Owning a home reality check — 140+ real-life $torie$ about $urpri$e home repair$. What’s your$?

house-depreciationA year ago Pam ran a story asking readers to share your tales of the costly and unexpected expenses from owning your home. Your comments — there were 155 in all — painted a vivid and grab-onto-your-wallets picture of dozens of things that could — and did — go wrong in-, around- and under- your houses. Oh my. I went back through all your real-life stories and picked some of the most shocking to revisit today: A sort of “reality check” reminder that — while owning a home can be a wonderful and fulfilling adventure — it can also be fraught with peril, expense and anxiety. And, gulp, a reminder to keep the insurance policies up-to-date and the emergency fund stocked. Thanks to Anne Taintor for the humor.

The following is a sampling of some of the surprise! problems that readers reported the first time we ran this story:

Water worries

Tess shared:
September 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm

OK, here’s my saga: Bought a 1955 ranch with a slab foundation. (In the process of repainting and thinking about it, found your cool website). This spring, the water heater failed, and dumped gallons of gallons of water onto the floor, which ran under walls, and ran into the infloor heating ducts. Insurance came in, ripped out the carpet, put everything I own into the garage so they could tear out the asbestos tile which covered the slab and which was popping and cracking. When they found out the only way to repair the heating ducts was to jackhammer up the floor, they simply stopped calling me back. Just stopped returning calls. It took 5 months and an attorney to get them to resolve the case. In the meantime, I’ve been living in a shell of a house, with most everything in boxes in the garage.

The good news is that they finally got started on resolving it, and repairs are proceeding. I’m putting in radiant floor heating (to the tune of $15K) and floors. All of this, of course, raises other questions, like what about the kitchen? The bathroom? While the house is gutted it seems like a good time to do other things, but the budget is limited.

I had to chip up the bathroom floor, but I’m keeping the yellow tub. Actually, I have some questions: the tub has not been treated well — it looks like someone washed out paint brushes and left lots of drips and washes–and it could use attention beyond the usual cleaning products. I’ve noticed recent posts about finding yellow sinks, so I’m thinking about that.

Thanks for this website, Pam. I’m enjoying it.

Yikes! At least Tess is enjoying RetroRenovation.com! Hopefully things are looking up at her house this year. It seems so many people have problems that involve water, like this longtime reader:


Water factors in many of these stories, in the form of leaking pipes, leaking roofs, overflowing toilets, busted water heaters, etc. We’ve experienced all of these things in the five different homes we’ve owned, ranging from a 1910 cottage to a 1995 mobile home, and including our current ’59 ranch. The worst thing to happen was when the crawlspace got flooded at the ’72 ranch during a giant storm, and the sump pump didn’t kick on, resulting in a ruined furnace. The funniest water experience was at the mobile home, which sat on a hillside — water ran right under it during a storm, so no flooding there!

Sewer pipe predicaments

Uncle Atom:
September 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

Oh Pam, a painful topic. We settled on a 1950s rancher in 2000, and three weeks later the sewer backed up in the basement. Plumber’s verdict – tree roots grown into the clay pipe. Not only did it set us back about $10k, but we lost a whole row of beautiful 40 year old azaleas in the process. Someone had planted a cedar tree about 8 feet from the front of the house and its roots thrived on sewage for years before we got there. We sold that place six years later and made money on it, but that experience really hurt at the time.

Nocoretro says:
September 26, 2011 at 9:31 am
Exactly what we are going through now. Minus taking down the trees. We have to replace the pipes all through our backyard and through the neighbors yard and driveway.

Mary says:
September 26, 2011 at 9:43 am
We are on borrowed time with our pipes as well. Also old clay pipes. Every time I see a crew digging up the street somewhere in the neighborhood, I wonder if we should just act pre-emptively and get it done.

pam kueber says:
September 26, 2011 at 9:58 am
This was the very first thing that went wrong in my very first house! Don’t we LOVE to pay for TV colonoscopies for our sewer pipes!

Tami says:
September 26, 2011 at 10:28 am
We moved into our present home and FIVE DAYS LATER the septic system spectacularly backed up on us (I will never get that sight out of my head). Long story short, the inlet to the septic tank was 3? HIGHER than the outlets (yes, there are four) from our home. In other words, it had never worked and the inspector did a crappy job of testing it. $10,000 to fix it.

Kat the Gypsy:
September 26, 2011 at 11:58 am
Water has been our biggest unforeseen expense in both our houses. 2 years ago we bought a 1985 concrete block house. Drains were always slow, but we didn’t know what the problem was. So last year, on Christmas vacation we got a call from our tenant that sewage was backing up. The main sewage line had to be replaced due to tree roots damage, which meant digging up the concrete and my newly laid porcelain tiles in a foot-wide line from the guest bath through the guest room, all the way to the street, to the tune of $8K.

