Advice on Moving from a Condo to a House

moving advice
Photo by PoPville flickr user Mark Andre

“Dear PoPville,

I’m planning a move from a condo to a house and wondering if the PoPville community might offer some advice. I know I will have to deal with differences in utilities, like paying a water bill, and gone are the days of an HOA fee that covers external/common area repairs. I’m wondering if there are other things I should consider when making this jump? What to avoid or look for before buying, and are there other city fees that I might not be expecting?”

59 Comment

  • Well.. this isn’t on the serious side of things, but I’d like to recommend for you to study up on maintaining a beautiful garden! Now with that extra space you may have, may be a good time to brush up on your skills…

    • +1 on the garden — not just for its own sake, but also because it helps you get to know your neighbors and to make your neighborhood a more attractive place.
      .
      See also these posts, which I think are relevant to condo owners too but especially relevant for new owners of houses:
      http://www.popville.com/2014/08/tips-for-newcomers-7-years-later-what-would-you-addremove/
      http://www.popville.com/2007/06/tips-for-newcomers/

    • But speaking of gardens, those aint free! ha
      .
      I think the transition from a condo to a house has more to do with time than actual monthly expenses. There’s just more to do/take care of. But it also inherently adds more cost – painting the exterior of your house, buying a lawn mower (depending on your yard), maintaining the roof and other damages that can happen from the exterior, etc.
      .
      There’s row house apartment that has a yard on the corner of 8th and Q – and the buyer who bought it brand new never maintained the yard/landscaping part of it and it looked like complete garbage (it’s currently on the market or recently sold). If you aren’t interested in that type of stuff, it’s probably not worth it – you should buy a house that has no upkeep involved or be willing to hire someone to take care of it for you.

  • If you are offered a home warranty, don’t expect to actually use it. These “warranties” aren’t worth the paper that they are written on.

    • That was not my experience. We bought a semi-flip and used the home warranty a LOT, because of all the corners the contractors cut. It saved us thousands in that first year. Once all the initial problems were taken care of, we didn’t renew it.

    • My husband and I just moved to our first DC house. Water is more expensive than I imagined it could be ($150 in the summer with minimal garden/lawn watering). Trash is free, so that’s nice. There are lots of little house/yard maintenance tools that can add up – you might need a lawn mower, a rake and/or shovel, a hose. Then there’s the whole furniture and rugs thing (we still have a couple of empty rooms).

      My advice –
      If you are looking to buy be very honest with yourself about how much work and what kind of projects you are realistically able to tolerate and afford. When you are budgeting don’t forget to give yourself a healthy cushion to furnish and/or decorate the place. And once you’re in, make sure you maintain a small savings fund to cover repairs so you don’t put yourself in a tough spot. Boilers and roof repairs can put you out a couple thousand bucks in the blink of an eye. Enjoy the extra space! We certainly have.

      • Tsar of Truxton

        $150 per month? That seems incredibly high…

        • HaileUnlikely

          That sounds high but not crazy to me. Mine is typically $85 – $100, for 2 adults who shower, do laundry, and water a couple of baby trees for most of the year at whatever the rate is that Casey Trees recommends (i.e., filling the “ooze tube” at the recommended frequency). Somebody who has more stuff to water, or pisses away water watering the grass, could easily hit $150.

          • I agree $150 seems high. Ours is never above $75 for two adults and watering a small lawn/trees in the summer.

      • That’s too high. We average pay 80 or less.
        Got a wife and two kids.
        Beside that. Must be a water leaking somewhere Check the toilet

      • My water bill has only cracked $70 twice with 3-4 adults and a yard. Make sure DC Water isn’t sending you “estimated” bills (will be written on the bill itself). If they’re actual bills, put buckets under your faucets and check your toilets for fill-time. If you find nothing, check all around your basement for wet carpet or baseboards. If you find nothing, look into low-flow shower heads and toilets and reflect on your water habits.

      • My brother and I averaged about 50gal a day in a 3BR/3BA Tenley Town house. After we moved I was still on the account for the high water alert and could see water usage. The 3 guys who moved were using nearly 600 gallons A DAY! Total of around 25cf or about what we used in a month every 2-3 days.
        I went over to let them know in case they hadn’t seen the high water alert, they didn’t have any leaks and didn’t think they were using very much water, but they were washing a few cars and doing a lot of laundry. I think they said their bill was around $150 give or take.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Yeah, there are lots of bizarre ways for a water bill to be really high without being wrong and without there being a leak. I know families of 2 that do a dozen loads of laundry every week (“I can’t wash X with Y, the color will run!” or whatever) and run the dishwasher daily. Our bill is higher than it needs to be because our washing machine is a piece of sh!t that we should replace but haven’t yet (it’s a first-generation top-load “high-efficiency” [bullshit!] water. It does this stupid thing where if it “senses” and “unbalanced” load, it will fill with water and shake around to try to redistribute the load. It does that multiple times every f*cking load. We’ve surely wasted enough $$$ in the form of the water bill by now to have more than paid for a new washer…)

  • Second the warranty. If something does go they will drag their feet and do just about anything they can to avoid replacing it. Mine came with a free one year warranty and it was afwul. Would have been easier to just pay for the problem and get it fixed within 2 months.

