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Recent federal tax incentives are designed to persuade people to make their homes more energy efficient, and could spur a small boom in conservation—minded projects. But if you're one of the ones suddenly galvanized into the green movement, take a breath. Consider hiring an energy auditor first. It's great to want to save resources, and even better if the government wants to give you a tax break on purchases of energy—efficient windows, a new boiler, or even solar panels. But would you take $10,000 and invest it in a single stock without at least reading you paper's business section? Of course not, yet people every day look at their windows, for instance, and decide they need replacing at a cost that can easily climb past $10,000.

Having some money sense, you want to at least talk to a credible auditor or two (more on how to determine credibility later). For about $300, depending on the size of your home and the complexity of the project, an auditor will analyze your home and recommend solutions. The windows you worried about might pale in energy waste compared to vents or insulation holes. Auditors use infrared cameras, large fans, and electronics to pinpoint leaks. The resulting report details problems, and suggests prioritized remedial steps. It also estimates how much the work should cost you and what the return on your investment is likely to be. Before you sign a contract, make sure you have the firm that's right for you. Of course talk to your neighbors and friends for names. But also contact your local utility company or the state Environment Protection Agency to see if they have contractors they recommend (to hire or avoid). No matter where you get a name, be aware that some auditors work for companies selling the goods the auditors recommend. When you meet auditors, ask them for references, for industry associations they belong to, and for training certificates. Actually look at any required licenses. And don't forget to look at the state attorney general's website or that of the Better Business Bureau for clues about past problems.

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