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This cold house? Not anymore.

How a frontal assault on insulation and air leaks cut a homeowner's heating costs in half.

By James TurnerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2008

Warmer: James Turner invested $17,000 to boost the energy efficiency of his New Hampshire home, money he expects to recoup in five years.

Mark Thomson

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Derry, N.H.

Everyone talks about the charm of owning an older house, a house with character and an individual style. But, at least in northern climes, the practicalities can be a serious drain on your wallet.

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That was the (literally) cold reality that my wife and I encountered after we took possession of a 1796 Colonial farmhouse in southern New Hampshire. Bought during a lull in the real estate market in 1993, it seemed like a great bargain, a huge two-story house with a big kitchen, a barn, and five acres of land. We were able to buy it for about the same price as a new ranch-style house with an unfinished second floor.

We bought in January. The winterizing issues were readily apparent. The windows were circa 1930 and cracked; we got snow inside the house. The furnace ran constantly, and we still couldn't get the first-floor dining room above 60 degrees F.

We were burning 500 gallons of fuel oil a month.

We had new windows put in, which solved the interior snow­scapes but had little effect on our fuel bills. This isn't surprising, according to Andrew Gray, the weatherization program manager for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning. "Unfortunately, siding and window replacement don't have the same kind of return on investment as some of the other measures, such as insulation and air sealing," he says.

Dan Ramage, President of A+ Energy Services in Hampstead, N.H., agrees. "Unfortunately, most people spend the money on the big-dollar items due to marketing hype, and they really don't realize much savings to justify the cost."

Over the next few years, we tried a number of measures, from having more insulation blown into the walls to putting down six inches of fiberglass insulation in the attic. When the house needed to be painted, we had 3/4-inch insulation board placed over the existing wood siding, and put vinyl siding on top of that. Nothing seemed to help: We were still filling our 250-gallon oil tank twice a month, at increasingly higher prices.

Older houses may need a good dose of insulation, according to Ramage. "A house built in the '50s typically only had one inch of insulation in the walls and three inches in the attic. If you get any older than that, you're lucky if there's any insulation in the walls or the attic, unless someone has already added it."

But once you've stuffed the house with insulation, or perhaps even before, you want to make sure your house is "tight."

That's where an energy audit comes in – and not one of the free ones that the utility companies offer. A good energy audit should take at least an hour, Ramage says, and you should expect to pay at least $250 for it, often more.