What To Do When Home Maintenance Costs Start To Pile Up

When Sarah and I bought our first home, the previous owners left it in pretty good shape. The appliances were relatively new and the home had been well-maintained during the time that the previous owners lived there, and they had taken a bunch of steps to make the home ready to sell.

As first-time homeowners, we weren’t really sure how to maintain a home. We picked up a few home maintenance guides at the bookstore and we did our best to follow them. We learned how to do a lot of simple DIY tasks, like caulking windows and fixing toilets, and we developed a monthly home maintenance checklist.

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This list has served us well, but over time, everything starts to show wear and tear, and even the most well-maintained items eventually break down. We reached a point where several things were becoming worn down, requiring more effort to keep them going and more cost for minor repairs and fixes. In short, our home maintenance costs were going up significantly, and the only way to get them to go down again was to replace several things, which meant even more expenses.

This can create a real financial pinch, especially for homeowners on a tight budget. What can you do in this situation to keep costs from escalating?

In this article

    Steps you can take before maintenance costs skyrocket

    If you’re a homeowner, periods with high maintenance and repair costs will happen. Here’s what you can do to get ready for it.

    Know when it’s coming

    Maintenance, repair and replacement costs tend to skyrocket during periods when large numbers of appliances and elements of your home reach the end of their expected lifecycle or exceed it. You can figure out periods when this will happen by going through the major replaceable elements of your home, such as your windows, your roof, and your major appliances, and figure out when they should reach the end of their expected life cycle.

    Assume that you will have some need to repair or replace the item at some point starting on the short end of the expected lifestyle. Then, periods where you have a lot of items starting to overlap in terms of needing replacement are periods when you can be sure your maintenance and replacement costs will go way up.

    For example, a dishwasher typically lasts 6–10 years. If you bought one two years ago, you’ll start to enter a period where replacement may be on the table in four years. A washing machine typically lasts 7–13 years. If you bought that last year, you’ll be looking at a replacement starting in about six years. Air conditioning units typically have a lifespan of 15–20 years, so if you bought one five years ago, you’ll likely have a decade before it may need to be replaced.

    In a situation like this, in six years you’ll have two major appliances that will be nearing the point of replacement, and you’ll add the AC shortly thereafter. It’s reasonable to expect that major costs will start hitting at this point.

    You can easily make a list like this yourself. Just make a list of every major appliance and every replaceable part of your home. Look up when you bought that item, as well as the expected lifespan of that item. Then, figure out when each item will be at the short end of its expected lifespan, as well as the long end. There’s usually a point at which a lot of items suddenly reach the short or long end of their lifespan, and that’s often when maintenance, repair and replacement costs skyrocket for homeowners.

    Keep a strong maintenance schedule for everything

    The surest way to stretch the lifespan of elements of your home is to maintain them well. Stick to a strong home maintenance schedule. This serves two vital purposes.

    One, by maintaining your major appliances and elements of your home, you directly maximize their lifespan. You’re ensuring that they will continue to run for as long as possible. This means fewer big repairs and longer spans between expensive replacements.

    Two, with regular maintenance, you’re making yourself pay attention to that appliance, which enables you to notice small problems (which you might handle yourself or with a small repair bill) before they become major breakdowns at a critical moment.

    Put aside money now

    If you know that you’re going to be facing a bunch of repairs and replacements in a few years, start saving for that now. Put aside $50 or $100 a month into an appliance and home repair fund for this purpose. A good way to do this is to make the savings automatic.

    One approach to this is to include appliance, roof and window replacements and major repairs as part of a larger emergency fund. However, if you use this approach, you should put money in your emergency fund consistently, perhaps weekly.

    If you are a homeowner and don’t already have one, you should start an emergency fund as soon as possible, and fund it automatically with money from your checking account. This is particularly true if you intend to use it to pay for major repairs and appliance replacements.

    Target high-use items first

    If you made a list of the major appliances and parts of your home that need maintenance and eventual replacement, consider which of them are most likely to cause major problems if they fail. For example, a damaged roof could cause extensive property damage, while a failed television just means you go without TV for a while. Decide which items are of high importance to replace and which ones are less important during moments when you’re not struck by emotion and urgency.

    Why is this important? It’s useful to recognize that if multiple items need major repair or replacement, you do not have to repair or replace them immediately.

    For example, our television began to experience significant problems a few years ago. It developed a large blue stripe on the left side of the screen and would spontaneously power off at unexpected times. We could have replaced it immediately, but we didn’t need to replace it immediately. Instead, we intentionally saved for our replacement television slowly, without impacting our day-to-day life, and then replaced it with a nice unit.

    Steps you can take while costs are high

    What if you’re in a situation where many things need repair or replacement soon and you don’t have an emergency fund? Here are some strategies you can use.

    Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

    You don’t need a dishwasher or a television or an oven for daily life, at least for a while. They may be inconvenient, but you will be able to eat without them. Instead, put your money and effort toward things that have a high impact. If you live in an area with extreme climate, repairing or replacing a furnace or an air conditioner is a top priority, as it can affect the livability of your home and can have serious health consequences. Fixing a damaged roof can be vital, too, particularly if it is beginning to leak, as that can lead to permanent damage to your home.

    Use stopgap measures

    While a broken appliance might be inconvenient, it doesn’t mean it needs immediate replacement. For example, when our dishwasher failed a while back, we literally used our broken one as a drying rack and washed dishes by hand for a while until we were able to buy a replacement.

    If a television goes out, co-opt a computer monitor or an old laptop for your viewing needs for a while. When our oven coil failed and it was hard to acquire a replacement, we just leaned on the stove top and the slow cooker a lot for a few weeks.

    These types of changes might be inconvenient, but they can turn a crisis that might result in a lot of debt into something livable for a while until you have the funds to actually fix the problem in a lasting way.

    Avoid debt unless it’s essential

    While it might be tempting to solve a home maintenance issue using a credit card or a payment plan, you’ll end up paying a lot in interest. Make sure that the purchase you’re making is essential. Do you need this item immediately? Are there stopgap measures you can use while you save up the money instead? Simply hand-washing dishes for a few months or using a space heater on the coolest days in spring can keep you from accumulating tons of debt.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.