Going Solar? What Washington, D.C., Homeowners Should Know

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If you take a drive through the District of Columbia metro area, you might notice an increasing number of solar panels adorning roofs on colonials, ranches and even charming Victorians.

Solar panels have definitely gained popularity in the area over the last five to 10 years, says David Bediz of the Bediz Group, LLC. Environmental awareness may be one reason, but it helps that more people in the area can afford them, too. “Solar panels can be expensive, so it’s not surprising that you see them installed on homes in the D.C. area, where incomes are higher than other parts of the country,” he says.

In the spirit of going green while reducing energy costs, solar panels give people a renewed sense of responsibility. However, there are things prospective buyers or leasers should know before investing in this technology. We asked theDistrict’s top real estate agents listed by real estate data company OpenHouse Realty (a U.S. News partner) and solar panel experts for some guidance on getting a good return on investment with solar energy.

Energy trends drive usage. Solar use and its desirability often go up when gas prices rise. Tom Faison, an associate broker with RealEstateInDC, LLC, says he’s actually seen a dip in solar sales recently “because gas and electric are cheaper.” Once those prices go up, people will start investing in solar energy and fireplaces once more.

For the long haul, Faison sees solar energy continuing to grow in use, due to its reputation as a money-saver and “because state-of-the-art solar technology is getting better.”

Dan Whitten, vice president of communications with the Solar Energy Industries Association, agrees. “Solar [photovoltaic] systems can last a very long time,” he says. “Because they have no moving parts, they’re reliable and require very little maintenance. There are solar systems that have been running without incident for decades and with continued innovation we expect that to only improve.”

Most homes can accommodate solar. Just about any house with a roof that has southern or western exposure is a good candidate for solar. Many houses in the District of Columbia have flat roofs, however, so to get the best results from your panels, you often have to mount them at an angle. For townhouses with smaller roofs, solar panel installation can pose a challenge, Bediz says. In some instances, “there’s just not enough room to put them on,” he explains.

Also, make sure you understand what standards and requirements yourhomeowners association may have in place for solar panels before you install them. “Historic regulations in most cities, and the rules for most homeowners associations, will likely prohibit panel installations where the panels can be seen from the street,” Bediz says.

Future buyers may not be impressed. Solar panels will change the appearance of your house, and potential buyers may not like them.

“I think most people like the idea of solar for financial and environmental reasons, but homeowners should also keep in mind how the panels affect their home’s curb appeal,” Bediz says. “Since they’re not particularly attractive, they may also negatively affect resale value.”

Be careful what you sign. Different companies have different policies, so read the contract carefully. “These contracts are not always about saving the environment or reducing energy burdens,” says Bediz.

At times they might be structured to lock you into a deal that’s not to your financial advantage. One of Bediz’s clients tried to get out of a contract after they found out that they didn’t actually own the panels – and it ended up costing them a lot of money. “As with anything, be careful what you sign and read the entire contract so that you understand the issue.”

Numerous resources are available to educate consumers about solar, says Whitten. “At SEIA, we advise consumers to always do their homework so that they find a system that is the best fit for them.” SEIA offers resources such as theSEIA Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power, which outlines financing options and guides consumers on what to ask before entering into a solar agreement.

Different purchasing options are available. Solar panel systems can be purchased with cash or a loan. You “own both the system and all the power it produces,” Whitten says. Another option is to lease a system for a certain period of time. In this arrangement, the solar company owns the system and leases it to you to use it and benefit from the electricity it produces.

Before you decide to buy or rent solar panels, shop around and get bids from multiple solar companies. To find out if a company has a good reputation, check if it’s licensed and ask for references in your area.

“Make sure you fully understand what you’re getting and what you will be paying for,” Whitten says.

Yes, you can get a tax break. Homeowners who purchase solar systems are eligible for a residential solar investment federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost of the system, meaning a dollar-for-dollar reduction in one’s income taxes. The credit is in effect through 2019, but drops to 26 percent in 2020 and once again to 22 percent in 2021. “Depending on where you live, other state and local incentives may be available, as well as programs from your utility,” Whitten says.

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