The Hidden Costs of Owning a House
If you’ve been a renter for most of your adult life, dealing with maintenance issues—from a leaky faucet to a torn window screen—is simply a matter of calling a building manager or super. And bonus: The landlord pays for the repair.
But once you purchase a home, suddenly, you are the landlord, the building manager, and the super.
“Homeownership is often portrayed as a symbol of success and stability, but there are several aspects of it that first-time homeowners might not anticipate,” says Matt Dunbar, senior vice president of the Southeast Region for Churchill Mortgage. “One common surprise is the sheer number of responsibilities—from maintenance and repairs to the impact on finances. It can be overwhelming.”
So if you’re considering going from renter to owner, here’s what to budget for from a couple who have gone through it.
Landing a dream home
Longtime couple Michelle and Gino had lived as renters in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. First, they’d shared with roommates before graduating to their own 600-square-foot apartment.
Yet, while the couple loved DC and all it has to offer, they longed for a home with real outdoor space. Their home search took them to Maryland, right outside of DC, where they found a midcentury home within commuting distance of Gino’s office. (Michelle works remotely.)
“We found our dream home, truly,” says Gino. “We have the big windows looking out to the back with a forest view. We feel like we’re living in a treehouse. ”
The couple were ecstatically happy to have keys to their very own castle, but they didn’t foresee the hidden expenses of maintaining it. It hit them almost the minute they got the keys to their new home.
Owning costs more than paying a mortgage vs. rent
When most buyers search for a home, the typical affordability calculation compares monthly rent with mortgage payments.
“But I underestimated the maintenance costs and getting the house up to par,” says Michelle.
She is far from alone. Experts say forgetting the extra costs of owning a home is a common pitfall.
“One significant expense is property maintenance, which includes routine upkeep like landscaping, HVAC servicing, and appliance repairs,” says Dunbar. “Additionally, property taxes and insurance premiums can fluctuate over time, impacting the overall cost of owning a home.”
A home can also have significantly higher utility bills than an apartment.
Takeaway tip: When you’re looking for a home to buy, make a list of every single home expense so you can ensure you won’t be living in a beautiful home that you can’t actually afford.
A home usually needs more furniture than an apartment
Michelle and Gino’s surprise at higher taxes and insurance premiums was just the beginning of the extra expenses.
A biggie first-time buyers need to remember to budget for is furniture.
“Purchasing essentials like sofas, beds, dining sets, and appliances can quickly add up,” says Dunbar.
Plus, the bones of the couple’s midcentury home raised the style bar.
“In our apartment, we just kind of cobbled together furniture we both had or got from neighbors,” says Gino. “Now, we’ve acquired several midcentury modern seating pieces.”
Takeaway tip: Some homeowners will sell you their existing furniture at a discount—which might be custom or in the style of the house.
Assembling a maintenance team
One of the first things many people miss about apartment living is the relative ease of dealing with maintenance issues. And beyond cost, there’s the work of tracking down trusted workers.
“Suddenly, I had to find all the people we needed, like an electrician, plumber, and pest control,” recalls Michelle. “It took a lot of research and getting multiple quotes and referrals, but now we have our team in place.”
And new homeowners might need a team sooner than they think.
“We had some high upfront costs,” adds Gino. “We did some upgrades, like replacing outlets, fixing things that the inspection showed, mainly safety issues, and we replaced the HVAC system.”
Takeaway tip: A great place to find home experts is simply by asking your neighbors, who likely have a similar type of home—and some of the same maintenance issues.
Prepare to learn about all sorts of new systems
Luckily for Michelle and Gino, the home’s previous owners had just installed a new septic system, but the couple waived the well inspection, which tests water quality.
“We knew the house was going to get snapped up quickly,” says Michelle. “And our real estate agent advised us to make a strong offer off the bat.”
Yet this led to a moment of panic after the home became theirs. The well tested for high levels of fluoride and solar salt, which could have led to digging a new well—at a cost of $30,000.
Luckily, the couple dodged that bullet.
“A more sensitive test turned up fine,” Gino says. “We had the well flushed out and a professional filtration system put in place.”
Takeaway tip: It’s easy to get swept up when making an offer on a home, but make sure you understand the pitfalls of waiving contingencies.
In the end, owning a home is worth every penny
Despite unforeseen costs and more than a few headaches, it turns out that nothing beats the wonder of that first night in your home.
“It’s quiet here in the woods,” says Gino.
Michelle agrees: “I noticed the stars, which I hadn’t seen for a long time, and the lightning bugs, the crickets, the frogs. I remember growing up with those. It calms me, being one with nature. And then, I remember thinking, ‘This is what saving can get you.’”