In our current home, built in 1955, we could never run the washing machine more than once or the wash water would back into the master bath (both were added to the original and shared a sewage line.) After cleaning up floods one too many times, we had the camera put down the line and discovered something shocking. When they installed a natural gas line some 12 years prior, they simply drilled through the ground – and diagonally through said sewage line. Luckily the gas company came, dug, and replaced the gas line, and with the digging out of the way it was a simple fix to cut out and replace the damage to the sewer pipe. Now we know why the house inspector noticed the washing machine wasn’t connected and therefore couldn’t be tested.

Old houses are great, but renovations are a pain. You NEVER KNOW what’s inside/behind/beneath all that charm until you open it up!

Roof problems

September 26, 2011 at 7:16 am

My family and I just bought a little brick colonial house (1940) in a historic neighborhood almost a year ago. The home inspector told us that the cracked and worn slates on our original roof had to be replaced. He told us we were looking at $2K in repair and then to maintain, about $500-$1000/year. About 3 months after our move in, we decided to have the roof fixed, as we were having our attic finished. Long story short, roofer came in and said the entire roof had to be replaced. Irritated by that answer, I had two other companies come in who told me exactly the same thing. A $2K problem quickly turned into one that cost us $45K! Because we are in a historic district, we had to replace the roof with the original material – no synthetic slate. Ouch! Moral to this story – make sure your home inspector knows what to look for when inspecting a slate roof. Glad we replaced the whole thing (even though I can never retire), because with all the rain in Baltimore this year, my neighbors have dealt with leaking roofs and massive flooding! Cheers!

Bad Flipper — not the friendly dolphin

September 28, 2011 at 12:07 am

This is my 2nd year in a 1971 Split Level home in Georgia. The house, now I will call it a “flipped” home, had been updated and repaired in a few areas but us a sturdy house with good bones. But, I think it is too much for me. While my mortgage is cheaper than rent, I am scared that I won’t be able to keep up with the repairs and upkeep. I hate to admit, but I believe I just bought the wrong house. First thing, after 6 months of living in the house, the ceiling fell in my downstairs bathroom, result of a faulty install of the toilet the seller installed upstairs. Got that bathroom redone, after repairing and correcting faulty plumbing in that bathroom. A few months later, sewage started backing up in that tub. Had it snaked twice in six months. The people who snaked it muddied up and nastied up my newly updated bathroom it just made me sick! On top of a heating and air system that is old, and has not worked most of the summer months. It has gone out two summers, warranty patches it up but nothing that is long term. New deck built, not so new. Deck needs securing and sealing, kitchen countertops are bubbling up, need replacing, could use new windows, whole house fan went out after moving in, garage light doesn’t work, electrician said it’s a wiring problem, had to replace circuit box after breaker kept breaking, believe tree roots are in sewer pipes in yard, plumber coming to put camera down line, needs this, need that. A tree fell down in the back yard, and I was told I need to worry about one in my yard and another one in the neighbor’s yard. found out a whole bunch of construction crap is buried in the back yard, and I keep hearing a whistling noise when I flush the toilet.

yea, I got the homebuyer tax credit but to be honest, I don’t even see where it went. As soon as I moved in, $200 here, $2300, here, $500 here, $1000 here, yadda, yadda,yadda and my income just doesn’t support these type of repairs.

My mistake. I wanted to take advantage of these affordable prices, especially in the urban area I live in … but I feel I have allowed real estate to take advantage of me.

The home is a beautiful home with a beautiful spirit and warmth to it … but it needs a family with a handyman husband and a better credit score who could just borrow $25K to $30k and just get it in shape and up to date. It was nicely updated when I bought it, but when I moved MY stuff in and started using the home, it soon revealed all its needs to me ….. and I feel overwhelmed by it all.

Woodland creatures getting comfy in the ceiling

September 27, 2011 at 9:53 am

I have a the same tale from a 1964 colonial, new roof that had to be redone due to bad work, tree damage thankfully mostly covered by insurance, new furnace, new water heater, new main sewer pipe, new siding, new windows. But this is different.

One evening there was suddenly a huge ruckus in the ceiling. What the heck—-? It sounded like bears fighting. In the ceiling! It turned out to be raccoons. When they got done with whatever, they left via the downspout on the side of the house. Cute little things, we could see them leaning on the side of the hole they made, looking around like proud homeowners. Then down they went and away. We went out and looked at the hole they made. Six foot long and maybe two feet high, a full siding panel ripped off and a huge hole clawed or chewed into the boards right through to the attic. Wow! DH got the ladder and an old campaign sign and went up and nailed it over the hole. That kept them out, at least., but it looked like h-e-double matchsticks. Vote for XXXX for City Council.

