Older House Budgeting

By Kendall Holmes


We recently bought a big, older house. How much should we budget for repairs and maintenance each month?

Enough to put you in budget shock -- and then a touch more, just enough to make you question your sanity for having bought the place!

Seriously, while there's no one-size-fits-all answer to your question, you can (and should) answer it yourself with a bit of work. In fact, every homeowner should conduct this drill every couple of years, whether your home is brand-new or a certified antique. Even new homes need regular maintenance.

First you should gather information about maintenance, repair and remodeling costs; then conduct an informal inspection of your house; and finally develop a budget. These may sound like impossible tasks. After all, what do most of us know about the cost of a roof job, or a paint job, or a new water heater? And what do we know about determining the condition of our own home's roof or siding or water heater?

Happily, you don't need to be an expert. Nor do you need to be exact. Indeed, a basic rule of estimating is that even a wild guess is better than no estimate at all. Besides, many homeowners never establish a maintenance budget. So they're forever playing catch-up, paying off credit cards and home-equity loans. Here's how you can do better:

  • What things cost: What does it cost to install a new roof, a set of windows, or a new kitchen? Freddie Mac's "Consumer Home Inspection" kit offers quick, rule-of-thumb answers to these and dozens of other maintenance and improvement projects. (For exact pointers to this and other web-based resources, as well as a few books that can help, click here.)
  • How long things last: Again, Freddie Mac's web site offers a handy chart that will answer many of these questions. You'll learn that a roof job lasts 20 years or more while a decade or less is all you should expect from a gas water heater.
  • The inspection: If you just bought your house, a home inspector (or the previous owner) may already have given you information on the age of your home's various parts. If not, you can probably find manufacturing dates on kitchen appliances, air conditioners, heating systems, water heaters and other appliances that regularly wear out. Neighbors may be able to tell you when your house last was re-roofed or painted. Common sense will guide you as well. If the paint on your house shows no signs of peeling, cracking or mildew, for instance, you probably won't have to repaint for another four or five years. If your gutters are rusted and pulling away from your house, they probably should be replaced now.
  • Budget: It's time to put everything together. Let's say you're pretty sure you'll need a new roof in about five years -- and that your home will need to repainted at about the same time. Your educated guess suggests that each job will cost about $3,000. This means you should tuck away $1,200 a year, or $100 a month, between now and then.

In the end, figuring out maintenance and repair costs for any house is a highly imprecise art. And often there's no single, correct answer -- especially not in the real world, where kids' braces and college tuition bills compete for the same pool of money we might use for a new bathroom or a furnace.

But by completing the exercise I've described, you'll enjoy a clearer understanding than most homeowners of the hidden costs of owning your house.


Ken Holmes is an award-winning print and web journalist and editor, as well as a former contractor. 

Copyright 1999 Kendall Holmes

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