Costly and unexpected expenses from owning a home — share your experiences

tree damage $$$I have owned four homes in my life, and I can tell you: The list of surprise expenses never seems to stop. Yes, I have always favored older homes, so I probably get more fix-its than someone with a brand-new house. But, I think that if your home is even just 10 years old, you are going to have to keep that savings account stocked with emergency funds, and keep that checkbook handy. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I think it can be really helpful to prospective and recent homebuyers to know about the kinds of expenses — surprises, as well as costs that can easily escalate — that they may expect. So, I’m throwing this story open to readers to share their experiences.

What problems have you needed to throw money at,
when it comes to repairing or maintaining your home —
things you never really expected, or
which ended up costing much more than you planned?

I’ll start our list by explaining my photo above: Tree damage. A tree on my neighbor’s lot fell half-way out of the ground and onto our fence. We were responsible for all damage, can you believe it. Had to pay to have the tree completely removed (from the point at which it crossed our property line), and I have yet to have the fence repaired. Yes: Insurance paid for some of it. But overall, less than 1/4 of the expense, I’d say. We have spent A LOT of money trimming, cabling, removing and repairing damage — all due to trees on our mature lot. Pain in the a** and definitely, an unexpected pain in the wallet.


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  1. Katie says

    We moved in to our house a little over two years ago. It is a three bedroom, two bath ranch built in 1960, and then added onto and renovated over the years. In the early 1970’s, the carport was enclosed to make a large living room, and around the same time, the kitchen was totally redone, replacing modern light wood with dark Early American cabinets (there were other changes, which we didn’t find out about until later). A later owner added on a office/guest room and a storage room, along with a foyer that connected these rooms, and the existing laundry room with the rest of the house. A different set of owners had covered the kitchen, hallway and two of the bedrooms with laminate flooring.
    When we first moved in, it appeared that the few repairs that needed to be made were mainly cosmetic. The kitchen cabinets appeared to be in decent shape, and the stove-flat top with a built in grill was really cool (once we managed to get it working) and the layout was awesome. Otherwise, the house seemed to be in good shape, and all of the visible pipe was copper.
    Unfortunately, all of the pipe we couldn’t see was polybutyl pipe. The house had been replumbed at some point, when the original, galvanized pipe wore out and they had used what was, at the time, the new wonder pipe. Unfortunately, this wonder pipe was totally defective. It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ the pipe was going to burst, it was ‘where, when, and how badly’. We found this out when we called in a plumber to fix a leak that had appeared in the laundry room. At this point, we mentally earmarked the new homeowner tax credit for a replumb.
    But before tax time rolled around, we had to have a plumber come out and fix a minor leak in the kitchen sink. Once this was done, he was running a lot of water down the sink (as is normal, to make sure the leak is really fixed) and I saw water coming out from the wall on the other side. This lead to the exciting discovery that the t-joint that connected the kitchen sink to the main drain for the entire house (one of the few pieces of copper pipe in the dang walls) had corroded and gotten a hole in it. The slow leak had rotted out the backs of most of the cabinets, and the water had gotten under the laminate flooring which, we were happy to discover, had been laid over beautiful 8 inch white ceramic tile. The discovery that the cabinets were trashed was less welcome, although I was interested to see what their removal revealed about the history of colors in the kitchen. The progression seems to have been pink-taupe(when the 1970’s-Remodel) was done-white and blue floral wallpaper-white paint.
    We opted to leave the awesome white tile, and replaced the lower cabinets with one’s from IKEA’s Varde series. They aren’t exactly period, but we felt that the stainless steel, double bowl drainboard sink, butcher block counter tops, light wood and white slab fronts managed to evoke the period of the house, without being actually of the period. I made my own contribution to the walls by painting them a light lemon yellow. We didn’t have room for the Varde cabinet that would hold a flattop range, so we opted for a free standing range. This ended up being more complicated than expected, since the old stove was hardwired in, and the new stove needed a plug. Luckily, my sister is an electrician!
    Then, a month before we’d planned on having the plumbers come out, disaster struck. The pipe had developed a pinhole leak, waaaay back in the wall that connected the two bathrooms, by the time it was severe enough to be discovered, the drywall in both bathrooms, and one wall in our bedroom had been ruined. Following mold abatement, a week in a hotel and a replumb that happened sooner than we expected, and new bathroom vanities, and new drywall, everything was back to rights.
    The kitchen still isn’t totally done, we need to replace the upper cabinets, and put in a wall oven. We’d bought one to replace the old wall oven, but the pillar it was supposed to go in got ripped out with the redo. We took out a large, built in pantry that was damaged and poorly installed and are going to be replacing it with a wall oven, a freestanding pantry unit and a 12 inch wide cabinet that will go next to the wall oven, for additional storage space. By the time all this is done, we’ll have tripled the storage space, doubled the workspace, and kept the same layout that I loved to start with.
    We’ll also have spent about 12K, when all is said and done. Is it worth it? I think that it has been. I love the house, love the neighborhood, and other than the plumbing issues, which have been dealt with, the house is in excellent shape and is well built. Best of all, we bought it when the market had bottomed out, so even with all of the repairs, we still haven’t spent as much as the house is worth.

