The Huge, Hidden Costs of Owning a Home

Liz Weston, CFP®
By Liz Weston, CFP® 
Edited by Des Toups
The Huge, Hidden Costs of Owning a Home

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First-time homebuyer Teresa Hair had owned her house less than two months when water started bubbling up through the guest bedroom floor.

“The whole floor was just covered,” says Hair, a 34-year-old attorney who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. “I pulled up all the laminate flooring and there was an inch of water.”

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Finding and repairing the broken pipe — it was in a wall shared with the kitchen, behind the dishwasher — cost $1,000. Replacing the flooring may cost considerably more. But the expenses aren’t a crisis, Hair says, because she resisted the urge to buy as much home as lenders said she could afford. She also made sure the purchase, including closing costs, didn’t drain her savings.

“I still had a little bit of money saved up, so I wasn’t strapped,” Hair says. “You have to know when you buy a house that you’re going to need something in addition to what you need to close.”

Buying a home can be expensive, but what newbie homeowners often don’t realize is that the spending has only just begun. The hidden costs of homeownership can equal if not exceed the mortgage payments you send to the bank.

The real cost of your home

You need to know about those hidden costs so that you can:

  • Gauge whether a seemingly affordable home may actually break your budget.

  • Set aside money for these expenses to avoid going into debt.

  • Develop a backup plan in case your savings aren’t enough to cover the bills.

You probably know that in addition to your mortgage you’ll pay property taxes and insurance. In addition, you may pay homeowners association fees, and may face higher utility bills compared with what renters typically pay.

But even these substantial costs can be dwarfed by your expenses for repairing, maintaining and upgrading your property. In fact, one study commissioned by The Wall Street Journal back in 1998 found the cost of maintaining, repairing and upgrading a typical home to current standards over 30 years was almost four times the purchase price. That estimate may be high, but the financial planners I interviewed agreed that homeownership costs inevitably exceed first-time homebuyers’ expectations.

“No new homeowner, myself included, can ever feel fully prepared for the maintenance costs and renovation costs associated with homeownership,” says Brunch & Budget’s Pamela Capalad, a financial planner in Brooklyn, New York, who bought her first home four years ago. “Just last month, some brand-new pipes burst in our boiler room and there went $2,000 in repairs just like that.”

Budget for repairs even before you buy

Of course, what people should spend and what they actually do spend runs the gamut. Some shell out for top-of-the-line remodels that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others neglect the most basic maintenance and repairs (which often ends up costing them a lot more down the road).

Where you live also matters a lot in terms of what you pay. Replacing a roof typically costs more in high-cost cities than elsewhere, for example. Other variables that affect your costs include:

  • The condition of the house when you buy it.

  • The quality of the materials used to build or remodel it.

  • Your ability and willingness to do some things yourself — although DIYing can cost more than it saves if you mess up projects beyond your skill set.

  • Your location's climate (exterior paint that could last 10 years in a place with mild weather might look shabby after five years’ exposure to extreme heat or cold).

You can get some idea of the outlays facing you by hiring a good home inspector before you buy, someone who can give you an idea of the remaining life expectancy of the house’s various components and a rough estimate of how much they’ll cost to replace. It may become apparent that a bargain house will turn into a money pit, while a better-maintained home is worth the extra money.

Once you buy, though, you should plan to put aside a sizable amount each year to cover the inevitable expenses.

“While every situation is different, the typical rule of thumb is to expect to spend an average of 1% to 2% of the value of your home on repairs each year,” says Matt Becker, a financial planner in Pensacola, Florida, and founder of Mom and Dad Money.

You may not spend that every year, of course, but every few years you’ll likely face a broken furnace, roof repair, appliance replacement or other big expense that eats up the money you saved in low-cost years.

“Chances are, you spent a good chunk of time saving for a down payment, so you're already used to that money being put aside,” Capalad says. “The best way to prepare is to continue to maintain a house savings fund, even after you buy the house.”

» MORE: Need a contractor for your home improvements? Find a contractor on Thumbtack

Where to stash home-repair money

I recommend keeping this money separate from your emergency fund, which should be earmarked for job loss or other big, unexpected expenses. The costs of homeownership may not be entirely predictable, but they are inevitable, so you should save for them as you would any other big bill.

Another recommendation: Set up a home equity line of credit as soon as you can. This can be a backup source of relatively inexpensive funds in case a repair exceeds what you’ve got saved. Don’t use the money for other purposes, such as vacations or cars. The key is to leave it unused so it’s there if you need it.

Some sellers offer home warranties to buyers, but don’t expect these contracts to be a silver bullet, warns Jeanie Schwarz, a personal financial planner at NerdWallet. You may face long wait times and multiple visits from repair technicians before equipment is repaired or replaced, Schwarz says.

And home warranties typically don’t cover everything, says financial planner Kathryn Hauer of Aiken, South Carolina. Hauer has a warranty for her home, but notes that neither home warranties nor homeowners insurance covers drainage problems, roof wear or water leaks, among other issues. Such problems “can cost a lot of money that the homeowner hadn't planned to spend,” she says.

It’s a home, not an investment

The high, ongoing costs of homeownership are why financial planners typically discourage clients from viewing their residence as an investment.

Historically, homes typically appreciate at a rate that basically matches inflation, according to housing expert Robert Shiller. The costs to insure, maintain, repair and upgrade real estate mean you’re probably losing ground over time (although paying down a mortgage can be viewed as a kind of forced savings).

That doesn’t mean home ownership is a bad deal. It just means you need to be prepared.

“Owning a home can be an enjoyable lifestyle decision as well as a smart financial decision over an extended period of time,” Becker says. “The more you anticipate the potential costs, the more likely it is to be a positive experience on both fronts.”

How long do things last?

Here’s what the National Association of Home Builders estimates as the life span for various housing components:

  • Roof: Typically 20 to 30 years, depending on material, although slate, copper, clay or concrete roofs have an expected life span of more than 50 years.

  • Flooring: Carpets last eight to 10 years, linoleum 25, vinyl up to 50; wood, marble, slate and granite can last 100 years.

  • Decks: About 20 years “under ideal conditions.”

Consumer Reports, meanwhile, says to expect the following life spans:

  • Oil furnace: 20 years.

  • Gas furnace: 18 years.

  • Electric furnace: 15 years.

  • Central air conditioner: 15 years.

  • Gas range: 15 years.

  • Electric range: 13 years.

  • Refrigerator: 13 years.

  • Dryer: 13 years.

  • Freezer: 11 years.

  • Washing machine: 10 years.

  • Dishwasher: 9 years.

Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website, and author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @lizweston.

A previous version of this article misspelled housing expert Robert Shiller’s name. This post has been corrected.

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