Buying a house is a significant investment—for most of us, it’ll be the largest purchase we’ll ever make, and the biggest debt we’ll ever take on. Which can cause heart palpitations once you realize the house itself is just a collection of home repair bills waiting to be paid.
When most people buy a house using a traditional down-payment-and-mortgage model, they look at the cost of ownership simply: the mortgage payment, plus HOA fees, plus taxes and insurance. That alone can add up to a significant amount of your income—most lenders advise that your monthly mortgage payment doesn’t exceed 28 percent of your income, and your total debts don’t exceed 36 percent.
But those numbers don’t take into consideration the cost of maintaining your house, which can be a lot more than you think.
You’re usually advised to assume that maintenance costs on your house will be about 1–4 percent of its value annually, or somewhere around $150–$500 (or more) per month depending on where you live and the kind of house you have. That’s on top of your mortgage, tax, HOA, and insurance payments, and it applies to new construction as well as older homes. This is because maintenance isn’t a consistent cost. Your home may not present any problems to you right away, but as things start to break down, they will be very expensive to fix, so putting money aside on a regular basis means you’ll have it on hand when things go south. For example, a shingle roof has a lifespan of 15–30 years, your HVAC system might survive 20 years, and your water heater will probably crap out before 15 years have gone by.
In other words, nothing in your house is likely to break down on the same schedule, but it is all continuously breaking down in slow motion. The key to managing both the steady decay of your house and controlling those mounting costs is to avoid deferring home maintenance.
Deferred maintenance will cost you more in the future
Deferred maintenance is a trap easy to fall into. You buy a house and write a lot of checks and move in, and you’re exhausted and ready to enjoy your new living space. So you don’t worry about the fact that the home inspector said your roof was a little long in the tooth, and you decide to hope the paint on your wood windows holds out through one more winter. Instead of flushing your water heater, you prefer to imagine hot water is appearing magically in your shower every morning. Instead of staining your nice wood siding, you figure you’ll have plenty of warning before it starts to fail.
Deferred maintenance is basically any kind of repair, preventative treatment, or inspection that you should do, but which you choose not to do, whether through laziness or because the money isn’t there. And, of course, you don’t know what you don’t know—sometimes it’s a genuine surprise to discover you really ought to be cleaning those gutters every year. But whatever the reason, the cost to fix a problem once it becomes one will undoubtedly be much more expensive than staying on top of your home’s maintenance.
How much deferring maintenance will cost you
Some home owners struggle with this concept, because things cost what they cost, right? If your new roof is going to cost you $7,500, for example, it’s going to cost $7,500 whether you inspect the flashing and give it a fresh reflective coating every year or not…right? What you’re forgetting is the time element: Maintaining your roof on a regular basis might cost you $100 in materials every year, but can extend the life of your current roof by 5–10 years—years during which your money can sit in an interest-earning account instead of being handed off to a roofer.
Or consider your windows. Scraping and painting your exterior wood windows (and re-caulking your windows no matter what they’re made out of) doesn’t cost much aside from your time, but replacement windows are expensive. If you have 10 windows and you discover they have significant dry rot, you’re looking at anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 to get them replaced. If you put in the work to maintain your windows, they might last you as long as you live in the house. And the it goes beyond the windows themselves: Even if they are composite, fiberglass, or vinyl, there is almost certainly wood framing involved somewhere in the window system. A leaky vinyl window may never rot, but it cause a lot of rot to the framing around it or the wall beneath it.
By keeping up with maintenance and pushing replacement costs back a few years, you can really rack up interest earnings on your repair funds. And if you stay in the house for decades, having to replace the roof once as opposed to replacing it two or three times is a significant savings.
There are plenty of other maintenance tasks that can cost you tons more if you defer them:
- Exteriors. If you have wood siding, it will need to be stained or painted every year, which can run you a few thousand dollars. Replacing wood siding will run you $30,000 or more. Stucco costs an average of $1,500 to replace (though it can run much higher) but patching and painting your stucco on a regular basis costs much less. And clogged gutters can cause a perfectly sound roof to fail.
- Water heaters. Flushing the water heater every year is free, and replacing the anode rod (which attracts corrosive elements and wears out every few years) costs about $30. Doing both of these things can add 5-10 years to the life of your water heater, which can cost more than $1,000 to replace.
- Paint. Scuffed or dirty interior paint being might be something you can live with until you’re showing the house for sale, but peeling or bubbling paint probably indicates a water problem—which you should deal with immediately, before you have tens of thousands of dollars of mold and rot damage to deal with. Even a small leak can absolutely destroy your house if you don’t take care of it in a timely manner.
Finally, consider the fact that deferred maintenance that leads to failure has a lot of knock-on costs. If your roof develops a leak, you have to replace the roof—and possibly the drywall on the ceiling and walls in the rooms below. If you wait until your water heater explodes to do anything about it, you might also need to tear up your basement flooring because of the water damage.
And the most subtle cost of all might not show up until you try to sell the house. Deferred maintenance is likely to be obvious to a home inspector, if not a buyer. When people look at your home and see peeling paint, warped floors, and missing roof shingles, they are mentally calculating how much of a repair credit you’re going to have to offer them to convince them to take the risk—or they might walk away entirely.
Basically, any time you notice something in your house is no longer working as intended, it’s a signal that you should strap on your work clothes and replace, repair, or rehabilitate it—or hire someone to do it for you.