  2. Rick says

    Our first house, bought a fixer upper because it was all that we could afford. Spent more fixing it up than we paid for it. The worst two items were/are the addition and the chimney.

    The chimney obviously leaked because you could see the damage to the wall above the fireplace. So, we paid to have a new roof put on it and assumed that would fix both the chimney problem and the roof needing replaced problem. Paid someone to come in and replaster the wall, and everything was grand. About a year later, the chimney leaked again and ruined the newly plastered wall. Paid someone to reflash the chimney and fixed the wall best I could myself. It leaked again after about 6 months so we paid someone to tear the entire chiney off the house down below the roof line and rebuild it. All was good for about a decade and then, it started leaking again. Paid someone else to come look at it and they tore the flashing off and discovered that when it was rebricked, they had used the old flashing mixed with new and did not do a very good job of it. Furthermore, the brick they used to rebuild the chimney was too porous and was starting to “flake” and they said I would need to put sealer on it every fall. They reflashed it from scratch and I fixed the wall, again, and part of the ceiling. It now has not leaked for a number of years BUT, the chimney bricks are disintigrating. Every spring there are more pieces of thin brick falling down the roof due to absorbing water, freezing, popping off, etc. I guess I should have sealed it more often or better or whatever.

    The home had an addition on the back of it when we bought it, with a flat roof. It also leaked as was evident by the stains on the wooden ceiling inside. So, we paid a contractor to tear off the flat roof and replace it with a peaked one, along with a new plastered ceiling inside. First big rain after the project, and the ceiling is leaking. Called the contractor back and he came and looked at it and said he can’t understand where it could be leaking and left. Called a different contractor and he says that the peaked roof the other guy installed doesn’t allow for correct drainage where it meets the garage peak and water is goi going down the valley and then up under the shinhgles on the new roof because there is nowhere for it to go. Unbelievable. Called the first contractor back and tell him the information and he tells us to just have the new contractor fix it because he is too busy and that he will pay half…So, we pay the new guy to tear the shingles off of it in the affected area and put a rubber “sheet” of sorts on the area affected and replace the shingles over the edges of it. And guess who never got around to paying his half…$1200 more down the tube, but has never leaked since.

    I don’t even begin to want to talk about the water problems in the basement, the around the basement walls drainage system and sump pump to suppposedly fix the water seeping through the block walls, or the cracks in the basement walls that will eventually require the dirt to be dug out all around the rear of the house and the walls rebuilt…

  3. says

    I’m still sitting with 45-year-old red carpet, a bathroom with floor tiles coming up, another one with wall tiles coming up, and a 1970’s harvest gold kitchen, because of all the surprises: new electrical panel when we moved in. Insulation. Replacing clogged galvanized pipe. 2 new water heaters. New oil burner. New gutters 3 times before they got it right. Sump pump. Generator with manual transfer switch. Chimney repairs. Driveway repairs. Now the 3 steps from my garage to the backyard sprung a HOLE and have to be replaced. My downstairs bath has 2 holes in the plaster walls from a plumbing repair. And that’s before we even get to the new siding, windows, and roof that we did.

    The squirrel that fell down the chimney and died and it was 3 weeks before my cat found the corpse underneath the bar in the basement. The mouse infestation in the cupboards that had me cleaning them out with ammonia. The window caps that went and in a heavy rain water kept pouring into the house. Getting the front steps repaired because my DH decided it would be a good idea to break up some ice with a metal shovel…

  4. says

    Our house was built prior to 1903, yet (knock on wood) no gigantic unexpected expenses yet. We’ve had to: replace some slate on the roof when we bought the house, then again when a storm blew some tiles off; replace flashing around a chimney when we saw a leak in the second floor ceiling; take down a giant tree that was sick; replace the back steps when they collapsed; replace the attic windows when it became clear that everything was rotted beyond repair; and then basic, annual expenses like cleaning the gutters, cleaning the chimneys/fireplace, and getting the furnace serviced. We still haven’t removed the shed that collapsed after a storm or repaired the radon system that broke probably the day after we signed the mortgage. Before we bought our first home, I wish someone had knocked us over the head and told us to budget, like, $300 per month for repairs and maintenance in addition to the mortgage, insurance, etc.

