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Energy efficiency vs. frills. Many home buyers choose a Jacuzzi over better insulation

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LIZ FOX is as concerned as anyone else about current tensions among the oil-producing states of the Middle East. But the Cambridge-based specialist in energy-efficient construction sees a slight silver lining to these tensions. They just might knock a ``little sense'' into new-home buyers. ``Everyone who looks ahead further than next week,'' she says, ``knows that our current good fortune in low-priced oil won't last more than five or 10 years even if the Middle East stabilizes.'' She is aware, for instance, that industrialist Armand Hammer forecasts oil at around $100 a barrel by the turn of the century.

What bothers Ms. Fox are the tales builders bring to the ``residential building science'' seminars she organizes around the country. Too many are saying the same thing: When the homeowners have to decide between a better insulation package or an oak staircase or a Jacuzzi, ``the staircase and the Jacuzzi win out most of the time.''

Leon Trueman, who manages Hancock Building Materials Inc. in South Paris, Maine, concurs. Hancock markets a passive solar home designed to cope with the rugged winters of northern New England, and time was when Mr. Trueman would sell six or more of these homes in a year. Now he's down to half that number.

When energy prices were high, the first priority in a new home was energy performance, followed by good looks, Trueman says.

``Buyers can get both,'' he points out, ``but today if they can afford only one, good looks generally win out.''

David Sloan, a senior editor at Practical Homeowner magazine, also faults some builders in this respect.

``They know what sells,'' he says. ``Cosmetics. People buy what looks good to them, so builders go in for great entryways and round-top windows.''

Ads in major magazines devoted to home construction (Practical Homeowner and New England Builder excepted) tend to run 20 to 1 in favor of amenities and cosmetic options over energy efficient ones.

Energy efficiency, it seems, simply isn't seen as important enough to make it a top priority with most buyers these days, yet even by today's inexpensive-energy standards an uninsulated home of average size in Massachusetts can cost about $2,000 a year to heat.

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