    As for utilities I have a 3 br home with a tenant(s) occupied basement. So it’s basically 4 people and a child. The Water is between 75 and 150 depending on how much you water your plants/lawn etc. Its mostly around 100ish though. My gas bill is like 50-75 a month and my electric varies between 125-350 on really really hot months. I’d say the average is about 200. Probably all in all not much more than your condo fee.

    I have a lot more but will leave it to others. Good luck!!

  • Home insurance is much bigger deal (vs condo). Depending on the age of the house (>50 yrs old), some insurance companies wont insure them. Property tax is sent to your mortgage company, and is incorporated in your escrow acct, which contributes to overall monthly mortgage.

    Assuming you are not buying a new house, you should find out how old is the roof and HVAC (heating/cooling) system. These are biggest replacement costs that comes with home ownership.

    • When I bought my house, the mortgage company was not allowed to require an escrow account for taxes and insurance if you put at least 20% down. I had a strong preference for paying the taxes and insurance myself and knowing that the funds were actually paid. And also not having the bank collect excess funds during the year.

      I also second the idea about thinking about the garden and how to beautify the yard, but also recommend that you wait at least a year for major changes so that you can see what is there. Don’t want to dig up some really nice perennials.

      On utility costs, you might be able to ask the seller for information on how much they paid in the last year, and don’t forget that when it comes to basic maintenance, your friends and colleagues (and Popville) are a good source of recommendations and advice.

      • Just curious – do you know how you were able to avoid this? I was a first-time buyer, using a conventional 30-year fixed w/ 20% down and was not given the option by my lender. I presumed it was because I was first-time. I would have liked to be responsible for paying my taxes/ins. and keep my own money, as opposed to let the bank keep it, but alas when I tried I was given notice of various fees that I would have to pay for.

        • Anymore, you’re going to pay for that option in the interest rate. Maybe 7 years ago I paid my own insurance and there was a brief mention of taxes being eligible for self-pay, though I never investigated much, but when I refinanced everything as rates bottomed, the lowest rates stipulated that the lender pay the taxes and insurance through escrow. It wasn’t much, but paying even 1/8 point ($125/year per $100K borrowed) for 30 years is not even remotely worth it to pay your own.
          .
          Just bookmark the real property database for DC and check it regularly to make sure your payments were made on time. If the taxes were paid late such that there were a penalty, and you did nothing to cause that (your payments were current, your information up-to-date with your lender) I would think that your lender would be on the hook for the late fee. I mean, yes, you’d have to fight for that, but I don’t think they could legally make you pay a late payment penalty because they failed to submit a payment on time.

          • It is a good idea to check the real property tax database even if you are paying the taxes yourself, just to be certain that the payment was posted properly. It takes a few days after you pay (at the bank) for it to show up. Not sure whether there is a delay in posting if you pay on-line.
            I know in my case I didn’t pay a higher interest rate due to not having escrow, since the rate was set before I made that request. But perhaps things have changed. Of course, back then, we were also looking at double digit interest rates plus points.

        • It was/is my first house. It was the DC law then (1980s), but I knew that and had to assert myself. I don’t know if the law has subsequently been changed. After some resistance to not having escrow, they agreed that I would not need to have an escrow account for my taxes and insurance, but that they had the right to request that I produce a cancelled check or a stamped bill to prove that I am paying. They never requested that, but I always paid the taxes at the bank and got a receipt.

          At the settlement, they added a one-time fee me not to have an escrow account (don’t remember how it compared with the fee for an escrow account, think it was about $100.) At that time, they weren’t required to produce those papers in advance of the settlement. I objected and they removed the fee, but later billed me for it, and at some point I was worn down and just paid the fee. I think it was nominal compared with the fees and hassle for an escrow account. Maybe some of the difference is now they are required to give notice of fees, whereas in the 1980s, they were just there in the settlement papers. I am sure that the fee wasn’t in the estimate that I received just a couple days earlier.

          I wonder if you can ask to cancel the escrow account.