    • pam kueber says

      Yes, Going Steady: I think you are spot on: Homeowners need to budget for repairs — I’m going to do some research to see what actual data indicates is a good figure to budget. I already did some super quick looking and it seems like the budget should be based on the cost or value of the home (which makes sense).

  5. Kathleen says

    Hi Pam,
    So happy I found your wonderful blog!!
    I bought an oddball little ranch / cape cod hybrid. Loved it at first sight, as the front door opens directly into the kitchen– sort of the exact opposite of a McMansion.
    I still love it, even though I find the constant repairs a bit exhausting. But it is good to know I’m not the only one that feels this way…thanks again. Kathleen

  6. says

    The hardest thing for me in our last two older fixers was having to listen to my husband grumble and moan while he fixed everything (he has really high standards and hated what any previous owner did or didn’t do). I thought I could solve that by buying a new house. He still grumbles. Even the inspection couldn’t have uncovered that.

  7. says

    Oh, the horror. I am feeling so awful for everyone with the unexpected expenses. Although, I gotta say that I’m feeling a lot better about all of my expensive house projects. Thankfully, our realtor connected us with a great inspector. He was pretty spot on with everything. So, we knew when we bought our house that the roof was failing (yea, water through ceiling), the masonry needed stripping and tuckpointing, the furnace was sized wrong, plumbing needed some updates, original clay sewer line probably needed replacing (it did) etc.

    So, even though we knew we had a lot of expenses, we factored that into our offer on the house. Of course, I wish we had paid less (it was worth a little less), we know we paid a premium for this particular house, the lot, the location, the neighborhood.

    But, I did get a surprise recently. After 3 years of being in the house, rain suddenly started pouring down my walls during a really bad storm. Turns out that my husband didn’t caulk under my little transom windows. Which is usually fine, but we had horizontal rain. Fortunately, I was home and could address the water so it didn’t ruin anything. And, as soon as the rain stopped, I spent $5 on caulk and sent my husband to the roof!

  8. says

    Our 1949 house has few problems. The only problems there are are with the new junk the previous owners put in (like cheap new windows, ceramic tile in the kitchen, vinyl shutters and siding with cracks, cupboard hinges). All the old stuff is just fine. I wish the former owners would have left the house as it was meant to be. That said, it’s been a pretty easy house to own.

    My sister on the other hand, bought a beautiful house from 1959. The house didn’t have very many problems, but they declined an inspection because they wanted the house so badly (my sister had been eyeing it since she was a kid). Well, it had a buried oil tank that leaked. There goes $10,000! Ouch!

  9. Chris Z says

    Wow, I thought my experiences with my 1959 raised ranch in Camp Hill PA were awful until reading some of these posts. I moved in January 2006, into a very original raised ranch – I had purchased from the estate of the 2nd owner, who had been there since 1968. The furnace was old, and sounded like a jetliner spooling up every time it kicked on. The next month, the area had an epic ice storm, and the furnace decided to die at the same time. Dealt with more than a few opportunistic contractors in the phone book, with quotes up to $10-12K. Finally got a good referral, and had a new boiler in for $6K. The house needed a lot of cosmetic work that I was dealing with, and the next summer I decided to put in central AC – Used the same contractor, who did less than a stellar job on this one. The unit was up in the attic, and the contractor ‘forgot’ to install the condensation drain, so the water was all collecting in the drip pan – 2 days later, the ceiling in the living room came crashing down. The contractor came out, nailed up some sheetrock, and I never heard back from him, and still have some of his tools. Made some major updates on the jack-n-jill bathroom, added a deck and fenced in backyard. Total updates were pushing $25K, just as I was transferred this past January to TX. Final insult was the plummeting housing market in Harrisburg, where I had a $15K loss on sale. $40K down the tubes on that venture – But, I found a great 1955 bungalow time capsule that I bought for a song, and really needed nothing. Clean hardwoods, the bathrooms are all original, and the tile is beautiful, and I still even have the original ’55 Frigidare built in stove that works like a dream!!

