width=312The word green has become a popular term in the real estate industry the last decade. But what does it really mean to have a green home?

An increasing number of buyers are in search of a residential space that embodies a sustainable lifestyle. This could be as small as freshening up the walls with zero-VOC paints (a volatile organic compound, which can compromise indoor air quality) or building a home from the ground up using only salvaged materials.

Yet with so many casual definitions of a green home, the marketplace has sprouted some confusion. 

To cope, Gillian Caine, a real estate professional with Keller Williams in Southern California, has developed her own definition. She says it's green when the majority of the systems and the building materials are sustainable or recycled.

The U.S. Green Building Council (which offers various levels of LEED certification) and the National Association of Home Builders (which posts green building guidelines) offer up guidelines for what defines a green home.

The NAHB says the design, construction, and operation of green homes must focus on energy and water efficiency, resource efficient building design and materials, indoor environmental quality, and must take the home's overall impact on the environment into account.

Watch Out for Greenwashing

Just like in other industries, greenwashing exists in the real estate spectrum, too. Greenwashing is when you market a product as eco-friendly when it is not, or the majority of it is not.  A seller may want to use the green term in the hopes of attracting buyers-even if the home does not fit a casual definition of green.

Jenny Persha, a Keller Williams real estate professional in Madison, Wis., specializes in green homes.

We did have people calling things green when they were not, she says. In response, she and several other local real estate professionals pushed for a regulation that the seller must have a Green Built Home certificate, which is available through the Madison Area Builders Association, an association that certifies new or remodeled homes. They must have the certificate when publicizing the home as green on the local MLS listings.

Characteristics of Eco-Friendly Home

So what exactly makes a home green?

To decide if you truly have a green listing, look at the entire property. Make sure something's not being advertised as a green home just because it has a couple of components, says Erika Mlachak, a real estate professional with Verde Realty in Santa Monica, Calif.

For example, a look at two current eco-developments-one in Southern California and the other in Philadelphia-reveals some of what buyers are looking for. Sheldon Crossing in Philadelphia is a LEED-certified, 20-unit property with a rooftop garden that provides thermal heat insulation, solar panels, and a concrete foundation built from recycled materials. It's represented by Alex Plessett, a RE/MAX real estate professional who partnered with a builder and former client.  

We decided to go green because it's the way of the future, Plessett says. It's the responsible way to build, especially with high utility bills and people being concerned about the value of the home, and the comfort of their homes too.

The units average 3,600 square feet and have either three bedrooms or an optional fourth bedroom, along with three full baths and two half baths.

A lot of times people don't see green as luxury, just barebones minimum, says Plessett.

California real estate pro Gillian Caine represents a LEED-certified, 12,000-square-foot single-family home in the Doheny Hills neighborhood in Los Angeles that is currently under construction. Water reclamation, solar power, and radiant heat and cooling are included in the architectural plans, as well as luxury items like an infinity pool, master loggia with outdoor shower and relaxation space, and two elevators.

It Doesn't Have to Be Expensive

However, there's one myth that Mlachak wants to clear up right away: That green has to be expensive and look a certain way. It's more about making sustainable choices and folding those into the mechanics of a home's operation, she says. (Read: 6 Eco-Friendly Repurposing Ideas)

Caine agrees. Being conscious is the first step, she says. Even if you're representing a house with only a few green features, at least it's raising the consciousness.

You Can Be Green, Too

And now real estate professionals can even boast a green business niche. At the end of 2008, the National Association of REALTORS® launched its Green Designation Program (GREEN). Between 4,000 and 5,000 real estate professionals have already completed the 18 hours of curriculum toward the designation.

It's not necessarily just real estate professionals in California, Colorado, or Oregon, says Kristen Short, who handles outreach and education about the National Association of REALTORS®' Green Designation Program. Real estate pros specializing in green properties are in places you might not expect, like Ohio or Pennsylvania.