As soon as my husband and I pulled up to see the house we’d eventually buy, it already had a good vibe to it. A blue house with a red door— just like the one I grew up in. It struck a sentimental note with me immediately.
After living in one-bedroom apartments for the past seven years, we were looking to finally make the move from renters to homeowners. It wasn’t a quick process— buying a house (and getting a mortgage) aren’t things that move quickly, generally. But once we moved in, we knew we had a long to-do list of things we wanted to accomplish to make this house ours. There were a few bumps along the road, though. Here are the sometimes costly, often annoying and always informative things I learned from my first few months of homeownership.
1. Recycling & trash aren’t necessarily provided by your county/city.
Once we moved in, we knew we had to set up all of our utilities. As apartment-dwellers though, we didn’t realize how many services aren’t included in some areas’ public works departments. In our area, trash and recycling were not provided gratis by the city or county— we had to pay the government to take our garbage away or hire a private service to do it instead. It’s not an incredibly expensive item to add to our budget, but it was definitely an expense we weren’t anticipating.
2. Get ready for higher utilities.
The biggest apartment my husband and I had ever lived in was just about 900 square feet and it was a garden apartment, so it remained pretty moderate temperature-wise throughout the year. Our utility bills were pretty low. That’s why our first bill for our considerably larger house came as a bit of a shock. We moved in the late fall, so we knew winter heating bills were ahead of us, but we weren’t expecting our first electric and water bill to be nearly three times what our apartment’s bill was.
After we got that bill, I had a much bigger appreciation for why my parents nagged my sisters and me about leaving the lights or TV on when we left a room. Kids, take it from me, parents just understand how expensive electricity is.
If you’re really worried about your bills, you can ask about budget billing or “levelized” payments. Those plans allow you to pay a similar amount each month, adjusted periodically depending on your use. We haven’t done that yet. I wanted to wait a year to see if it made sense— get a feel for how different every month can be and how we can just do a better job of being more efficient too.
3. Air filters — you have to change them more often than you think.
I’ve never had to own a heating and cooling system before, so maintenance was an expense I expected, but had no idea how to budget for. Air filters on your air-conditioning and heating units need to be changed every 4-6 weeks. We got that tip when we moved in and set reminders for ourselves so we won’t forget.
4. A big yard is beautiful, but hellish to maintain.
I loved the big, open green space at our house when we bought it. Then, when we finally moved in, we had a yard fully covered in leaves and the work began. That first weekend we were in our new house wasn’t actually spent inside the house. It was spent in the yard raking and leaf blowing and collecting sticks that had fallen from our big oak trees. It was a two-day, two-person job and, of course, the next weekend the yard was covered again. Maybe next year we’ll opt to get a lawn maintenance company to help with the work load, but it will all depend on the price.
5. Buy a snow shovel immediately.
You never know when you’ll need it and don’t want to be without one when you get a foot of snow. Trust me. That storm in January that dumped a foot of snow on the Mid-Atlantic? Yeah, that hit us hard.
6. You’ll be going to home improvement stores … A LOT!
We had one room we wanted to completely re-paint and freshen up. It had dark, glossy, stained-wood built-in cabinets all along one wall, with trim and ceiling beams to match. The walls were a yellow-beige and it was the one room that almost made us walk away from the house before we bought it. (It was literally marked “man cave” on our breaker box, as my husband discovered about a month after moving in.) We decided we wanted to paint all the trim, molding, paneling, built-ins and beams white and the walls and ceilings a light gray. It took four weekends of work to finish the whole project. But the real kicker was that it took probably half a dozen trips to a home improvement store to finish the job.
Paint brushes, drop cloths, caulk, more caulk cause we underestimated how much we’d need, liquid sandpaper, paint, more paint because we didn’t like the samples we got the first time, gloves, rollers, paint trays, and even more paint because we underestimated how much we’d need (again). It was a lot of trips back and forth. Luckily, we have some supplies now so the next home improvement project will go more smoothly.
