STARTING OUT


First-Time Homeowner Lessons Learned

Erin Burt

In one year since buying our fixer-upper, we've discovered a lot about ourselves and our finances. Here are seven valuable lessons for any new homeowner.



Yes, my husband, Jeremy, and I are a little crazy. But mostly, we're just cheap.

For three years we had saved religiously to buy our first home. Then last year, when we moved from astronomically priced California to planet-Earth Baltimore, we took our opportunity.

But to afford a home in the neighborhood we wanted, we had to buy a fixer-upper. We're not handy. I didn't know the difference between a jigsaw and a belt sander. And I certainly don't like getting my hands dirty. But necessity is the mother of invention, and we've learned a lot about ourselves and our finances over the past 12 months.

Here are seven lessons I'd like to pass on to any new or potential homeowner:

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1. Owning a home is more than a mortgage. I knew this before I bought my house, and I read my colleague Cameron Huddleston's personal story last year on The True Cost of Owning a Home. But somehow, even when you know you'll have to pay property taxes, higher utility bills and home insurance, it's still a shock when it comes to writing those checks.

For instance, I pay about $170 extra per month to heat, cool and power my 1,400-square-foot starter home in Baltimore than I paid at my 850-square-foot apartment in mild-weathered California. I spent $200 per year for a renters insurance policy compared with $600 for homeowners insurance. Plus I have to pay for water, sewer and garbage service -- three costs that were always rolled into my rent in the past. Add in property taxes, and altogether I pay around $6,000 extra per year to live in a house -- or $500 extra per month. And that's not counting maintenance and repair costs...

2. Always have cushion of cash for home repairs. We bought our home "as-is" -- which meant that the previous owner wasn't going to fix anything before we moved in. So Jeremy paid rapt attention during his two-hour tour with the home inspector. Upon moving in, we prioritized the findings and began tackling them one at a time, using a small cushion of money we had saved by buying a fixer-upper. But even after tackling the main issues, we soon discovered that unexpected problems -- big and small -- can creep up at any time.

The first (and last) time we had to pay a plumber $400 to fix a couple of water surprises, we quickly resolved to plan for the unexpected and to keep a cash reserve for home repairs -- and Jeremy decided it was time he took up plumbing. Now we set aside between $50 and $100 each month into a fix-it fund -- separate from our regular emergency fund -- so we don't have to lean on our credit cards when the unexpected arises, which it frequently does.

3. You can save a lot of money as a do-it-yourselfer. Before we bought a house, my husband wasn't someone I would have classified as "handy." He's brilliant at academics, but I never saw him work with his hands, unless you count assembling our Ikea furniture.

So it was with a bit of trepidation on my part that we bought our house. But Jeremy was confident he could learn most of what he needed through books.

It's been a busy 12 months. We have refinished the hardwood floors, stripped wallpaper, painted the entire interior, sanded and painted half the exterior, hung new rain gutters, installed a sump pump, fixed water leaks on almost every sink and toilet, replaced old leaky appliances, rewired all the electrical outlets, changed out old light fixtures, re-roofed the shed, re-grouted a shower, sealed the cracks in our driveway and tore out some bushes, to name a few projects.

Yes, tasks always cost more than you think they will (we've learned to budget an extra 20% beyond what we calculate). And we discovered that home improvement isn't half as easy as it looks on HGTV. But with a little (okay, a lot) of elbow grease, we've saved several thousands of dollars so far.

4. But some jobs are worth hiring out -- if you can afford it. Out of all our projects, we learned that we never want to refinish our own hardwood floors or hang rain gutters again. We were limited by a strict budget, so we had no other option than to do these ourselves. And on the two projects together, we did save a ton of money. But after months (yes, months) of fiddling with rain gutters, climbing through bushes, hanging off rooftops and cleaning up related water leaks in our basement, we'd save up for a pro next time. We just pray there isn't a next time. Ever.

5. Buy used. Assembling the mess of tools you need to repair and maintain a house can be pricey, not to mention the cost of furnishing your new space. Our local Craigslist site had a bounty of deals on yard and construction tools. We also scored big-time at a neighborhood estate sale. We got a TV cabinet, rocking chair, two bar stools and a working circular saw with a table for $25 total. We also have borrowed tools from friends as we've tackled specific projects. And if we had to buy new, we collected coupons for the local hardware store whenever we could.

6. Having a yard is harder and more costly than you think. With a family, buying a house with a decent-sized yard was top on our list. But we never imagined all the work and money it would take just to keep it up, from the weekends spent mowing, trimming and weeding to the cost of buying tools, fertilizer, mulch, topsoil, plants and other extras we needed to spruce up the place.

We also learned that a vegetable garden is a hobby -- not necessarily a way to save money on groceries. By the time Jeremy dug up a 700-square-foot area of our lawn, built a new fence to keep the deer and rabbits out, bought all his seeds and supplies, we were out at least $500. And then there's the money we spent on canning supplies to bottle our bounty when we couldn't eat it all or give it away (50 jars of salsa and counting). However, we definitely ate much healthfully this summer than we usually do. And really, can you put a price on the perfect vine-ripened tomato?

7. You must plan and prioritize. There's always something to be done on a house. The trick is to separate needs and wants, to figure out what is the best use for your money and your situation.

I often daydream away the dated country cabinets and daisy-printed countertops in my kitchen. My 4-year-old affectionately calls our bathroom "Big Blue" for its blue toilet, tub and sink. I call it "Big Eyesore." We've also researched building a full fence and widening our driveway. But these projects have been pushed to the back shelf as more pressing needs required funding, particularly daily upkeep and life's surprises.

Our latest priority: More space. We just started work two weeks ago on finishing our basement and, yes, we're doing it ourselves with the help of family and friends. We planned ahead by picking up extra work and trimming our budget to save the money for the project in advance -- with a cushion, of course, to cover the unexpected.

As the adventure continues, the financial lessons keep coming...




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