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May 28, 2013 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm becoming a first-time homeowner on Monday. What surprising things (or unexpected challenges) did you learn in your first year as a homeowner that you think it would be good for me to know? The house is in Wisconsin, in a Milwaukee suburb. Thanks so much!
posted by gerryblog to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
plan and budget for more tools than you think you need for both home maintenance and yardwork. Especially if you've lived in an apartment or condo up until now. I assume this is a single family detached residence with a yard? Then yeah - start with things like a simple lawnmower, clippers and a wheelbarrow, etc. Yard work is seriously a thing, and if you have trees, the entropy that occurs around them is truly shocking.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:44 PM on May 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

Hope you have some $$$ in the "shit gonna break" fund.

My hot water heater just went (Yay! I bought it new 7 years ago.) AND! I have to get the sewer line snaked.

My life is a freaking bowl of cherries right now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:46 PM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

You might be my neighbor! We learned that the previous owner isn't always aware of problems and an inspector can sometimes miss them. Take for example the roof that leaks even though we've had it completely re-done. (There was some evidence in the attic that someone knew about this, but it was likely the previous owner's dead husband.)

If you can afford it, I would suggest you have a slush fund of a couple thousand bucks that you do not touch for at least a year and use only when (not IF) something unexpected comes up with the house. It's probably a good job to keep this fund alive and well anyway as time goes on.

And you can also expect that the minute your fun purchases (new furniture, tv, etc) are delivered something boring will break and you'll have to have it fixed.
posted by thorny at 12:47 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

A number I've seen suggested is to plan on 2-3% of the home value per year for maintenance costs. Start saving this money now, and have the money on hand for emergencies.

If you are able to save a good house emergency fund, consider raising the deductible on your homeowners' insurance to $2K or $5K. This will mean you basically self-insure for small house problems. This has the advantages of lowering your insurance premiums and also letting you avoid claims for small things - avoiding claims is good because insurers often raise your rates after you make a claim.

It's really surprisingly hard to find good repair people and contractors to do work on your house. If you're not planning to fix everything yourself, start asking around now for recommendations for plumbers, electricians, heating maintenance people, etc. Then you'll have less of a mad scramble when you need something done.

Do routine maintenance! Clean the gutters, have the furnace serviced, all that kind of stuff. It's easy to forget but can really help you avoid expensive problems later.
posted by medusa at 12:53 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding setup a slush fund; we have an emergency fund that we use for either our cars or the house so we can pay for repairs or replacements up front. I.e. our new washer and dryer that will be delivered next week since the 10 year old set that came with the house is on its last legs.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:53 PM on May 28, 2013

Everything is fixable. With enough money, effort or friends.

Everything is more expensive than you think it should be.

Unless your house is a new or recent build you should plan on spending a lot to heat it and a lot to cool it.

When you own a home making friends with neighbors is really the only way to keep from making enemies. Do it early. Do it often.

Fix whatever it is now rather than let it become a much bigger/more expensive thing later.

Simple maintenance can save you major money down the line. Don't put off things like fixing a slow drip, cleaning out the gutters, weeding, etc. These are the activities that will allow you to stay "in touch" with your home and therefore find problems before they become major.

If you have had a decent exchange with the sellers ask them if they can be sure to leave behind instructions on things, manuals, etc.

Also - if you know that "some day" you're going to want to fix or change consider doing it earlier rather than later. I always hate seeing people "fix" something just before they sell a house - seems a shame that they didn't get to enjoy that improvement through their time in the house.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:54 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Inspectors aren't allowed to open things up to see what the real problem is. They can just guess based on signs. Good ones don't miss much, but even good ones will miss some things.

You will need tools, or you will need a friend with tools. Cheap tools can be dangerous, so don't buy the absolute cheapest ones ... especially when there's rotating parts or parts under pressure. (Ex: Harbor Freight nail guns. Insert a "NOPE" emoticon/memegif here.)

Stuff just breaks on houses, and you MUST keep up with the entropy or it will deteriorate into major projects.

An example of this that bit the previous owners (and me) on my house is grass near the foundation. The previous owners didn't mow much. This led to grass growing up behind the siding. Then, when it got mowed and cut off, a lot of the grass was left inside the wall. It attracted bugs and wicked water up behind the siding, rotting inside the wall. Then the siding rotted from behind (and was full of bugs besides) and the insulation was compromised. The end result was a need to remove and replace the insulation and put up proper sheathing and siding. It was expensive. All because they didn't mow regularly. This is true of everything. If you find a leak, you had better get it taken care of ASAP.

