This spring, I needed my cherry trees pruned and some dead branches removed from high up in my oaks. The arborist circled my property for half an hour before saying he would email a quote by the end of the day. I didn’t see the point. We both knew where this was going.
“What’s it going to be?” I said. “$1,000?” He paused, and then nodded.
You see, everything — apparently — costs $1,000.
Need your garage door repaired? Odds are, once you account for materials, labor and unforeseen hiccups, you’ll be writing a check for a grand. Your sump pump died? A new one could cost you around $600 for parts and labor, which doesn’t seem so bad considering the alternative is a flooded basement. But then the plumber might discover that the pipe carrying the water from the house to the street is clogged with years’ of debris and needs to be flushed out. And maybe there’s a blockage somewhere. There you have it: $1,000.
Live in a condo or co-op in the city, and your monthly maintenance fee may be large enough to make you envy the owner of a single-family home. But that regular common charge means that you get to live in ignorant bliss about what it costs to keep a property functioning. You may never know when the gutters get cleaned, who gets hired to do the work or even how much the job costs. None of the details are your problem because the work just gets done whether you’re paying attention or not.
In a house, you trade the convenience and regular monthly payments for the slow drip of endless tasks and uncertain costs — except that it can feel like every repair will cost at least $1,000.
When the kitchen faucet leaks, you can’t just call the super. Instead, you have to find a handyman willing to do the work — unless you want to figure out how fix it yourself. But that would mean spending half a day at Home Depot wandering around the plumbing aisle. Buy the wrong materials and you may be back at the store a week later, or calling that handyman anyway to fix your mistake.
“People don’t really know what it costs and they don’t know what it takes” to tackle home repairs, said Brad Hunter, HomeAdvisor’s chief economist.
A 2018 HomeAdvisor survey found that homeowners underestimated the cost of fixing or updating just about everything in their homes. When it came to interior painting, for example, survey participants estimated the work would cost $734. But the national average is $1,744. One of the few items they overestimated was a new toilet — the average is $370, not $405.
Depending on where you live, national averages can seem like a steal. Rene Artale’s four-bedroom house near Newcastle, in Westchester County, New York, suffered some damage during a storm last winter. A tree fell in the yard, damaging her fence, arbor and retaining wall. And heavy snow caused her roof to leak. The repair bills just kept piling up. Removing the tree, $3,800. Repairing the wall, $4,000. Fixing the roof, $3,800. Fixing the picket fence, $2,800. “It’s obscene,” Artale, 47, said.
Of course, some home repairs can wait. If the exterior of your house needs a paint job, you might be able to sand and patch the worst spots while you save up for the larger project. But if a co-op or condo board decides the exterior needs a face-lift and it needs it now, you may just get a letter alerting you to a substantial assessment.
When that happens, all you can do is pay up, as happened with Jason Hark and Kenneth Larivee. In 2016, the couple got hit with a $28,000 assessment to replace the siding on their West Orange, New Jersey, town house in a condo association. This cost came on top of their $610 monthly association fee. After speaking with siding companies, Hark estimated that if his unit had been a stand-alone property, the project would have cost closer to $7,500. “But we couldn’t fight it,” said Hark, a director at WCBS-TV.
So last year, Hark and Larivee, who works in digital marketing, sold their condo and moved to a four-bedroom house, also in West Orange. They now have to mow their lawn and shovel their driveway when it snows, but when they had a drainage problem in the backyard, they got to choose their contractor and schedule the job based on when it made the most financial sense for them.
“It’s not about the monthly costs, it’s really about not having any control,” Hark said. “Now I can do whatever I want.”
The average single-family homeowner spends around $2,000 a year on maintenance, according to Bankrate.com. That is considerably less than the monthly fees for most condos or co-ops. But even though the monthly outlay for those homeowners might be lower than that of condo or co-op owners, house owners generally are not squirreling away those savings for a rainy day. Nearly half of them have less than $1,000 saved, and a third have nothing saved, according to Liberty Mutual Insurance. So when that sump pump suddenly fails, odds are, we’re scrambling to pay the plumber for a new one.
Artale in Westchester has a plan to fix the problem. Neither she nor her husband, Andy, 41, a program analyst, may ever learn how to repair a fence. But that won’t be the case with their 9-year-old son, Matteo. “When my son gets a little older, I’m going to apprentice him out to someone — for real,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that my husband and I don’t know how to do anything.”
With Matteo on the job, she may even be able to save some money the next time a tree crashes into her fence.