      • It is still in effect, Sction 26-1115 of the DC Code:

        … No licensed mortgage lender shall require any borrower who, on the date of execution of the loan or financial transaction, has made a down payment equaling 20% or more of the total purchase price of the property or who has an equity interest in the property equal to, or greater than, 20% of the fair market value of the property, to make advance payments of the real estate taxes or casualty insurance premiums to enable the mortgage lender to have funds on hand for disbursement for payment of such taxes or insurance premiums. Licensed mortgage lenders shall provide such borrowers with a separate statement, in writing, which clearly and conspicuously sets forth the right to pay such taxes and insurance premiums directly. …

        • HaileUnlikely

          I’m no expert in real estate law – I wonder if the applicability of the DC law in question is governed by the location of the property that secures the loan, the address of the borrower at the time of execution, the jurisdiction in which the lender is headquartered, or the jurisdiction in which the settlement takes place. (e.g., if a Maryland-based lender loans a buyer who lives in New York as of the date of the settlement a mortgage for a property that is in DC, does this law apply? Honest question.)

        • In my experience, having borrowed from Sierra Pacific in the past, this law applies to any mortgage secured by real property in DC. It doesn’t matter where the lender is located or whether it’s a house or a condo. And I’ve enjoyed rates as low as 3.25% without a property tax escrow account, so I’m not convinced you pay extra on the interest rate if you insist on no escrow.

          • IIRC, DC law doesn’t allow the lender to penalize you for not using escrow. I escaped mine with no penalty as well.

          • I went back and looked at the documents. The offer with escrow had a substantial lender credit. The lender credit was not available if I chose to pay my own taxes and insurance (but other terms were the same). Basically, they offered me a discount to do it their preferred way…that’s often a sneaky way to get around “no penalties” clauses. They’re not *penalizing* me if I opt to pay my own, I just chose not to avail myself of a discount. Honestly, I have enough going on in my life that having my insurance and taxes paid for me is a couple things off the list, and I still get to pick my insurance company and coverage specifics (so long as they meet or exceed the law…I own condos, so there is, in fact, law regarding minimum coverage). I’ve never had a tax or insurance bill paid late (except when I changed coverage in the middle of the year and caused a tiny extra charge, and one phone call cleared that up).

  • As far as city fees… you’ll no longer get a tax credit on your taxes for not using the city’s trash service, but IIRC that amount is pretty nominal (like $75/year).
    .
    I feel like for me, the main learning curve has been just how many things are at play once you’re responsible for a building’s exterior. It’s not just the roof and the exterior walls, although those are the most obvious things — you also become responsible for porches and/or balconies (if applicable), walkway from the street, retaining wall (if there is one), deck and/or patio (if applicable), railings, gutters, any fences, etc.
    .
    If you’ve already owned a condo and had to deal with fixing things yourself and/or getting contractors to do stuff, that will help. I think if I’d gone straight from renting to purchasing a house, I would’ve felt completely overwhelmed. (Of course your mileage may vary given your level of DIY skills, willingness to call around and make appointments, etc.)

  • Budget an amount equal to your monthly condo fee for the foreseeable future for things you don’t have to do/own now –household & garden tools (mower, rake, edger, hoe, hedge clipper, etc.), extension ladder, outdoor-safe extension cord, mulch, fertilizer, furniture for any porch/deck/patio-ish area, etc. Be realistic about your new homeowner’s insurance. Consider what periodic work you’ll want to do around the house–cleaning gutters, power washing, etc.–all this adds up. Doing routine stuff save money and forces you to take a good look at things once in awhile. Most people seem too lazy to do this, esp. in this area.Developing some practical knowledge will save you money and headaches in the long run.

    • Love this idea, to start a specific savings fund for eventual home expenses. Just wanted to add that online savings accounts work very well for that purpose, as they take automatic deductions and usually let you have as many specific sub-accounts as you need. My husband and I have Capital One 360 savings accounts with specific sub-accounts with monthly auto-savings for things like dental work, pet health, and electronics replacement. It takes some advance planning, but is such a luxury when those sudden expenses arise. Will definitely add one for home expenses when the time comes!

      • Realtors often get people into houses w/o a realistic idea of the normal outlay for repairs, as well as the need to buy things to maintain the house & property (not to mention things like bbqs, lawn furniture, etc.) and it comes as a rude surprise when these costs begin to accumulate. Plus, most places need some work, including things that an inspector may have missed. Periodically, readers (probably the same realtors who push people into property they can’t afford) try to throw water on the cost of home ownership, but no one can ignore it.