For things you don't want to do yourself... Use Angie's List to find contractors. Never choose the absolute lowest bid; good work is worth the price. One of my friends needed to re-do tile in their bath tub and paid someone they found on Craigslist $500 to do it. The result made the "top ten worst tile jobs" on a popular website.
posted by SpecialK at 12:55 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Tree pruning was a maintenance item off my radar when I first moved into my house.
posted by eelgrassman at 12:57 PM on May 28, 2013

The previous owners will ALWAYS have done something completely inexplicable that beggars common sense. At least your common sense. (And you're bound to do things that will be utterly nonsensical to the next owner.)

So keep an open mind, a sharp eye, and a slush fund.

We discovered an interior-rated coax cable strung across the attic and run down the outside of the house to provide TV to the living room instead of having it installed properly when it was built (and they put proper coax connections in the garage and porch, for cryin' out loud!). We also discovered that the electrical cord from the exterior garden lights was seriously damaged to the point of being a fire hazard near the plug, and that they inexplicably removed and got rid of all the cords to raise the blinds so that I have to get a stepstool to reach up and open them (the previous owners were both 6'+, I am a hair over 5') and of course it's a special order so we have to take time off work to go to the store and order replacements, so we haven't opened the blinds for two years except when the Mr wants to stand on his tiptoes or I want to get a stepstool.

We did not care much about previous vendors for the house as we had our own from our previous house that we trusted.
posted by telophase at 12:57 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a bunch of Jeremiahs we are. We have given you a new book of Lamentations. All the above- mentioned disasters will probably happen over time. Meantime: Congratulations! Plant bright flowers, have a house warming party and enjoy your new status as homeowner.
posted by Cranberry at 1:18 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

To build onto what SpecialK said - you will hear a lot of "household horror stories" from me and others on this thread, but the importance of a "shit gonna break" slush fund cannot be overemphasized.

You would not believe the damage a simple oversight like small weeds or trees can have. When I first started dating my husband he had just moved into his first home six months before, and the elderly lady who lived there prior had either been incapable or unmotivated to do much yard maintenance, and it showed. Our property has ash trees, which I personally would never have around a residence ever again, because omg, the seeds. go. EVERYWHERE. I can't tell you what a constant PITA they are in the garden, but that's just a minor inconvenience. They get in the gutters, in the shingles, in the cracks in the sidewalks, in the walls, in our vehicles... just about anywhere a tiny bit of dirt can cling, I have removed ash seedlings. It is insane. When I first moved in with the mister, I spent several weekends clearing away innumerable young trees, shrubs, weeds, etc... from all around the foundation, and pulled off about a metric ton of English ivy from the brick south wall. Yes English ivy is pretty, but it is also incredibly destructive to masonry.

About a year later we came back in all around the entire foundation / exterior with a bunch of clay fill and "outsloped" the drainage from the house walls/foundation to prevent water pooling, and then added weed barrier, then 3 tons of rock to keep the weeds / young trees from re-growing around our foundations. And then we replaced all the gutters, which were destroyed from the aforementioned ash tree incursions. And that was just the first year.

Shortly after that we discovered a major wiring code violation / malfunction that the inspector had somehow missed (essentially a giant ball of black electrical tape served as our junction box coming in from the main) and that led to getting all the wiring and (subsequently upon finding Other Bad Things in the crawlspace excursions that required) plumbing replaced. Oh and then our stove broke and somehow that led to a $60K kitchen remodel??? But I digress.

Next up we will need to replace the roof and the soffits (partly from aforementioned shitty gutters), oh haha...
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:18 PM on May 28, 2013

yea what Cranberry said. Get a grill post haste because there will be days when all you want to do is crack a beer, throw some stuff on the grill, and contemplate why the hell you ever wanted to be a homeowner in the first place.

posted by lonefrontranger at 1:20 PM on May 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

Congratulations! Do you have a roof rake yet? It will cost you about $20 now, but it will be priceless in January.
posted by headnsouth at 1:25 PM on May 28, 2013

If you haven't already discovered as much with all the rain we've had lately, climb up on the roof and take a hose to it to find out if it leaks anywhere. We found out the day after closing that our roof leaks rather heavily, into the house; unfortunately, since we'd already signed on the dotted line, the previous owners did not feel the need to provide any follow up to our flurry of frantic emails/voicemails wondering why they didn't disclose the roof leak. (This has remained a major PITA... none of the patches we've put on ourselves have been 100% effective and we still can't seem to find a good/trustworthy roofing contractor.)

