The Not-so-Hidden Costs of Home Ownership

A flooded basement and what we spent to fix it


I told friends at a dinner party this weekend that my husband and I had spent most of this week dealing with the aftermath of a flooded basement, and I immediately felt the lack of empathy. Many of my friends live in apartments, and I don’t blame them for reserving zero mental space for such matters. One of them said, “That sounds like a very grown-up thing to be dealing with,” which seems to be a charitable way to say, “I cannot even begin to care about that.” It’s a mark of a life-transition period when some of my friends have problems I don’t understand — the baby was up all night, etc. — and others are looking at my life the same way.

Regardless, this was my first brush with what I think all other homeowners already know: you cannot add up mortgage and insurance and taxes and utilities and get a number that “equals” the investment you make in a house. This past week, I invested quite a lot of other things in this hundred-year-old, mostly well-maintained house. You see, Ohio received some battering amounts of rain three days in a row, and the old storm-water and sewer systems of our town could not keep up. Other people had far more damage, but we had about three inches of water and gunk (mostly dirt, we think…) back up into our basement.

It subsequently drained out, except for a sediment layer of gunk; and one section of the basement that drained poorly had a half-inch remaining when we found it. Here are all the different costs involved.

Cost 1: Time

Lots of precious time with a squeegee. I hadn’t thought about it before, but for our house, we picked the opposite of a fixer upper, and for good reason. I’m not handy and I get little joy out of feeling like I’ve put something together with my own physical skills. I put in some real hours with a bucket, some bleach, and a big broom getting the gross basement back into shape, and it was not fun.

Cost 2: Claims

What in the world do claims look like? My husband discovered that water had been wicked up from the ground into the hot water heater, ruining or corroding important parts and turning out the pilot light. That was going to be hundreds of dollars to fix. We did learn a lot of interesting things about our home insurance: the deductible is $1000, and even making a claim when you break the deductible is no innocent matter because multiple claims in five years can result in your being dropped from your home insurance.

I had always seen the insurance as more of a catch-all, whereas our policy at least seems to be specifically for major disasters that result in thousands of dollars of damage.

Cost 3: Uncertainty about safety

Our water heater was just damaged enough that it seemed unsafe to use, but it technically still functioned. It was also 24 years old and had stickers on it in that goldenrod-and-brown palate I thought were reserved for the 70s, not the early 90s.

Without some serious hours researching online, talking to our own parents, and talking to more knowledgeable homeowners nearby, we might have tried not to replace the heater, to tough it out to save the money. Once we admitted we were going to buy the hot water heater, we had to research options: Did we want Energy Star? Did we want to go tankless and aim for a tax credit? So many questions.

Cost 4: Actual cost of a new hot water heater

We ended up picking a medium-level hot water heater that had Energy Star ratings but still had a hot water tank; the model happened to be on sale. We shelled out $580 for it, along with about 80 bucks in parts and items my husband needed to install it. (The estimate we got for a professional installation, $330, prompted him to try it himself.)

Cost 5: Lost property

Beyond the whole hot water heater issue, we lost some boxes, a basket of clothes, and an old grill, all of which were of some use before but were of much less value once they had soaked in sewage. Our trash can was very full when the week ended, and I’ve vowed never to leave baskets of clothes on the basement floor again.

A bigger scale disaster would have resulted in much more time, much more uncertainty, hopefully some kind of home insurance payout. (Or at least a returned call? We had to call multiple times for answers.) This was a pretty mundane experience, as far as disasters go, but it speaks to how disruptive even something not-that-bad can be.

What I find I’m learning is that rent is not “wasted money” when it is significantly higher than mortgage costs on comparable property. The ability to call a landlord, if one is dependable and responsible, and have them handle all the particulars of these activities will give you valuable time: time that my husband spent browsing the hot water heater section of the Home Depot website, time that I spent pouring bleach-and-water solution onto the concrete floor and scrubbing. I still think that it’s the best decision for us, but I’d estimate that for this relatively small scale issue, we threw at least 20 hours of our free time at it. We both spend 55 hours a week at work or commuting, so we don’t have that time to spare.

My question “big city or small town or something in between” elicited some passionate responses. Likewise, I am wondering if there have been moments in renter life or homeownership that made you recognize the grass might be greener on the other side. What were they? This didn’t put us over the edge, thankfully, but I sure missed my sweet landlords over the past few years who ensured I didn’t even know what I was looking at when I looked at a hot water heater label for the first time this week.

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