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Confessions of a New Homeowner: Expenses We Expected and Didn’t Expect


My husband and I closed on our first house on March 9, 2012.  Since then, it has been a whirlwind of new homeowner activities. Painting, fixing, landscaping, neighbor-meeting, decorating … and spending. Lots of spending.

We rented for several years, and during that time we lived on a very tight budget. We saved 20 percent of the purchase price for a down payment and about an extra 5 percent for new home expenses purchases (in addition to our emergency fund). We had a nice cushion for making our house our home, but after nearly 10 months, I’m surprised by how quickly we’ve spent what we had saved.

Below are some expenses we had long-expected and other expenses that surprised us.  I hope these items will serve as a reality check for those considering buying their first home someday (and I’m sure many current homeowners will nod their heads in agreement!).

Expected: Minor landscaping/yard expenses

Unexpected: Constant landscaping/yard upkeep

We purchased a house that sits on a third of an acre, which is a pretty large yard for suburbia. Mowing is required for all yards, of course, but if you want your yard to look nice and not have the entire neighborhood whisper about your lack of home maintenance skills, you’ll also have to learn about fertilizing, seeding and grub-killing.

Having never owned a home or cared for a yard before, I neglected to consider these lawn upkeep items when planning for home ownership expenses. Fertilizers alone can be a couple of hundred dollars per year, not including the tool you’ll need to lay the fertilizer. And that’s if you do it yourself — hiring someone will be more expensive (but may yield much better results).

Then there’s landscaping.  Flowers, plants and mulch and rocks look so pretty, right? Nice landscaping can really up the curb appeal on any house.

But landscaping requires regular upkeep. My husband and I (okay, mostly just my husband) spent almost every weekend trimming, hoeing, insecticide-ing and digging last summer. It takes a ton of sweat equity, but it also requires a lot of tools. All sorts of clippers, shears, shovels, a wheelbarrow and more can cost hundreds of dollars in start-up expenses. Of course, once you have those things, the costs start to even out, but they can be quite a shock at first.

To sum it up: We spent at least $1,000 on lawn maintenance start-up costs during our first spring and summer here. We probably could have been smarter and bought some things second-hand or looked for deals, but we thought we needed everything immediately. It’s also important to note that smaller yards or yards with little landscaping might cost a lot less in upkeep.

Expected: Higher heating and cooling bills

Unexpected: Very high water bills

If you’re a renter, you probably have about a $10-$25 water bill come your way every month, right? Enjoy it! That is maybe one of the best perks of renting. If you buy a house, you’ll see that bill go up substantially if you have a lawn and don’t live in a maintenance-free community. And if we keep having droughts every summer, expect to see a $150, $200, or more water bill every couple of months. Ouch!

Expected: Home maintenance

Unexpected: Coming home from vacation to a broken air conditioner and major roof leakage problems

The reality of home ownership really set in when we came home from four days in Las Vegas last summer to a broken A/C (of course, it was during a 100-degree-plus heat wave) and major leaking that had come from the roof. Talk about a buzz kill.

And this is where I beg all first-time homeowners to require a one-year warranty from the seller’s when you buy a house.

Our warranty was around $400, and we had the seller pay for it in closing. It has been MORE than worth it. The A/C problem could have cost us several hundred bucks, but instead it was just $60 for a service call under our warranty. (We also had a brand-new water heater and garbage disposal installed, in addition to our garage door openers fixed – all for just $60 a piece under the warranty.)  The warranty doesn’t last forever, but I think it gives newbie homeowners a chance to get familiar with home maintenance expenses and start saving for them during that first year.

The roof? Well, lucky for us, we know a guy. (Our warranty doesn’t cover the roof.) He gave me a discount and, for $400, was able to fix all the problems in one afternoon. Now we have zero leakage and feel like we have a much stronger roof. But it was definitely not something we had planned to spend money on the first year!

Expected: Furniture and décor

Unexpected: Just how much STUFF you need to make a house a home

In full disclosure here, I confess that I was beyond excited to get my mitts on my new house and decorate and furnish and craft to my heart’s content! This is the main reason I was so adamant about saving for new home expenses before buying.

I knew the big things we needed. But after living in our new house for awhile, we quickly realized we wanted more.

For example, we have hardwood floors throughout the main floor, so we wanted a large rug for the living area. Do you know how much large rugs are? A large rug (9×12 or 10×14, for example) can be upwards of $1,000. For a rug! Color me sticker-shocked.  (Let’s just say Overstock.com and coupon codes are lifesavers.)