Start a bag/box next to your mailbox so you can collect and forward the previous owners' mail as it comes (our previous owners did not update their mailing/forwarding address with USPS after we bought the house, which meant we got double mail for almost two years -- when we filed the address change ourselves). Alternately, get ready to write a lot of 'return to sender' notes.

Annual heating system inspections are a must here in the great frozen north, should only run ~$50-60/year. Also, you'll be OK turning off the furnace pilot light at some point in the next week or so -- I had no idea you could turn them off ever before I bought a house.

Buy a nice, solid set of tools for home repairs and gardening/yard work.

Start setting aside at least twice the amount of money you were thinking of setting aside when you were still in the homebuying planning stages, so you don't have a meltdown when something totally pedestrian (sump pump, washer/drier, ) unexpectedly breaks.

Get ready to spend the next several years being completely overwhelmed and bewildered as you gradually discover all of the inexplicable and occasionally dangerous repair/aesthetic decisions the previous owners made.

If you're able to get or stay in touch with the previous owners, ask them who they used for fix-it/handyman stuff. Our previous owners did not leave so much as a single scrap of useful information behind, so we had to figure out everything the hard/long way. For example, we only learned which breakers powered which outlets/lights by turning on every light and powering something up in every outlet in the house, then manually going through everything after switching one breaker off and seeing what had been powered down.

Figure out where your property lines are, if you don't already have that information. My well-meaning but utterly clueless next-door neighbor (who has never before lived in an urban area, let alone a major city) just put up a fence without a permit, claiming that she had definitively ascertained the property line between my house and hers by... inspecting aerial views of our respective properties on Google Maps. Oof.

Introduce yourselves to your neighbors, if you see them out and about, and exchange phone numbers if possible. That way, they can call you if they notice someone skulking around your side yard, or you can call them if you notice that they went out of town for the weekend and left the sprinkler on.

If you find any ailanthus seedlings in your yard -- VERY common around here -- yank them out immediately because they are next to impossible to get rid of, and have a bad tendency to spread into neighboring areas very quickly.

Don't use your realtor for contractor recommendations.

Go through the house ASAP and make a list of absolutely everything that you want to do/redo so you have something to reference when you're feeling up to doing some weekend projects. If you're handy, get a book like this.

Know that from this point forward, there will ALWAYS be something to fix/paint/patch/seal/insulate -- don't stress too much, just put it on the list!
posted by divined by radio at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reiterating that list that divined by radio suggests: It's terribly easy to get caught up in "it'd be nice if" projects and let the "OMG we totally have to do" (or budget and save for) items slide. Until it's too late and you have to do them.
posted by straw at 1:35 PM on May 28, 2013

It seems that most of the major stuff is covered so, when you plant stuff in your yard, make a record of what you planted and where, especially for things that die back over the winter.
("What is that?" "I dunno, did you plant it?" "Uh, maybe?")
posted by florencetnoa at 1:41 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

A surprising but minor thing I learned was this: the rawlplugs (wikipedia tells me they're called "screw anchors" or "dowels" in the US?) that get included when you buy shelves, fittings, etc are usually terrible and not up to the task in some way. Buy your own large stash of good ones in various sizes and use them instead.
posted by doop at 1:47 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My advice would be to hire a home inspector. I know, I know- you just did that! I guarantee that the inspector you hired was recommended by your R.E. agent and as such, probably was encouraged to make sure the sale went through (go ahead, call me a cynic). Once you close, ask your agent who s/he hires when s/he doesn't want the house to close and hire that person.

Once you get an inspector, let them know you want a list of all of the things they would address in the next year, three years and five years. Ask for recommendations of plumbers, handymen, electricians and the like. (Also ask your neighbors who they use- builds relationships.)

For me, knowing what to keep an eye on was stress relieving. Of course, shit goes wrong and money will be spent at the least opportune time - ask me about our recent termite treatment- so have a fund ready.

