The Money Pit That is Owning a Home

The first home I owned with my husband Mark was a triple decker in Malden, MA. Our goal was to fix it up, live in it a few years, and then sell it to get enough money to put a down payment on our next, permanent home.  Both sets of parents and his aunt, along with us, helped us scrape together enough funds for a down payment that we eventually paid back.

We moved into the third floor unit belonged to the prior owners and had been renovated. The high ceilings had stippled paint and everything gleamed white. The other two units still had 70s-era dark wood paneling and drop ceilings. After the second floor tenants moved, we got together contractors with the help of a former real estate colleague of mine. The goal was to have the unit ready in a month with higher rent. When our painter stepped on a nail and was put in hospital to watch for tetanus, our ability to get a tenant in was threatened.

We made the only choice possible and moved into the half-finished unit and rented out the third floor. In the meantime, we had no working kitchen and dust was everywhere. The project took two more months to finish. Afterwards, we were glad that the biggest expenses were behind us. But, oh, were we wrong. When a first floor tenants called to say she had no heat, I called the heating company that we had service contracts with.

When the heating guy inspected the system, he found a huge gaping hole in the heating unit. He shut it down and said we had to replace it. Then he went to look at our unit’s heating system. Same verdict. And to the third floor unit. Same thing. In one service call, all three heating units were out of service, and we were told we had to come up with $10,500 to have welders come and custom build our heating systems. I told the sales person that we in no way had that kind of money. I told them we could put down $1,500, but we’d have to pay the rest back a loan. The company set us up with a three-year interest-free payment plan.

We also spent money each summer changing or adding to the landscaping around our home. When we decided to sell the house, we thought we were home free. Three days before the closing, our water heater blew. It could not be repaired, only replaced. We had to spend $1,000 to get another one in order to complete the sale.

Even after all the stress of renovating and repairing, we went and did it again when we bought our home in Cambridge. A Victorian built in 1875, the house still had a lot of long-standing features, such as a custom frame around the archway and french doors with glass doorknobs that lead to the dining room. I fell in love with the place imagining all the ways in which we could redo the house into something we helped shape.

To make a long story a bit shorter, we did it again and rehabbed the house, only this time all our quotes were 30% more expensive. After living in Malden for five years, I had gotten a feel for the kind of prices that electricians, carpenters, and painters would quote to me. When I got to Cambridge, they were consistently 30% higher every single time. I experienced a bit of sticker shock, that’s for sure.

Since we’ve owned that house, we renovated a large part of the house including a new roof, new wood flooring, incorporation of a porch into part of the bedroom, two large, walk-in closets, new front and back staircases, masonry on the inside and outside of the foundation, painting, and landscaping and maintenance. If we bought the house for N, we then proceeded to spend at least an additional .6N to do the various upgrades and repairs. We’ve managed to pay a portion of that off, but the money is spent.

When people talk about real estate as an investment, I want to laugh. The money, the effort that you put into the upkeep and maintenance, and the headaches that come with owning a piece of property are not things you can do once and make a huge profit. Maybe someone who buys fixer-uppers and then proceeds to work on it themselves can make some decent cash when they flip it. I have learned that you have to do buy a home because you want to live there, not because you want to make a profit. When you make decisions out of desire or need, you end up spending more than you might otherwise if you were able to make the decision more impartially.

A house is a money pit. Something is always going wrong. You need to save money to spend it, and then you need to spend it in order to save it again. If there’s anything you should get out of owning a home, it’s the experience you get from living there, from making memories, and from calling it the heart of yourself: your very own home.


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