Protect Your Biggest Investment (Your Home!):
For most of us, our home will be the biggest tangible investment we ever make. When you consider that wages have remained relatively stagnant in the U.S. over the past decade, while home values continue to climb (excepting the downturn of 2008-2009), it’s no wonder many people think of their home as a major investment. But how do you protect your biggest investment, when it’s something many of us take for granted?
When my husband and I shopped for our family home a decade ago, it was clear that some sellers had maintained their property over the decades. Others, not so much. (I’ll never forget the home whose interior screamed “1980s.” The owner offered a $10K redecorating budget to any buyers willing to pay her full asking price. Umm, yeah, no thank you. Too much work.)
In my experience as a homeowner, you have two choices: You pay now, or you pay later, Either you stay on top of basic maintenance and sensible updates, paying small amounts each year, or you have to do it all at once when it’s time to move. Which means, you have to come up with all that money all at once. NOT fun. So if you want to avoid finding yourself in that boat, here’s what you need to do:
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How to Treat Your Home Like The Investment It Is:
1. Know what you’re getting into!
Have you ever seen that 1980s movie The Money Pit? If you’ve lived as a renter for several years, that’s what the leap to homeownership can often feel like: a never-ending series of one problem after another, each more expensive than the last.
Some things (like a faucet breaking or your basement flooding) demand immediate attention. Others, it can be easier to ignore. But there is no denying that taking care of all those little things you used to bug the landlord about is a pain. And an expensive one, at that.
Why and how:
So before you buy your home, it’s helpful to try to imagine what you hope to get out of it. Is this a “starter home,” i.e., just a five- or ten-year home for your family? Or do you hope (as Dear Husband and I did when buying our current home) to stay put at least until your kids are out of college?
Knowing the answer to this question will help you decide how much you’re going to invest in your home over time. In my experience, you can either defer all the maintenance until it’s time to sell, OR you can stay on top of things. If you defer it all, you have a lot of headaches and a huge cash-flow drain until you’re able to sell it. If you stay on top of it, and do your best to budget accordingly, you can enjoy all the improvements while living there!
2. Treat your home like the major investment it is!
So, now that we’re clear that homeownership is far from a cakewalk (compared to renting): how does that knowledge shape the decisions you make as a homeowner?
Besides knowing what you’re getting into, you need to know whether this is a short-term investment, or something you’re invested in for the long haul. You’re a lot more tolerant of, say, an annoying roommate in your dorm or apartment if you know it’s just for a semester, compared to if you had to live with that person for the next five years. Same thing with houses. Unless you buy a place with the sole intention of flipping it for a profit, your whole attitude toward maintenance will be shaped by whether you know you’re there for only a few years, vs. whether you plan to stay put for decades.
Why and how:
That’s why you should take that home inspection you get before buying your home seriously. And get the seller to pay for as much as possible, BEFORE you buy. When Dear Husband and I shopped for our current house, we consciously talked about it as being our “30-year home,” i.e., the place where we hoped to stay not just til our kids were out of college, but until we ourselves were retired. That has shaped every decision we’ve made about home improvements since then. That’s also why you need to make sure your inspection is from a reputable company – for example, a Solex Group professional home inspection.
One of the things that showed up on our inspection report was the fact that most of our then-25-year-old windows had broken seals, which is why they were all foggy. We tried to get the sellers to cover some or all of that cost. They refused, and with Kimmie’s birth imminent and our former homes sold, we were getting desperate. A decade later, we still haven’t gotten around to the ten-thousand-plus dollars it would cost to replace all our windows.
3. Be proactive on maintenance
The example of our still-foggy windows raises an important question: how do you fund all of this? Well, besides having a rainy-day fund for emergencies like losing your job or your furnace breaks, it’s also a good idea (if you can swing it) to keep a “home maintenance” fund going. This way, you can do a few small upgrades every year, so things don’t start to pile up. For us, we have a savings account where we put our tax refunds each year and any other “windfalls”; this is our “home improvement” fund.