Congratulations! You're either gonna love it or hate it- I hope you love it!!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 2:37 PM on May 28, 2013

Make a list of your accomplishments, as you tick off projects and to-do items and things to figure out. It will help when you're starting to feel overwhelmed about things that have yet to be done when you can look back and say 'well, we fixed the driveway, we found a guy to plow the snow, we added the vent above the stove, the windows have been fixed, we blew insulation into the attic, we replaced two toilets....' and that will give you the fuel to not feel daunted by the pooling water in the garage, etc. You'll be better able to see things on a continuum. Congratulations!
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:45 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Congratulations! It's not that hard- you'll be fine. When I moved into the house, we took $300 to home depot and stocked up. If you follow the same idea, I'd suggest that you:

- buy a ladder that reaches the roof.
- Get a small stock of 2x4s and a couple sheets of plywood handy, maybe a little drywall.
- buy some tools: corded drill, hammer, jigsaw, circular saw. Bits & nails. Screwdrivers, tape measure. speed square, roofing square, spirit level.
- Outside stuff: A tarp, rake, shovel, digging bar, and posthole digger are awesome to have on hand. A wheelbarrow is also great.
- Better living through chemistry: 3 in one oil, spackle, white glue, super glue, epoxy, gorilla glue, caulk. Ant killer / weed killer / fertilizer depending on your situation.

The most important tool I own for matrimonial harmony is a self-balancing bullseye laser level. You hang it on a tiny nailhole in the wall, and you can magically make all of the pictures in the room hang at the same level.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:49 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


It might sound backwards, but start keeping track of the improvements you make. Someday, you might be a seller yourself and it will be very handy to have a list of all the things you did to make the place better to reference for prospective buyers. Time runs together and you'll have a way of forgetting what you did when (and even everything you did).

I'm closing on my house in a month and will be watching this thread!
posted by Twicketface at 6:00 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

1) If anything cosmetic/minor about the place bothers you, fix it now. After you've lived in the place for 6-9 months, you won't see the problems anymore so you won't fix them. (Your guests will still notice.)

2) Gutters get filled up with squirrel debris faster than you can imagine. Clean them regularly (or, if you're a wuss like me, pay someone else to do it).
posted by cranberry_nut at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's an old home, purchase the outside gas, water, and sewer line insurances from your utility companies. Not long after I let mine lapse, my outside gas line broke and it was an expensive repair. These lines are a homeowner's responsibility (up to the curb where I live) and you never know the age or condition of what's buried under ground.
posted by Gadgetie at 9:31 PM on May 28, 2013

Automatic forwarding only lasts a year, but old mail manages to go on much longer. I recommend printing address labels with "Please Forward / Previous Owner's Name / New Address". Then you can just apply a sticker and put it right back in the mailbox.

On the flip side, leave your old address some pre-stamped and addressed mailing envelopes to put mail that doesn't forward in, and then call each company and get yourself off the list.
posted by lorimt at 10:05 PM on May 28, 2013

Your loan is top loaded, so you pay the highest ratio of interest to principal at the start. The saving grace of that is that you get to deduct a ton of interest from your taxes the first few years.
posted by PSB at 6:20 AM on May 29, 2013

Assume that there's some pesky number of things that will break at inconvenient times and budget a little money. Spouse and I joke about one "house unit" (which appears to be about $1000 for us), which seems to be about what every improvement costs -- replacing one room of flooring, or getting a new A/C unit a week before your wedding (!), or some mysterious furnace-related fussing, or a new sink top, etc. On the whole, they occur less often than you fear, but $1-2k can seem like a lot if you don't keep a little fund for precisely such matters. Your own "insurance slush fund" to keep fretting at bay.

And double-plus to the note about neighbors. Be especially considerate up front, as you're bound to inconvenience them with movers and contractors, etc., and you'd hate to rub somebody the wrong way and then have to deal with the consequences for decades. Throw a barbeque of greeting, or just say hi to everybody when you get the chance. Good neighbors are the emergency assistants (from babysitting to calling you when a tree limb falls) of your future, as well as possible friends.
posted by acm at 7:05 AM on May 29, 2013

We got a home warranty and it was worth it. We re-upped it the next year and it was worth it again [as judged by how much we paid and what we would have paid for the covered fixes]. Obviously that can't be true for everyone, but it's worth looking at home warranties, IMO.
posted by freezer cake at 5:45 PM on May 29, 2013

OMG, home warranties are awesome! We're coming up on the 1st anniversary of our closing, and so far the warranty has given us a new dishwasher and new fridge. We're trying to decide whether to re-up, and we probably will. In case the AC or washer/dryer go.

As much as you want, don't rip out too many plantings/plant too many new things until you've been through a full year and know what's there. We planted azalea bushes in front just to find peonies trying to grow through them this spring. And i love peonies, and totally would have stuck with those had I known they were there, but we had to rip them out (since half had already been taken out unknowingly during the planting process).
posted by timepiece at 1:51 PM on June 5, 2013

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