Just because your neighbor needs a new roof and more insulation doesn’t mean your cookie-cutter home does too. When starting environmentally responsible remodeling, first on the to-do list should be investing in home performance evaluations to save on needless renovations.

Energy audits and pressurized duct tests are some of the most overlooked aspects of a green retrofit, says Michael Strong, a well-recognized green-building remodeler, advisor and lecturer.

Confronted with staggering energy bills, rising asthma rates and the continual deterioration of our natural resources, homeowners are increasingly weighing such cost-benefit issues when making their residential remodeling project a green one.

Most consumers are willing to spend more than $5,000 upfront to recoup a portion of that in annual energy costs, the National Association of Home Building (NAHB) reports. And since that the majority of single-family homes in this country were built before the energy-efficiency craze, there’s a huge market for green building vendors and resources, accessible online to help DIYers and savvy homeowners make the switch.

But before you spend a dime on any environmentally responsible remodeling, consider hiring an independent third-party verifier, such as the nationally certified green building professionals found at www.nahbgreen.org, to conduct an energy audit, Strong advises.

The audit will serve as a baseline for your home’s performance and help guide renovation priorities. It determines specific energy patterns based on such details as how your home sits on the lot, the shade that trees provide and whether you have big glass windows, he says. “It’s not to get a homeowners to spend more money.”

The average cost for an audit is 15-cents a square foot, about $375 for the typical 2,500-square-foot American home. By following the audit’s findings you can easily expect to save 20 to 50 percent off your energy bill, and as much as 80 percent if completed exactly as prescribed, Strong says.

An often-mysterious energy drain is air leakage from ducts. A duct blaster test, running $300 to $350 for the average home, involves pressurizing the ducts to find the leaks. For every 10 years of a home’s life, there’s 10 percent of duct leakage, according to Strong.

“That’s a lot of heating and cooling air wasted, not getting delivered.” And it’s biting into your largest utility cost: heating and cooling your home.

Other upgrades producing an immediate return include exterior-replacement projects, such as windows and doors, according to the 2009-10 Cost vs. Value report by Remodeling magazine (www.remodeling.hw.net). NAHB also has an energy simulator (http://energysim.toolbase.org) that evaluates annual energy consumption and determines likely costs and savings from upgrades.

Among the top ways NAHB recommends to incorporate sustainable, durable and healthy design into a green renovation is to install high-efficiency windows instead of those that minimally meet the energy code and buy the highest efficiency HVAC system you can afford, making sure it’s correctly sized for the area you want to condition.

To help with some of your energy-efficiency upgrades, there are federal tax credits of up to $1,500, along with local and regional incentives. In some cases, installation costs may also be used to claim the tax credit, NAHB reports. But, some of the federal tax credits expire at the end of the year. A smaller number of existing home retrofits may still be eligible through 2016.

Here are some other consumer resources to help you navigate environmentally responsible remodeling:

• Residential Remodeling Guide, www.regreenprogram.org.

• Remodeling Industry’s tips, www.greenremodeling.org.

• Energy Saving Upgrades, www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov

• Energy Efficiency Incentives, www.nahb.org/remodel, www.energysavers.gov/financial or www.dsireusa.org.

• Certification standards, www.usgbc.org/leed/homes

See also on MNN.com:

Green renovations: Five tips

Green remodeling: Think before you renovate

Environmentally responsible remodeling
When starting environmentally responsible remodeling, first on the to-do list should be investing in home performance evaluations to save on needless renovation