Real estate agents field lots of the same questions from prospective buyers: “What school district is the house in?” “Is there public transportation nearby?” “What is the neighborhood like?”

And, frequently, “What are their monthly energy bills?”

That’s a fair question because you want to know not just what your mortgage payment will be but also the pricetag for operating the house when you move in.

However, previous utility bills aren’t always the best indicator of your monthly costs. After all they don’t tell you much about the home’s actual energy performance. A low bill from last January might reflect a mild winter, while a high July bill might be the result of that crushing heat wave. Or consistently low bills could speak more to whether the previous owner was a meticulous energy saver – the same as persistent high bills might just mean he or she worked from home, had small children (or a lot of them!), or was elderly.

For better or worse, you’re not guaranteed to have those same bills just as you can’t bet on the weather.

That’s why third-party certification of a home’s energy assets is so valuable.

certificateThink about all you could learn and plan for if, instead of looking at old utility bills, you could request a full report of the home’s energy features. You’d know how efficient the heating and cooling system is, whether there’s the right type and amount of insulation, and if there are any recommended upgrades around the corner.

Greg Slater of Charlottesville’s Nest Realty Group says this has been his experience over the years. “Utility bills are just a short term indicator of consumption in a long term ownership conversation. Understanding why the utility bills are what they are can be very important to the future owner. Most homes will have room for improvement and all homes will need to be properly maintained in the long term to keep their performance high.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 3.54.40 PMHere’s an example of a Pearl Certification report you’d get to check out and discuss with your real estate agent.