7. Gutters fill up so quickly.
Think your yard is bad? The gutters are worse. We swore up and down when we cleaned them up the first time because we thought the previous owners had maybe neglected them for a while— they were filled to the brim with rotting leaves, twigs and sludge. Then we lived in the house for another two months and realized that was just a year’s worth (maybe less) of buildup. We’ll be encountering the same horrible sludge next year.
8. Make sure your home inspector looks at the outside of the house too.
Our home inspector did a great job, pointing out some potential trouble spots. One in particular was a tree that looked like it was distressed. We were able to get a credit for the tree, and about a month ago called out a tree trimming service to have the tree taken down. The problem? Our credit would only cover half of the cost of removing the whole tree. We opted to remove the branches that looked dead and maybe revisit it next year when we could see if that had fixed the problem or if the whole tree needed to go.
It was a lesson learned though. If our inspector hadn’t done a really thorough job and taken a look at the yard and other parts of the exterior of the house (often this is not required in an inspection) then we could have had a big problem the next time we had a major storm.
9. Don’t buy furniture just to fill space.
I already knew that new homeowners often over-extend themselves when they first buy a house by opening new credit cards and buying tons of furniture to fill the space — it’s an effect of working in personal finance. But what I didn’t realize is how strong the urge is to buy, buy, buy. You want to welcome friends and family into your home as soon as you buy it. You want them to get a sense for where you’ve settled down. But that urge can blind you to the fact that the dining room table you desperately want is out of your budget right now. Trust me— I knew better and still was tempted to splurge unnecessarily.
10. The first time you make a fire in your fireplace, make sure you own a fire extinguisher.
There are tons of YouTube videos that can help you figure out how to operate your fireplace. Be sure to look through them before you attempt it. After successfully making a fire in our fireplace for the first time (without incident), my husband and I both realized we hadn’t bought a fire extinguisher yet. It could have been a disaster, though luckily it wasn’t. We bought one the next day.
11. The local library has a wealth of resources for home and lawn care advice.
I know nothing about gardening. My mother and mother-in-law both have green thumbs, but now I have to put to the test whether that trait is genetic. I started by going on Pinterest to find some information on composting and some other gardening basics, but the best resource I found was the local library. Here’s why.
Every gardening book will tell you that lawn care and plant selection are dependent on knowing your environment. I found that our local library had at least a dozen books on the local climate and what grows best in the state. I don’t have the results of my efforts yet, but I would highly recommend hitting up your local library before you start a gardening project— it’s free (just remember to return your books on time!).
12. My credit score actually improved once we got a mortgage.
When I first applied for a mortgage, my credit score took a small hit because of the inquiry on my report. (I check my credit scores for free on Credit.com every month so I was able to see the impact almost immediately.) But, just a few months later, my scores are the highest they’ve ever been. Adding an installment loan to my credit history and a positive payment history has improved my score more than 25 points already, and I’m just a few months into homeownership. I would never recommend buying a home just to improve your credit, but I was surprised at how much it impacted me.
13. Renting is so much easier.
There are a lot of things I learned in just my first few months of homeownership, but the overarching lesson is that renting is way, way easier. There are so many things you don’t have to worry about when you rent. But— and this is a big “but”— it’s not nearly as rewarding as figuring out how to tackle the new challenges of owning a home. I was so proud of my work when I shoveled a foot of snow from my driveway. I looked at my yard and felt accomplished when we cleared out all the leaves that first weekend. I still look at the re-painted room we’ve now settled into and marvel at all the work it took and how great it looks now. Plus, I’m building equity in my house— this is an investment for us as well. We plan to be here for a while (even though our closing attorney said we’d be back in 6-7 years ready for a new place). In the meantime, I plan to keep challenging myself with new projects. Next up: how to lay a paver patio.
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Image: Sergey Peterman