Vail Valley: ‘Smart loan’ program gets grant |

Vail Valley: ‘Smart loan’ program gets grant

Vail Daily file photoSolar panels are installed on a home in Bachelor Gulch in Colorado's Vail Valley

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Megan Gilman’s business is OK right now, but she could hire more people if a “smart loan” program for energy-efficient home improvements could get started in Colorado’s Vail Valley.

Eagle County, along with Pitkin and Gunnison counties, recently received a $4.9 million grant to help the loan program, which is supposed to give homeowners an easier way pay for improvements ranging from new windows to insulation to rooftop solar panels.

But the loan programs are currently in a kind of limbo, thanks to a May 5 “lender letter” issued by the Federal National Mortgage Association – Fannie Mae. That letter indicates that Fannie, and its brother agency, Freddie Mac, won’t repurchase mortgages that are encumbered by “senior liens.”

Because the energy smart loans would be repaid by property taxes, and taxes are repaid first in case of default, a home with a smart loan attached might not be eligible for a new mortgage. That, in turn, might make a home with a smart loan attached virtually impossible to sell.

Local officials are writing letters and e-mails to state and federal officials, asking them to put pressure on the mortgage agencies to rescind the lender letter. And the federal Department of Energy announced the grants despite the current mortgage hang-up. But until the mortgage giants relent, the loan program is on hold, at least locally.

Still, Eagle County Commissioner Sara Fisher said the grant is a coup for the three counties.

“We should be very proud,” Fisher said. “(Federal officials) want to see if the program really works, and they have faith in us to implement the program in a way they’ll see success.”

The grant money will be used for principal loans, if and when the loan programs get the go-ahead from the mortgage agencies. But Eagle County Housing Coordinator Alex Potente said the money will also be used to start a program that evaluates the needs of potential borrowers. Other money will be used to train workers to install energy-efficient improvements, and to provide administrative and marketing services for the next three years.

Gilman, the co-owner of Active Energies, a solar panel installation company, said she’s ready to hire new workers as soon as the loan program is running. Until then, though, the company will continue moving along – not quickly, Gilman said, but moving.

While the smart loans would provide the up-front money most people need to pay for energy-efficient home improvements, Gilman said, there are still lots of ways to offset those costs.

There are tax credits and refunds, and many utility companies are also providing incentives to customers who buy solar panels or install more-efficient furnaces or boilers.

People who have equity in their homes can try to get conventional loans from their banks, Gilman said, but many lenders don’t factor in what homeowners will save on their utility bills when calculating a customer’s ability to repay, she said.

But, Gilman said, the cost of solar technology has come down quite a bit in the last couple of years, and the soft economy means that there’s plenty of supply. And, she added, her company is working on ways to lessen the up-front financial bite.

And when the smart loan program is finally ready to roll, she said, her company will be ready to hire more people and get more projects done.

“It would be great for us,” she said. “We could hire more local workers.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or

Support Local Journalism