Energy woes in rental throes

Declan Kelly started his search for a new rental home with hopes of decent insulation, solar, and no gas. As his search becomes more urgent he has to abandon dreams of energy efficiency.

My partner and I are in the throes of looking for our next place to live and its not much fun. We’re moving from Goonellabah to the Central Coast (about 660km) and are in that horrible limbo of knowing exactly when our current lease is ending and not having any idea when we’ll be able to sign a lease for a place to move into.

We are extremely fortunate as prospective renters. We have two incomes and no kids or pets, so we look good to real estate agents. We also have wonderful friends who can help us inspect from afar and offer us a place to crash if we can’t find a place.

Most renters don’t have our luck. Based on what we’ve seen on the Central Coast, a lot of the vacancies come about because landlords are raising rents and pushing out single parents and pensioners who can’t keep up.

Keeping in mind our privileged position, a smaller issue has been nagging away at me throughout this process. How and when are we meant to care about energy in amongst all of this?

Daydreaming about my future home

We’ve known we’d have to move for a while now. About six months ago, I did think about all the things it would be nice to have in a new place. I mostly work from home, and although the office I have set up here is beautiful, it’s a little exposed to the elements. It gets very toasty in the humid Lismore summer days and nippy on the milder Lismore winters.

So, in a new place, it’d be great to get a house with decent insulation and a passive solar design - catch some sun in winter and let us block it out over summer.

Is it possible to get solar? I’m assuming it’s rare - lots of rentals are apartments and most landlords with houses that have been long term rentals haven’t really had the reason to go and install solar. Still, there’d have to be some places where the owner installed solar and then moved out? Or it had solar and was sold to someone buying an investment property?

I’d also love to get a place that’s not connected to the gas network. My parents have an induction cooktop and it’s bloody wonderful. There’s a decent chance most of the gas-cooking diehards would be converted after a couple of goes on an induction stove (unless they’ve been dragged into the culture wars and gone and stuck “I <3 fossil fuels” on the back of their car.) We’ve written in the past about gas stove culture war flare ups in the US.

I figured it would be unlikely to find anything with an induction cooktop built into the kitchen but I’ve had resistive electric cooktops in my past two rentals. As long as I’m not subsidising gas utilities inane plans to blend an expensive dribble of hydrogen into the network, I’ll be happy!

We’re also considering buying a second vehicle. We’d like to hold out and see if we can get an electric car (failing that, an electric bike). So, ideally, we’d like to get a place with an enclosed garage where we’d have access to a power point to be able to charge up future car.

Beyond that, there are a bunch of other questions that popped into my head. Does it have a smart meter? What kind of lighting will there be? Is there heating/cooling? How well sealed is the house? What kind of hot water is it? Is it in an embedded network?

Domain vs. Realestate.com - a front in the culture wars?

It’s apparent pretty quickly when you start looking that most of what I had hoped for wasn’t an option.

This is by no means scientific, but “induction” only had 208 rental hits on Domain and 701 on Realestate.com when I searched Australia-wide (noting that’s there’s likely a lot of overlap between these numbers). This includes a cute little cottage with induction cooking and gas heaters. Go figure. Running through the other possible features:

  • “Solar” had 1,040 hits on Domain, 1,923 on Realestate.com.
  • “Charger” had 6 hits on Domain, 52 on Realestate.com.
  • “Heat pump” had 282 hits on Realestate.com.
  • “Embedded network” had 327 hits on Realestate.com
  • “Smart meter” had two hits.

This was out of the 52,950 properties listed on Realestate.com and the 41,709 listed on Domain. I don’t know what I was expecting and I don’t know what this means. The number of solar households was maybe lower than I expected, given there’s 3.3 million homes with solar in Australia. On the other hand, I didn’t expect any hits on heat pump. For comparison, “gas” has over 17,000 hits.

Places with things like solar also describe it in strange or misleading ways. For example, one listing suggested solar contributes to energy efficiency:

"This property is NBN-ready, ensuring fast and reliable internet connectivity. It also features a 3 kW solar system with 12 solar panels, contributing to energy efficiency and cost savings."

Rental properties are likely to lag behind owner-occupied houses for the energy-related retrofits. There’s limited incentives to improve the energy efficiency of a rental as a lord of the land. Additionally, real estate agents might think these are not draw cards for rentals.

Based on my experiences with Real Estate agents, I dont think they'd be equipped to answer any questions about how well a solar array was functioning, how old it was etc.

Curiously, while I was compiling my research, I noticed a bit of a difference between the two largest property listing sites: Domain and Realestate.com. The filter on Domain places a lot of emphasis on gas. When you filter rental properties for features, “gas” is higher on the list than an internal laundry. On the flip side, Realestate.com places much more emphasis on the kinds of features that someone more energy conscious might prefer.

