The new drill for homesellers

Minneapolis’ updated home energy disclosure rules take effect in 2020

A contractor blows insulation into an attic. Starting in 2020, Minneapolis homeowners looking to sell will need to disclose their home energy use. Photo courtesy of Center for Energy and the Environment

If you live in Minneapolis, own a home and want to sell it, you’re already required by the city to complete a pre-sale inspection of the condition of your home.

The inspection, known as Truth in Sale of Housing, is a consumer protection measure meant to give prospective homeowners an accurate idea of what they’re getting themselves into after buying your house. Will they have to patch up your leaky roof? Replace your unsafe water heater? Install the missing smoke detectors you neglected to replace years ago?

Come 2020, Minneapolis homeowners looking to sell will need to disclose information in a new category: the home’s energy use.

The additional inspection requirements can be summed up by three fairly simple questions: Are the walls properly insulated? What kind of heating system does the home use? What type of windows does it have?

Once these questions are tested, the Truth in Sale of Housing report will include an energy efficiency score for the house on a 100-point scale, as well as recommendations on upgrades to improve the score. The new requirements are part of the city’s long-standing goals to curb climate change.

A peek inside the walls

Of these three categories, one includes a key addition to the existing pre-sale inspection process.

For the insulation test, inspectors will have to literally look inside the wall of a Minneapolis home if it was built before 1980. They’ll do this by drilling a 2-inch hole in the interior side of an exterior wall, then using a ruler to measure the inches of existing insulation, if any exists at all.

If inspectors find the house has insulation, they’ll also check to see what type. Then, they’ll patch up the hole.

Homeowners will get to choose where the inspector drills the hole, which can be in a discreet area, like the inside a closet, beneath the stairs or inside a cupboard, as long as it’s part of an exterior wall.

Isaac Smith, who works as the residential program development manager at the Center for Energy and the Environment, said the drilling method is a cheap and quick way to check a home’s insulation, one his company has used for a long time in its own energy audits. Checking insulation is the best way to measure a home’s heat loss, he added, which wastes energy and ratchets up the heating bill.

Next steps

Most homes in Minneapolis don’t have insulation in the walls, Smith said, and prospective homeowners usually don’t have a good idea of their new home’s energy performance. The new energy disclosure requirements seek to change that.

“When the new buyer comes in, they’ll understand the performances and the upgrades and energy improvements that they can make,” Smith said.

Based on what they find, inspectors can recommend to homeowners the best type of insulation to use to save energy and money during the colder months of the year. They can also direct homeowners to zero-interest city loans to pay for these improvements, which Minneapolis currently offers for up to $10,000.

Knee wall and contractor
Inspectors can give recommendations on types of insulation to add to improve your home’s energy efficiency. Photo courtesy of Center for Energy and the Environment

Other options

There are other perhaps less intrusive ways to measure heat loss that the city opted to not require in the inspection.

One way is using an infrared camera. But Smith said that only works well when there’s a significant difference in temperatures inside and outside the home, like during the winter.

Another method the City Council considered adding but ultimately dropped is by using a blower door test. This involves setting up a fan to measure air pressure differences inside and outside to get an idea of how much air is flowing through the house. It’s also more expensive.

Ron Staeheli, owner of American Central Inspections, charges roughly $200 for an inspection under the city’s current Truth in Sale of Housing requirements, which takes about an hour. Adding the blower door test to the required inspection would have doubled the price and time, he said. Staeheli estimated that the new requirements — the insulation test, checking the heating system and checking the windows — will still bring that price up, but “only marginally, like $70 or so,” he said.

Still, the drilling-a-hole method prompts the question of how effective it really can be.

What about the chance that a homeowner added insulation to a remodeled room without doing the same for the rest of their home? Couldn’t this homeowner, in bad faith, simply direct the inspector to the most insulated part of their home for the inspection test?

Smith contended it’s “usually very apparent” what part of a home has been remodeled and what part hasn’t, and that it isn’t realistic to require inspectors to drill holes in every room in the house.

“We don’t want to check in the remodeled area,” he said.

Patching up

As for patching the wall up, the inspector must do so by the end of the inspection.

“Apparently there’s an insulated plug they’ll give us,” Staeheli said, referring to the city.

The plug, or wall cap, will be plastic and designed to fit in the 2-inch hole. Then, the inspector will flush the plug with drywall.

If the surrounding wall is painted a color other than white, inspectors are not required to paint the patched-up plug to the corresponding color. But Smith said they won’t be limited from doing so.

After the insulation test, the inspector will give recommendations on types of insulation to add to improve the home’s energy efficiency, all of which will be optional upgrades for the homeowner. Inspectors will be making similar recommendations after checking the efficiency of the home’s heating system and windows.