  10. Rena says

    I am writing from a northwest suburb, 35 minutes from the heart of Philadelphia.
    We purchased a 1937 home. Benign neglect is the best description. We have 3.5 acres, most of which is in a flood plain. The house is 3300 sq. ft, strong, sturdy, and appears as it did (although aged) when it was built.
    Yet, we have dropped bags of cash on:
    Basement Waterproofing – Can you guess if it solved the problem?
    Garage Doors (3)
    Plumber-New sewer pipes, Hook up to sewer and pay township $5,000. for the pleasure
    OIl tank–Removal
    Electrical-Updated and added new box with space for more lines
    Roofer-some work – $3,000. (can’t complain)
    Testing for asbestos-fortunately it is not in the wall, but is on some of pipes
    Carpenter to repair known termite damage in basement.
    Carpenter to repair unknown extensive termite damage in basement.
    Carpenter to repair unknown and surprise! termite damage in garage door trim X3

    Still to come:
    There will be more termite repairs. I guarantee it.
    Heating/AC-/$ –the sky is the limit as my husband is looking into GEOTHERMAL
    Windows: 73 steel casement windows..I can’t even count that high.
    Refinishing floors
    Gas-Gas company pays most of the charges
    Woodwork restoration

    AND that is all before bathrooms, kitchen and our bedroom—–Oh, and we hired an architect to draw up plans for the master bedroom and bathroom.
    The kitchen is old and quaint, but I would like a dishwasher. Is that too much to ask?

    Someday we will move in (we are two months into the process–I expect at least 4 more).
    We are trading a small home — no mortgage — for a grander home.

    We took vows to never fight. We have been minding our manners and our frustrations.

    By the way, this was an impulse move. Oh well, we’ll figure it out.

    So, the moral of the story:
    Yes, we have a fantastic, beautiful house. The views are absolutely heavenly. But, for all those people out there who have idealistic notions about home restoration–you need to get real. The expenses are real and really costly.

  11. susie q says

    I bought a 950 square foot 1950 minimal traditional last year! And love this site! I must agree with a previous messge, take the time to review and hire a good inspector so you know what you are getting into! I have some repairs and restoration work to do, but nothing that time and money can’t take care of as the house is a solid little old lady and cute as well! And yes, it is a labor of love, and after being without a home for several years living in an apartment after owning 2 homes previously there is nothing like owning your home! Now l need to get back to finding the time and money to make it my own!

  12. says

    We bought our first home last year, a 1929 spanish style in Los Angeles. The house was a flip, and presented great. We had a spot on inspector, who let us know that the flip was a quick one. We’ve had some surprises this year, and some expected expenses that were pointed out in the home inspection. Roof repair, and entirely new roof for garage (previous owner nailed down tar paper, as if that was never going to leak) $3400, which inspector pointed out, and gave fair estimate to fix.
    We hear a loud pop, and low and behold, our original plaster ceiling in the laundry room had cracked and was hanging down, cost to have replastered, the old fashioned way, $1000. Paint suddenly peeling off the walls in not often used guest bathroom, walls had to be scraped, re-surfaced, and painted, cost approx. $500.00 Thanks flippers for not using primer! Good thing we we have another bathroom that’s covered in paint that is a ticking time bomb.
    We also are waiting to have the entire plumbing redone, as it’s 50% cast iron piping, we can live with the sometimes rusty water, for now!
    Other flipper gafs, installing sub standard sprinklers and not having a shut off valve, the sprinkler main line sprung a leak, and that all had to be replaced. Cost was rolled in to removing dead trees, and trimming other old growth ones that threatened the house, and adding some landscaping.
    I grew up in old and very old homes in New England, and they have problems. As far as the difference between renting and owning, I never want to share walls with a neighbor ever again. I also love that we have over time, repainted and are making the house ours. I don’t have to get a landlords approval to paint my bathroom mid century pink, or convert our pull down ironing board cupboard into a better use spice cabinet. I love our vintage house.
    Just make sure you have a rainy day fund for the unexpected, because that check is in the mail. 🙂

  13. Trina says

    Fall is coming quickly here in central PA and we finally see the chance to build a fire in our great fireplace. We just moved into the house in June, so we were looking forward the a nice crackling fire. Hubby decided to do the right thing and get someone in to clean the chimney before we got started using. We were expecting a quick sweep and a low bill. What we got was a 3 hour inspection and a $4800 estimate for re-do the chimney. I think it is time for a second opinion! I was so ready for a warm fire. Yuck!