Called the insurance company in the morning. The adjuster acted like she never heard of such a thing. She wanted to know what we did to attract them? What precautions had we taken to prevent them from doing that? Answers were Nothing and What were we supposed to do besides having a wall? She sent an inspector over who laughed and said it looked pretty typical. We got a good amount to cover the repair, I think it was around $3500.

The asphalt driveway needs resurfacing every other year, that’s another cost.

pam kueber says:
September 27, 2011 at 10:17 amEdit
Good one. My husband had a deal with the bats in our last house: You stay up in the attic, we will stay down here. Detente was breached only twice, when bats got into the living room somehow. A tennis racket comes in handy in instances such as these…. Oh, and yes: Animal control to catch and relocate huge groundhogs that were burrowing I forget where into the foundation of the house; we had that expense, too, your Comment reminds me.

Pam’s favorite (her Kentucky shows) — Sink holes open up:

Anne-Marie Cottone relates:
September 26, 2011 at 9:02 am
A friend of mine went away for the holidays, and returned to learn that a large sinkhole had collapsed part of her backyard! Apparently it was due to an old septic tank that had been removed when the area was sewered, and the fill had decided to settle many years later.

Anything and everything goes wrong

October 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm

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…

Despite all the cautionary tales, there is one that puts it all into perspective, summing up the biggest payoff to this life investment:

sTiLL LoVE iT hErE:
September 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

After living in our home for years we have had a full gambit of repairs – some have been completed and some remain, well, incomplete. As an example – our bathrooms have both been “in progress” for about six or seven years. No, I am not exaggerating. Repairs have been both expected and unexpected. The normal things have seemingly all gone wrong, i.e. air conditioning, siding, roof, toilets, and the list goes on for miles – no real surprises.

For the most part the house is a dependable one…with lots of memories both good and sad. It’s your basic 3 bedroom ranch style home with a fireplace – nothing fancy or elaborate. Just a little house with a fenced back yard that separates us from our neighbors’ illegal free roaming city chickens, a couple of barking dogs (including mine) and a little garden in front. We’ve raised our family in this house, nursed my mom after cancer surgery, welcomed new grandchildren and cried over the passing of dear friends and family. We’ve experienced a mixture of happiness and sadness as my son prepared for his wedding here; watched our daughter’s prom come and go and her relationship begin and end in this house. My husband and I have had garage sales, delicious meals, disagreements, made up (yay!) and talked about our future together. We’ve also tried to plan our funeral around our dining room table…without too much success. I know, we will have to complete that task one day. However, the home repairs must be addressed and are almost too many to count using my fingers AND toes. We just don’t have the money… who ever does… there is no convenient time for pay for everything… but that’s okay. It’s our house, and we know that we’ll get it all done… some how. It may not be right away, but we’ll get through. So, it isn’t just a house, it’s a home. It’s a memory spot. A place to hang our hats…a soft place to land. Just a few thoughts about our little house.

kate with her first house - a cape cod fixer upper built in 1890
That’s me — 22 and glowing with pride in front of my new to me 1890 cape cod fixer upper.

Me? I’m on my second house. I bought my first house when I was single — in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Milwaukee, which basically meant very old houses that needed work… but were affordable… in an area with a mid-level crime rate. I fell in love with a tiny (800 sq ft) cape cod style house built in 1890 with a tiny yard and a detached garage. I immediately knew that I would need to put lots of money into the house and that I would be doing a lot of the work myself. Fortunately, I come from a long line of handy folk. Even so, I had to hire out some of the larger jobs in my new old house — such as replumbing the entire house before I could even move in (there was no water pressure and the drain pipes were all hopelessly clogged). This huge job also necessitated the gut remodeling of the only bathroom — which had been poorly remodeled over the years. Next came slowly replacing all 11 windows in the house because not a single one could be opened due to shifting and settling over time. Other work I completed over the next few years:

  • new A/C unit
  • new furnace
  • new water heater
  • new fuse box and service riser (apparently there had been a fire in the old fuse box).
  • gut-job kitchen remodel (it is great to make toast with the lights on!), including new appliance appliances
  • removed 2 layers of press and stick vinyl floor tiles from all the original hardwood floors in the entire house and then refinishing the hardwood floors
  • having the main drain line from the house cleaned out (the previous owner decided to dump cooking grease down the drain for 25 years)
  • new garage door
  • new garage roof
  • new garage side entry door
  • replace the front porch (the old one was mostly rotten and was held to the house with 2 nails)
  • painting the entire house inside and out, and countless other small projects here and there.

I stopped just short of finishing the upstairs (to gain another 500 square feet of living space) and replacing the roof and gutters — I’ll let the new owners take care of those changes. When all was said and done, I was able to sell my house in one week (in a bum housing market) so that Jim and I could buy our new mid century ranch house where we currently live. Did I make any money on my first house? Heck no. Luckily, I didn’t lose much, though — and I learned a whole lot about being a homeowner, as well as what kinds of repairs I feel comfortable doing myself versus the ones I need to hire out.