I know we don’t need things like an oversized rug, but many homeowners have an urge to make their house their own, and this was one example of our way of doing just that.

We’re now learning to slow down and take our time with filling our house. My very wise mother-in-law says it takes five years to make a house a home. I think that’s more than true – if not longer.

With the maintenance, decorating/furnishing, and landscaping combined, our new house savings account allowed us to pay for our home ownership start-up costs in cash. Still, I thought our savings would last several years, but we’re already nearing the end of it. Luckily, we’ve already including a “house expenses” line item in our monthly budget so we’re still saving for these expenses.

I am one of those people that loved renting – I kind of liked being in a small place and knowing I had one expense (the rent) and that I could call my  landlord anytime I wanted. But owning a home – however expensive it may be – is possibly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. My husband and I take great pride in our home and have no regrets in making the leap. Now I just need to get better about planning ahead for purchases and looking for deals in advance!

Homeowners, what expenses did you expect or not expect when you bought your first house?  Renters, what expenses are you most surprised to find on this list?

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @ambergilstrap.

Comments

  1. You mentioned buying second hand lawn equipment, one thing I have learned is shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, etc. all can be found very inexpensively at estate sales.

    • Amber Gilstrap says:

      Good point, Timmmay! I love that — I am going to start making it a point to check out more estate sales. I’m sure they’re filled with all sorts of treasures that would be useful for new homeowners.

  2. Fair Warning. While I agree with your mother in law about the 5 years to be settled, for me there was another 5 year phenomenon to deal with as a homeowner. All the “stuff” I bought when I moved in was perpetually “new” in my head. At five years I realized that the welcome mats I had been walking on for 5 years had become a disintegrating pile of coconut on my front stoop. I’d stopped seeing them completely. The “new” paintjob needed redoing or at least touching up. It’s definitely a home but it’s never done!

    • Amber Gilstrap says:

      That’s what I keep hearing — there is always something that comes up and the work is never done. When we were renting, it was easy to save a large amount of money each month, but, now that we have a house, I find a lot more of our discretionary savings goes towards home maintenance.

  3. My biggest surprise/unimagined expense which you mentioned is definitely the time and cost devoted to yard care. If you saw my yard you would agree that I am not prepared to handle the amount of time and expense required for ‘basic’ upkeep!!

    How I pictured it: I would mow the lawn every two weeks with my cool electric mower. Maybe I would want to spend MORE time outside and plant a garden! how fun!!

    How it is: My grass was all taken over by some strange vine that covered the entire yard. While it still looks green, I have no idea what the vine is, how to stop it or how to get my grass back (while preventing this cycle in the future). I am keeping an eye on my neighbor’s bamboo patch trying to prevent any shoots from taking up residence inside my fence. The shrubs I spent $300 have failed to thrive, still same size they were when I first put them in the ground two years ago! Oh and my thought of a garden is gone because the mosquitoes literally swarm on me from June – September. I wear a bugsuit to mow the lawn. Being out in the yard is not at all how I pictured it would be. Luckily my yard is still very small, so it is manageable, but just barely. You can spend so much money at the garden store though and still come up with subpar results.

    • Amber Gilstrap says:

      Totally agree with you, Amber. We spent SO much time working on our yard last summer. We even had several family members come and help us out. You’d think it’d look perfect after all that work, but it still looks pretty out-of-control.

      I was like you and pictured myself tending my small but beautiful flower bed on warm summer evenings. It is much more work than that (and much more expensive). But it’s worth it to have your own yard to enjoy. :)

      Good luck with your lawn!!

    • David E. Weliver says:

      I have to “third” this. I never imagined so much of my time, money, and energy would go into yard care. We live on 1/3 of an acre — half of which is trees — so NOT a huge yard. Yet the lawn became the biggest stressor of the house our first two summers. Our old lawnmower kicked the bucket, we got grubs that ate up the lawn, one tree cracked in half, then another tree fell down. I’m holding my breath to see what next year brings while, in the meantime, I guess I’m glad it’s winter!

      • I agree – hurray for winter! I don’t mind the occasional lawn project, but outside work ate up EVERY weekend and it gets too blasted hot here to be outside so much. Though winter means that I need to tackle the inside house projects that I’d been putting off in the warmer months. It never ends…

  4. Great post! As a Realtor, I constantly tell first time home buyers to plan on repairs, unknowns, yard work, etc. It’s amazing how many don’t realize the work and money involved in owning a home. In my opinion it’s all well worth it, but people need to be prepared for it.

