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As if the environmental benefits of eco-fitting your home weren't good enough, federal and municipal governments recently have sweetened the pot, offering up a cavalcade of tax credits for homeowners who go out of their way to make their lives greener.

The tax breaks can range from $1,500 up to $500,000 and more — depending on what kind of projects you engineer.

Credits fall into two main categories: federal and local. Almost all apply to improvements on existing homes and primary homes. The credits don't cover energy-efficient investments for new construction.

From the federal government, homeowners can receive up to $1,500 in tax credits for improvements that revolve around some (but not all) Energy Star appliances, and multiple upgrades could net more than $10,000 at a time.

Homeowners can claim an additional 30 percent of expenditures (up to another $1,500) for qualified improvements in the following areas: biomass stoves, windows, doors, HVAC insulation, metal or asphalt roofs and non-solar water heaters. According to Environmental Protection Agency documents, homeowners can only include installation costs for biomass stoves, HVAC and water heaters.

These credits are available through the end of 2010.

The EPA makes clear that the biggest tax breaks come for those homeowners who install geothermal heat pumps, small wind turbines or solar energy systems. For these projects, taxpayers can claim 30 percent of the overall costs (including installation) with no caps until 2016. This credit applies to existing homes, second homes and new construction.

What's more, as a result of the 2009 federal stimulus, owners of a commercial solar system have the option to receive a cash grant instead of the tax credit.

Jason C. Vargelis, an attorney at the Santa Rosa law firm of Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross, said that unless Congress enacts legislation to continue the grant program, the grant option also will end after 2010.

Before you run out to the local contractor to cash in on these federal tax breaks, check the bank account. Many of the most exhaustive solar and geothermal systems aren't cheap.

Solar systems can cost upwards of $75,000, and some contractors in Sonoma County have charged nearly $50,000 for geothermal heating/cooling systems on average-size homes. Even with the $15,000 credit (which is 30 percent of $50,000), homeowners would still need to shell out $35,000.

Most of the tax breaks in the local program fall under the auspices of the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, also known as SCEIP (pronounced "skype"). All told, the program set aside $100 million in grants to help homeowners finance energy-efficient improvements. Only $40 million of this money had been earmarked through January, meaning more than half remains.

According to Rebecca Bautista, greener choice coordinator at Friedman's Home Improvement in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, money is available for projects that fall into the categories of energy savers and water savers. Specific projects covered under the program include:

- Tankless water heaters

- Attic fans

- Duct and home sealing

- High-efficiency toilets

- "Smart" irrigation controllers

- Low-flow shower heads

"Most eco-friendly improvement projects are covered under this program," she said. "It's a great way to get people excited about making their homes more energy efficient."

Still, terms of the SCEIP program are specific. The county essentially pays the up-front costs of approved projects. The county then places an assessment lien on the property, essentially formalizing the agreement as a loan that appears an assessment on the bi-annual tax bill. Loans are available for repayment in 5, 10 or 20 years.

How fast have home prices climbed?

The median price for a single-family home in Sonoma County has climbed 131 percent in the last nine years since prices bottomed at $305,000 in February 2009. Key milestones:

$305,000 - February 2009

$435,500 - April 2013

$507,000 - July 2014

$600,000 - June 2016

$705,000 - June 2018

Source: Pacific Union International senior vice president Rick Laws

The minimum loan amount is $5,000; the maximum is $500,000 (though larger loans are available, they simply require approval from the SCEIP board or supervisors). All interest rates are competitive and fixed. (One downside: failure to pay the SCEIP loans amounts to failure to pay property taxes. Ultimately, this means the county would have the right to foreclose on your home.)

Sonoma County residents can (at least to some degree) combine federal and municipal tax credits for a one-two punch of savings.

For more information about SCEIP, visit www.sonomacountyenergy.org or call 521-6200.

For more information about some of the federal tax breaks, visit the Energy Star program online at www.energystar.gov and the Department of Energy at www.energy.gov/taxbreaks.htm.

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