The Radiant Revolution Comes Alive
My wife and I have been home hunting lately. Like many other American boomers, we’re looking to downsize and condo-ize after sending our last kid off to college in a couple of months. As of this writing we haven’t yet sold our home and therefore haven’t bought anything to replace it, but our tentative condo-shopping expeditions have led to a surprising revelation.
Two different buildings we’ve looked at and are considering as our future residence feature radiant heat. It’s not the only thing we like about the places, but the thought of living amid radiant heat sure adds to their attraction. We also visited two other complexes that we rejected for other reasons, but which also came radiantly heated. I hadn’t expected to find so many multifamily developments with radiant heat in the Chicago suburbs. I had it in mind that radiant was a luxury found mainly in custom homes. We’re not exactly slumming, but our housing price range still falls within middle-class boundaries. This is an encouraging trend for wetheads.
In two of the radiant buildings we visited, the showing realtors were quick to pounce on radiant heat as a selling feature. It was one of the first things mentioned. The other two neglected to draw attention to it. I didn’t find out until I inquired about the heating systems. These realtors didn’t understand the technology and its potential to generate commissions. Shame on them.
A revealing aspect is that all the radiantly heated condos we looked at include heat in their monthly assessment. That’s almost unheard of in our part of the country, where old man winter can blow up dirigible-size heating bills. However, the operating cost of radiant heat is so low it can be absorbed in a condo assessment without much risk.
This is especially true if the assessments get jacked up to cover a worst case scenario of an unusually severe winter. In fact, the assessments in the radiant buildings we looked at were a little steep, but it’s soothing to the buyer psyche to subtract heating bills from the total. Last winter was one of our mildest ever, so the assessment funds in radiant buildings must have realized a windfall. I suspect this was part of the reason why multifamily builders opt for radiant heat.
The ReactionaryEven as the radiant revolution unfolds, every revolution has its reactionaries. Case in point is a story told to us by an industry citizen named Michael Fox from Rhode Island.
Michael was in the process of getting an appraisal as part of a home refinancing. Starting prices in his development were around $290,000, and he had every reason to believe his house would be valued higher than that. That’s because he and his wife had made considerable improvements, including a transition from warm air to radiant heat. When the appraiser heard that, she determined radiant heat to be a drawback and came up with an appraisal of $258,000. Turns out she had lived in an old development in Warwick with radiant systems that had leaked. She denied this had any bearing on her appraisal of Fox’s home, but when something walks like a duck and quacks … you know the rest.
Michael explained that the Warwick development dated back to the 1950s when radiant systems were built with copper in slab without an oxygen barrier. We’ve all heard the horror stories about Levittown and other projects where radiant became a painful learning experience. Since then, Europe has served as a proving ground for radiant’s longevity. Plenty of heating designers and contractors now have the materials and know-how to build them right.
The story has a happy ending. Michael hired another appraiser who was in the know about radiant heat. This appraisal came in at $335,000. Think about that. Same house, same location, nothing changed, except for a $77,000 difference in value chalked up to perception! “It is time for appraisers, builders and everyone else to learn about the benefits of adding radiant heat to the home,” said Michael.
A century and a half ago, steam heat had to overcome an era of exploding boilers. Now the radiant industry has to do penance for its leaking slabs of a half-century ago. Even though radiant’s bad reputation has lingered longer than justified, it serves as a useful cautionary tale. Done right, radiant is the most comfortable form of heating around. Done wrong, it can make an owner curse the day he met the heating contractor.
More and more, the pluses of radiant are crowding out the bad stuff. As of this writing I can’t say for sure whether my family will end up in a radiantly heated home. But I can tell you that, all else being equal, I sure would love to do so. It appears that many people think like me, and developers and builders are getting that message.