imagine the life your cupboard from Shpock lived before getting to you; the thrill of nabbing an antique at charity shop prices; attending an auction and bidding on your dream couch.

Not sure where to look for second-hand furniture? Here’s a couple of options to get you started:
Charity shops (British Heart Foundation comes recommended for furniture)
Facebook marketplace

Remember, if you’re buying white goods it may actually be economical (and certainly more eco-friendly) to spend a little more on items that are energy and/or water-efficient (A+++ being highest, G being lowest).

For example, according to Energy Saving Trust, choosing an A+++ fridge freezer over an A+ unit will save you about £190 in energy bills over the 17-year lifetime of the product.

This guide is jam-packed with top-level information on green home buying and renovating.  We hope it’s sparked some ideas for how to reduce the carbon footprint of your actions.

To better understand your carbon footprint, and learn how to reduce it through your everyday activities, try Pawprint. It’s fun, it’s free and it’s for everyone—for the vegetarians, the vegans and the meat-eaters; the travellers, the shopaholics, and the homebodies. We’re for anyone and everyone who wants to do their bit. Because fighting climate change isn’t about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do.

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