  14. metalcabinetsdontburn says

    40+ years in a 1931 federal row house in Washington DC. Luckily, we are the 3rd owners, acquired it before the renovation craze of the last couple of decades. Bathroom is a DIVINE Deco style, black and white high gloss tile on walls, small black and white marble tile on floor, dreamy American Standard LILAC fixtures…

    All inside original. We stripped the doors, pocket doors and french doors and repainted them when we moved in, stripped the kitchen cabinets to their original wood and lead glass. Wonderful 1930’s Magic Chef 36 inch stove. This work was elbow grease. Otherwise, full upgrade on electric twice, just in order to be up to date with all the electrical demands, in the 1970’s with kitchen appliances, in the late 1990’s to keep up with computers, printers, etc. 6K (or the equivalent in the 70’s) at a time.

    Truly MAJOR upgrade was total house re-piping – inside and out – upgrade to 1/2 inch copper – it had lead piping. 13.5K including new boiler and new water heater. (no new car that year…).

    Painting refresh every 10 years. Floors sanded and redone when we first moved in. Contemplating redoing them if needed before sale.

    I have been thinking of a kitchen change, but not an overhaul, unless prep for sale…. If only I could clone the lilac bathroom….

    This house has been so good to us…and it will be a jackpot to the next owners – when we get ready to part with it – if they just ‘listen’ to its beat.

  15. metalcabinetsdontburn says

    I forgot the new high energy efficient windows and back siding – total 10K last year.

    Contemplating a light tunnel over staircase. Anyone has an opinion about or experience with that?

  16. Goldie Harvest says

    After reading all of the above stories, I really can’t complain! I bought a house because there aren’t many legal apartments allowed on the entire island where I live, and most of the ones that are here are 2 bedrooms or less. I wanted a small house that wasn’t updated, and the 1965 ranch is what I got. The inspector found most of the important stuff so all I really needed was a new roof and some minor repairs. What is absolutley KILLING me is the price of heating oil (700 bucks a pop, a fillup every winter month) I went ahead and made homemade plexiglass storm windows for the aluminum windows that leak like a seive-these cost over 200 bucks for ten windows. Taxes here are almost ten grand too-ouch!

  17. Reen Gavin says

    1) The first spring (2011) in my 1970’s rancher, flies began emerging from the bricks on my fireplace….by the MANY!! I had them identified by extension service as houseflies not blow flies. I paid $250 for a guy to come to tell me there was nothing dear in my chimney. Pest Control firms either wouldn’t come or wanted a year round contract. So began the exhausting task ( I am bug phobic!) of vacuuming them as they emerged. I added a bug zapper which I hung in my LR ! Neighbors now admit they all wondered why I had a purple light in my LR. This year no flies! YAAAAY
    2) My other house , rented to wonderful professional people suffered an electric surge from a lightning strike. Power company replaced the meter, but the smoke alarms were shorting, the GFI’s were down, and my tenant’s washer needed a new electrical panel. Repair $957—-insurance deductible $1,000!! Natch!

  18. says

    Because I’m not living in my dream house, my house is a lot older than a lot of your homes (142 years old, to be exact!). But we’ve had our share of stupid things that didn’t go the way we planned – not the least of which was having to completely replace an entire floor and ceiling right in the middle of a pretty basic renovation (adding insulation). Talk about going way over budget!
    We also had the house re-wired in the year after we first moved in – total re-wiring and upgrade from the cheesy little fuse box to a good breaker box. Unfortunately, part of the connection from the outside wires to the meter was allowing a tiny, tiny leak through the main wire into the house. We didn’t realize this until the lights started flickering one day. The entire breaker box was almost fried. Thank goodness we found that one when we did, but it died mean we had to replace the breaker box and all the breakers – NOT cheap! Two complete sets in a matter of less than fourteen years!
    My best, best advice comes before you own your home. Pay for your own independent inspector! We, unfortunately, used the realtor’s inspector, and all he found was a light in a closet that apparently should not have been there and a stair rail that needed to be put up. There was a lot more going on in this house than that!

  19. Sharon says

    My daughter and her husband bought a small house to remodel in late summer of 2009. Supposedly, it was built in the early forties. HaHa! My husband and I found Sears catalog pages stuffed between bricks in the chimney; that we tore down, from much earlier.
    It took the rest of that year and half the next to “rebuild”. The subfloor in all but two rooms had to be replaced, walls in two rooms replaced, one chimney torn out, roof repaired, new breaker box, everything rewired, washed and painted.
    It was worth every hour, and penny put into it. They had an offer from a purchaser for double the total of what they paid and invested in the “fix”. They are happy with their home and planning to live there for a long while.
    Yes, there is life after remodeling an old house, but it’s hard to be satisfied just “rocking on the porch”, my husband and I are starting on our 1960’s ranch now.

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