Thus far, most of the repairs that I’ve had to make here at our new (1962) ranch house have been things I’d known would need attention from the day I signed on the dotted line. So far, so good. But I’ve read all the comments — and am aiming to keep the emergency fund stocked.

Yes, the headline promised 140+ stories — see them all in comments here.

And, want another downer Reality Check? Read Pam’s post, Remodel and watch your *investment* plunge in value.

What unexpected home costs have surprised you?
And, after a few years in your home, how have your views on home ownership evolved?

  1. Nancy says:

    We inherited my folks 1966 ranch. Luckily, Dad kept it up pretty well, replacing the roof, windows, and furnace and ac. We cut down a tree whose roots where raising the drive and two dead ones. We installed glass block basement windows. The electric cords outdoor had been fabric and wax covered, and when the cover decayed Dad had used electric tape!So we upgrades the electric system to code. We had to deal with rusted out tie rods in basement walls and fix cracks in the walls. We had plumbing rust away. We replaced the wood front door that had a mail slot. We replaced a toilet that ran all the time. Then we insulated the house.mthe garage roof blew off. We got a new one. New appliances were bought to replace the ones from 1984. NOW to deal with the kitchen! And take up the carpet in the kitchen and the 1980s stained carpet in the family room. Still, these concerns were “minor” . Last summer flooding affect most homes in our area, but we were spared!

  2. Retro Newbie says:

    Seven years ago, I purchased a townhouse built in 1955. It has brick exterior and came equipped with the required 3 large bushes in the front lawn so that it was hard to see the house!
    My one worry is the flat roof. My inspector said it was in very good shape. HA! Last year, I had half done right over my bedroom. Good thing too because the area was rotten all the way down to the wood. My contractor said I would have to get the rest done but, could wait 1-2 years. I have plans to get it papered and tarred before Chicago big snow season starts. Wish me luck that it doesn’t turn into a big mess.

  3. david says:

    In the past 25 years I have owned and fixed up around 12 houses. Each and every one was a wonderful experience and as I look back now, sigh, there were a couple I should have held on to. One I bought for $270,000 in 1998 and is worth one and a half million. But I love to play and fix up house’s and if you hit the market at the right time you can do great.
    But when life has it’s bumps in the road that doesn’t mean one has to live in a place they hate.
    As I was approaching 58 I had a wonderful ranch house in the San Fernando Valley which I bought at the top of the market (Eight years ago). Well the market came back as I was able to sell . I also wanted to retire or at least simi retire so I looked at my possibilities and realities. I wanted to pay cash for a house and my over head low.
    I found Palm Springs a great fit. I also wanted to buy something for cash, have few bills and be able to enjoy the last third.
    What I could afford was a mobile home which in Palm Springs is not hard to find. The park I found is the Sahara Park (55 and older). This place is great, a slice out of the ’50s! In this park you own your home but rent the space. In some parks you own the space as well but the price tag of the home goes up. I had looked in the Sahara Park over the years, finding it charming and well kept but there was one unit that I loved. It looked like something out of Disneyland s House of Tomorrow. It looks like a 1965 Proto type home and I wanted it but it wasn’t for sale. One day I met the owners, who come here for the winter, and told them how much I loved there home. They said this was going to be there last season there and with a hand shake I was to become the new owner. The home is over 1100 square feet and at least that much for the yard and fantastic views of the St Jacento Mountains. The cost of my new space age home? $30,000. The rent for the space is $430.
    After selling my house and paying off everything my monthly house payment is less then my car payment used to be! I live in one of the best locations in Palm Springs and my cost of living is way way down. It can be done and I live in a place I love.
    Your website has been a true gift. Ive always said Id rather buy a house that’s original to restore rather then fixing someones remodel. So is true in the pre fab , manufactured homes.from the front my double wide looks like a Don Wexler with the W roof line(Which I have never seen on any mobile home) and I am restoring it as I go along. I would love to show you some before and afters so if you could tell me how to do that it would be most heplful
    Thank you RR

  4. Panzyzz says:

    Where to start? We bought my childhood home that was built by my parents in 1959-60. First-removal of overgrown trees my parents planted 50 years ago ($800-a steal!), the whole roof needed to be replaced, worst in our roofer’s 26 years experience ($8,000), septic cleanout ($1,000) which in the end we decided to hook up to the local sewage treatment system ($7,000), complete gut in front of house (LUCKY that my son tore out the plaster ceiling and walls) then re-drywall ($4,000?)…there have been several handymen in here since then for finish work and we’d have to add them all up – BUT – it was a labor of love. My parents built this house and houses today are not built like they used to be. Our house has steel beams and a very solid foundation. It has that classic midcentury style. Everyone comments on it. Its always been home!

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