For example, I try to paint one room in our home each year. We also try to plan for one larger upgrade each year. As soon as the girls were out of diapers (meaning we could ditch our living-room changing table), I had custom built-in bookcases installed. After last year’s basement flood, we got several years’ worth of upgrades (chief among them new basement flooring) knocked off all at once, thanks to the insurance settlement. And after the handle on one of our bathroom faucets literally broke off a few months back, this year I plan to get them all upgraded to newer models. (Lucky for us, Dear Husband has replaced plenty of faucets over the years!)
Why and how:
Yes, doing at least one “project” per year may sound like a hassle. Yes, it’s a lot of work AND money. But I kid you not: you WILL do those fixes sooner or later, and it’s much nicer to enjoy all these upgrades while you’re still living in the home. Not to mention, it’s nice to have relatively little work to do before putting your home on the market, compared to having months and years of backlogged maintenance to take care of before your realtor will even list it for you. I’ve seen that side of the coin, and it’s not fun, especially if you’re hoping to get top dollar when you sell your home.
4. Stay on top of the day-to-day maintenance, too!
Do you notice how the word that keeps coming up in this post is “maintenance”? I can’t stress enough how critical this is – not just for the bigger things and the mid-range things, but for the little day-to-day things, too.
If you’re the sort of person who decorates with the seasons, or likes to upgrade your accessories every few years, you know what I’m talking about – that wonderful feeling you get when you treat your home to a “new look,” no matter how modest. These changes are easy to notice; NOT doing them may not be as obvious. But trust me, if you’re not keeping up with your property’s basic needs, other people – from visitors to your neighbors to (someday) prospective buyers – WILL notice.
Why and how:
Believe me, those little things – like keeping the gutters clean, or checking the roof after a big storm, or fixing that loose door handle, can help you avoid having bigger problems because you didn’t take care of the little problems. The same goes for a leaky faucet or a leaky toilet. It’s much easier to stay on top of the small fixes and seasonal tasks, than it is to wait for them to get out of hand before you take care of them. Multiple “litlte things” can quickly add up to one big issue, which affects the quality — and thus the value — of your home.
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5. Be a good neighbor, and get involved
Think about the institutions you care about – maybe your kids’ school, or your house of worship, or a local civic organization to which you belong. Do you sit back and watch others do all the work, then complain about how poorly things are going? Or do you get involved and work to make things better? (I hope it’s the latter!)
It should be a no-brainer, but I’ll point it out anyway: Get involved. Get to know your neighbors. Be a good neighbor. Get involved in your community, whether that’s participating in local events like block parties and your local National Night Out, attending your homeowner’s association monthly meetings, or participating in your local civic improvement organization.
Why and how:
Why should you take the time to do this? Several reasons:
- If your neighbors know who you are and vice-versa, you’re more likely to have each other’s backs – whether it’s having familiar faces for your kids to sell Girl Scout cookies to, or a friendly reminder that it’s street-cleaning day and you need to move your car before it gets ticketed or towed.
- It’s a lot easier to work together to solve problems (e.g., a tree that’s on your neighbor’s property but endangers yours) if you’re on good speaking terms with your neighbors.
- And if you share a sense of “we’re all in this together” with your neighbors, you’re all more likely to work together to keep up your neighborhood by maintaining your homes’ curb appeal and overall property values. The first few years we were in our current home, I remember re-landscaping all our gardens, one at a time – and having all our neighbors stop by to give me positive encouragement every time they saw me weeding or planting. Apparently, the previous owners had let the place go, and our neighbors were grateful that we cared about our home’s outward appearance (and presumably, its interior state, too!)
Think about it this way: While you can’t choose your neighbors once you’ve signed the ownership papers, you CAN play an active role in improving your community. It’s a good thing to do anyway, but there’s a broader benefit: it’ll help prevent your home’s value from being negatively affected due to its location.
If you’re a homeowner, what tips do you have for protecting the value of your family’s biggest investment? Let us know in the comments!
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