The superiority of gas-cooking is a view many Australians seem to take. And to be fair, it’s better to cook with than resistive cooktops. But isn’t it also nice only having one utility bill?

One reason that might explain the emphasis on gas on Domain is their partnership with a collection of energy providers. If you’re moving into a place with gas, that will mean you’ll need to set up accounts for electricity, internet and gas. This has gotta mean more referral and commission opportunities for Domain. In truth, I have no idea if Domain is actually encouraging people to think gas is a “feature” not a bug. It might just be our undying love of indoor fumes.

On Realestate.com, they do seem to think people are interested in filtering properties based on energy related conditions. Some are vague though - I filtered for “High energy efficiency” and found 41 rentals across the country. They included an apartment in a super modern, “carbon neutral complex”, a place that won the HIA Greensmart award for efficient design, and an apartment in Canberra that has new appliances.

Realestate.com have even published articles promoting the use of GreenPower over carbon neutral energy plans. Truly a real-estate-listing-aggregator after my own heart!

Imagine my shock when I did some very light research and realised Realestate.com is majority owned by News Corp and Domain is majority owned by Fairfax. Is this the work of some Realestate.com double agent intern? They’ve decided to fight back, vote teal and allow renters to filter to solar hot water. If Rupert found out, it might tip him over the edge! I might add that to my daydream.

Anyway, my preliminary research suggested what I has assumed to be true - the odds of finding the rental of my daydreams was unlikely.

Then about four months pass. In that time, the dread slowly builds and every nice looking rental listing we look at in the Central Coast comes and goes. And suddenly it’s now.

A rude, realistic awakening

Of course, moving never pans out like you hope it will. Despite my well thought out daydreams, I’m suddenly in this claustrophobic window where we need to find a place in the next few weeks, organise movers, clean up and ship out.

Pretty quickly, our preferences are whittled down to some pretty simple questions. Is it big enough, cheap enough and in a good enough location? We’re juggling online inspections, asking friends to inspect for us and seeing apartments being listed and either leased right away, or left up for suspiciously long.

Am I going to turn down a good enough place because it’s got heaps of west-facing windows? Or poor insulation? Or a big gas kitchen? If you asked me a few months ago I would probably have said we might. Right now, if it ticks the other boxes? No way.

I’m left wondering how you’re meant to care about these things as a renter? I’m passionate enough about these topics to write a blog about them. I also have free time enough to write about them in a blog. And yet, energy related things are either hard to assess (e.g. how hot or cold does it get, airtightness), or aren’t high priorities compared to price, location, size, privacy etc. At this point, it feels like the best option is to just take a bit of a punt, rely on a gut feeling and hope you get a good real estate agent that doesn’t drag you into a shit fight to fix anything that’s broken? Yeesh.

Some solutions

My whinging aside, this is a legitimate problem. On a surface level, it’s so hard to understand and weight the thermal comfort and energy productivity of a house before you move in. Your choices are limited and you might not get the chance to really know how hot or cold a house will get, or expensive it will be to keep the temperature in an acceptable range.

On a more serious level, it’s dangerous. It might surprise, but Australia has more cold-related deaths than heat-related. Cold plays a role in 7% of the deaths in Australia (it’s 0.5% for heat), which is double the rate in Sweden.

Is this something readily fixed by markets? I don’t think so. Improving a house is the landlord’s responsibility and a research paper out of Monash University found landlords aren’t typically motivated to retrofit a home for increased rent (or for environmental reasons). Instead, most retrofits were motivated by grants and by tenant requests.

If markets aren’t the answer, it calls for regulation. There are increased standards for new build homes. The existing rental stock is much trickier. One solution would be setting minimum standards for rental properties, requiring the thermal standards of rentals to be higher. This could be through carrots or sticks. And it is being done - the ACT now requires all rentals have a minimum level of ceiling insulation by 2026. This could be extended to other states, wall insulation, airtightness, ventilation etc. Victoria requires homes to have fixed heaters that meet a minimum level of efficiency.

For me, I would like there to be a requirement for rental listings to disclose their energy performance. A simplified metric, like a star rating, would hopefully give renters tools to avoid the worst properties, shoot for the better ones and put some pressure on landlords to improve energy performance.

Moving on

About 1/3 of households are renters. Even from our privileged position, looking for a rental is a great first-hand experience of how easily renters can be left behind in the energy transition.

When we find a place, move in and reset the loop, I’ll get to return to my daydreams. Next time, I’ll dream of higher minimum standards for rentals and an evolution of housing that sees EV charging, induction cooking and solar closer to the default.

This article was first published by Currently Speaking. You can read it here.

Author
Declan Kelly
November 27, 2023
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