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Snazzier houses bring energy crisis home to middle class

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In Ossining, N.Y., a "For Sale" sign hangs on a seven-bedroom home with six fireplaces, an indoor pool with a waterfall, and a steam room. In Wayland, Mass., a 6,500-square-foot home on the market features a master suite with two baths. And in Washington Township, N.J., a five-bedroom, seven-bath home includes a 150-gallon fish tank and a game room with its own hot tub.

These examples may be extreme, but they're indicative of the "SUVing," as some people call it, of the American home. And they show one reason why utility bills, even before the first inflated one this winter, are going up.

The old homestead - and not just the kind with seven baths - is increasingly filled with multiple refrigerators, plasma TV sets, and lap pools. The result is that this year's energy woes, more than ever, are hitting the American middle class and upper middle class as well as the poor.

"I recently toured a $1.2 million home which had a $28,000 high-definition television that uses as much electricity as the furnace does," says Neal Elliott, industrial program director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Home heating-oil prices are 60 percent higher than a year ago. Propane, often used by rural and lower-income families, is 30 percent higher.

Natural gas, currently about 11 percent higher than last year, is expected to rise in price once winter begins. In fact on Tuesday, natural-gas prices hit their highest prewinter level ever on the futures market.

For the average family, these higher prices may be a wake-up call. In 2000, ACEEE estimated the average home budget for energy was about $6,000, split evenly between fueling the family car and heating the hearth. Now, that number is estimated to be between $8,000 and $9,000, Mr. Elliott says.

"All of a sudden this is a big chunk, particularly for the lower-income and fixed-income households," he says.

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