Home ownership and (not so) routine maintenance

English: Standard Hammer

I’m a born condo dweller so I don’t know why I still have this darn house. Okay, it was because I didn’t follow my own advice and kept the house in the divorce. (See this post for why you shouldn’t.) It wasn’t a terrible decision financially—the divorce valuation was at the height of the bust, so the value has allegedly gone up quite a bit, it has a great home office, and my dog thinks the yard is her kingdom. But the reason I should be living in a condo is because I hate maintenance.

If you’ve slugged it out for a while in a divorce, or been on the rocks for a few years before (my hand is up!), you can bet there’s a ton of deferred maintenance. But even if you’re as on top of maintenance as my mom used to be, you can count on being frenemies with some contractors every year your address is a single family dwelling. It’s very important to recognize the ongoing nature of repairs, and budget for them (especially when you’re thinking through a divorce or retirement).

A decent rule of thumb is to budget 1% of the home’s value for regular, ongoing repairs and maintenance. I suppose this might have been accurate if the ex had been dependable and completed the myriad of projects he either started or ignored. But the first few years after my own divorce I had a ton of clean-it-up projects to fix—including the raining in my office which he had been “getting to” for 7 years.

The 1% is a good place to start, but take a closer look at your home for better estimation. Consider these points:

  1. What’s the house made of? If you have wood siding or a lot of trim, you need a paint job probably every 5-7 years.  Get an estimate and divide by 5. If it’s stucco, not so much maintenance but in my first hand experience you occasionally have a piece crack and fall off. Even if you have brick, you’re not home free—tuck-pointing and trim painting will need to be done if you’re not going to develop “unexpected” leaks.
  2. What’s the yard look like? Personally, I’m continually at war with the weeds. In 20 years, I haven’t won, but they really gained ground during two consecutive summers when I first broke my foot and then had to get my dad’s (neglected) home ready for market–I barely touched the yard. My DIY tendencies are rampant when it comes to the yard and I’ve wasted a ton on harebrained ideas—a push mower, lots of plants that I forget to water, and plants sold to me as shade tolerant that succumbed nearly instantly. Nevertheless, if you have a yard you have to budget for plants and trees: replacement plants for the ones that inevitably croak, and tree maintenance. Trees are huge (ugh, pun)—trimming at least every other year, various schemes to abate or prevent pests, and crashes. In 5 years I’ve had to remove 3 trees–$890, $1,600, $2,500. Breathtakingly expensive and often an emergency. If you have teenage kids or are paying for a health club, in my view you don’t need a lawn service. Your mileage may vary. Lawn services, if regular, are not really part of this 1% rule.
  3. How old is your heating plant, water heater, and roof? Make a good guess and put them on the maintenance calendar.
  4. Painting, floor refinishing, and new carpeting are a few things home and condo owners will both need to replace, but for most other issues, the condo assessment fee (if well thought out by the association) should pay for most structural, exterior, or common elements.

As an aside, if you are a condo dweller and want to analyze your assessment, add up the cost of any utilities and insurance it covers, a decent allowance for “saving” for future repairs, and that 1% of value and you have a rough gauge of whether your assessment is reasonable. I’m not quite sure how to measure the aggravation level of finding contractors who actually show up and finish the project.

Every once in a blue moon, I don’t actually spend that 1%. Okay, I do (and more) but I dream about the time when I might get a break. You might not spend that every year, but suddenly get hit with the need to replace the furnace. Start that repair fund now and you’ll keep your plastic in your pocket and your heart in your chest.

So long carpenter. I have to go call the painter.

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