  5. I have to disagree on the water bill. I rented for years and am now in my third home I’ve owned (bought one as a single, then got married and moved into his, then we bought our together home) and in all three cases my water bill is much cheaper as an owner than as a renter. Probably b/c I’m no longer paying for all of the landscaping which is NOT mine, nor am I subsidizing others non-frugal laundry, bathing, and kitchen habits. When it comes to lawns – consider non-grass landscaping. In parts of the country where droughts are common, rock gardens are beautiful! You might get some funny looks at first, however when your neighbors see how much easier it is to maintain your yard, they might come copy. And sometimes you can get rebates back from the government for not wasting all that water!

  6. Yes, higher costs for heating and cooling are expected, but that’s what got us! We bought in January 2009 in Massachusetts and we were flabbergasted by the rate at which oil increased. It nearly doubled within the first two years, from $2.50/gallon to $4.50/gallon! Not to mention, the oil company seriously underestimated initially what our oil needs would be. $300 a month (YEAR-ROUND) to heat a 1400 square foot house is brutal!

    Another expense that we’ve noticed increase is our property taxes, which have gone up about $500 for our annual taxes, despite our home value steadily decreasing each year.

    We also did not realize how much our auto insurance would increase. We live in a “dangerous” area in terms of number of accidents in our city, so our auto insurance skyrocketed. If we lived a mile away in the next town, our rates would be 50% of what they are here.

    I suggest REALLY looking into the potential costs for home ownership as prices will always rise. I sometimes wonder if buying was the right move for us even though we bought in what we thought was a “low” market.

    Good luck, new homeowners!

  7. Stain, stain, stain. Some summers it seems that is all I do. Wooden fence, wooden deck, wooden retaining wall and Canadian winters mean that I have to stain something big and time consuming every summer.

    My city charges for every drop of water we use so I only water recent transplants. I will never water my grass again and any plant that lives in my garden better be tough as nails.

    I do invest in mulch and top it up yearly. A thick layer of shredded bark mulch on all the beds and around the shrubs keeps the weeds out and the moisture in the soil.

    Renting must be so much easier but the best things in life aren’t easy.

  8. Great post. The fact that things are *never* done can be disheartening, so I had to start keeping tabs on what I was accomplishing, little by little, and taking time to enjoy the progress.

    We renewed our warranty, and the premium has paid for itself over and over again.

    The biggest surprise for me was just a culmination of all the little things you’d never think about as a renter, like drainage (a whopping $1300 surprise), and all that gas running to Home Depot multiple times a week (sometimes multiple times a day!). Fortunately, we had overbudgeted for those most of those surprises (hauling dirt away was embarrassingly expensive), but alas, I wanted to spend it on more aesthetically pleasing things than pipes and dirt.

    Also, we just started our fourth refi since we bought the place a year and a half ago, and while two of them were no cost, it was still a lot more paperwork than I was expecting to have to deal with.

  9. We purchased our home in 2010 and I swear EVERY 6 months there is something to be done…

    Two months after we purchased our house, our heater went out. We discovered that the heater had NEVER worked and had to be totally replaced. When we called up our “home inspector” he was SO happy to show us on our contract where we had released him from any future claims we might have against the property he had certified. As a “nice” gesture, he did return his $500 fee. (Swell guy… Not.)
    Buy beware— read the fine print of home inspectors’ contracts. While we feel our particular guy was a jerk, we’ve heard since that most home inspectors work this way.

    -$3,000 for a new heat pump system

    I could share countless more experiences like that one, but here is a shortlist on some things we’ve done since moving into our 1,000 sq foot ranch:

    -$800 radon mitigation
    -$500 replacement of cracked concrete porch (probably as much cosmetic as practical)
    -$1,200 replacement of driveway (again- guiltily cosmetic and practical)
    -$500ish every time we’ve “updated” a room (totally cosmetic! but these are the things you don’t plan)

    And never mind how much it cost us to close on our house to begin with! (Over $7,000!)

    PLAN AHEAD, PEOPLE! Love my house, but a LOT more commitment than renting!

  10. We just bought a house in November. We knew it was more of a fixer upper, but it was livable and we planned to tackle things as we got to them. That went out the window pretty quick as we were tearing out the living room ceiling, fixing the floor joists, replastering that along with the walls in the bedroom that had wall paper taped together over seventies fake wood panels over holes in the plaster walls. So we jumped right into this whole home owner thing and we’re rather enjoying it now that we have livable rooms again, but we definitely decided we should learn to pace ourselves for the sake of our bank accounts! Well see how well that lasts this summer as we tackle some exterior work.