        When I owned a home, I figured that the monthly outlay was comparable to what i would have paid as a monthly condo fee for 1 bedroom condo. A bigger house has more potential expenses, esp. if you have decks, screened porches, asphalt driveways (they should be treated every year), a second story–you should have a big ladder even if you aren’t the one who uses it), etc.

        On top of everything, your property taxes and insurance may cost more and you may want to invest in things you took for granted in a condo like a security system or heavy duty locks on the front door.

    • I’d also add to the budget plan, try to find trades people who you can call to do work in a hurry (plumber, electrician, HVAC, handyman). I do everything myself that doesn’t require a permit, but if I’m on vacation and my house sitter tells me water is pouring through the roof, I need someone who I can call. Plus the last minute emergency fees might be less.

      • And make a house binder 🙂
        Mine has all the warranty info, list of people to call, and when I should do maintenance.

  • 1. Research and find a really good inspector — don’t just go with who your realtor recommends. Ask the inspector to walk you through just about everything. Don’t worry about asking “dumb” questions. Get up on the roof with the inspector. And take notes. Get the age of all your major appliances, HVAC, etc. Ask where the gas & electric meters are and where the gas and water cut off valves are located. Make sure your inspection comes with a warranty.

    2. Whatever you’re paying in a condo HOA fee, put aside AT LEAST that much each month in a separate home repair account. You are responsible for all the repairs, and the expenses (some in the five figures) can add up fast, especially in an older row house.

    3. If water quality is important to you and it’s an old house, check the dc water site to see if your house has a lead pipe feed.

    4. Talk to your potential new neighbors. Ask about the neighborhood, whether they know anything in particular about the house, etc.

    5. Once you buy a house, if a tax appraiser comes by wanting to poke around, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) let him in. I made that very expensive mistake.

    • Inspectors always miss stuff–they’re usually better with electrical where you have metrics attached to building codes rather than things that require judgment like age of HVAC.

      Pay attention to things where a flipper could easily cut corner and you could easily spend a fortune–like the roof. I was lucky, but other houses done by the same flipper as mine in Atlanta needed new roofs.

  • Here’s some advice: Despite the fact that you’ll have at least twice the square footage, resist the urge to fill every inch of unused space with more junk. All of my friends who’ve graduated from apartments to houses have managed to do this.

    • Seconded. (Although I think for most people, it’s almost inevitable that the amount of stuff expands to fill the space allotted.)

  • Find a company that will do gutter cleaning twice a year automatically (you don’t have to schedule). We didn’t in our previous place and it resulted in flooding!

    • Can you share what company you use for this? And what they charge for the amount of gutters you have?

    • Or get gutter guards installed. We have a very large maple tree that towers over the back of our house. It was a mess for the gutters in the spring and fall. We had gutter guards installed and haven’t had an issue since. It’s something pretty easy to do yourself if you’re not afraid of heights, but since I am we paid a company and it cost about $280 ($10 per foot).

      • Or buy a ladder and do it yourself. You’ll actually get a better idea of what’s going on with your house, by doing this seasonally.

        • HaileUnlikely

          Sure, if feasible for the house. Depending on the height of the house and storage space, a ladder tall enough to safely access the roof may not fit anywhere that you can plausibly store it (and some people really don’t have any business on tall ladders or roofs. This is one area that, for both of the previous reasons, I’m content to contribute to the local economy by paying somebody else to do it.

  • Based on our personal experience, some things to consider. YMMV
    1) Real estate taxes – If you are buying a flip, you could expect a big jump in property taxes and D.C has been very diligent about market rate adjustments.
    2) Utilities – Depending on the layout of the house and the HVAC in place, expect to have a big variation in indoor temperatures across the seasons. For some of the older houses in this area, it is nearly impossible to maintain a 70 degree indoor temperature in the midst of a cold winter or a hot summer (Never had that issue in a condo). You could mitigate it with space heaters/secondary cooling systems.
    3) Shoveling snow would be your responsibility
    4) You could get a citation if your trash bin overflows
    5) Zoning/Permit laws – If you expect to make any improvements to your house, check with DCRA first. For ex, you cannot erect an opaque fence taller than 32inches, without going through an arduous process.
    6) Trees on your property – You’d be responsible for pruning/cutting them if they are intrusive to your neighbors (and if they complain)
    7) Roof/attic – D.C squirrels like attics
    8) Home insurance – You are more likely to make a claim and once you do, you would end up in a high-risk pool, affecting your premiums.
    9) Package delivery – Depending on the location, higher chances of packages stolen from outside a house, than from inside a secured condo building
    10) You will quickly get used to not worrying about your neighbors footsteps, voices and smells. You can have late night dance parties.

    • On the zoning tip: If you’re thinking about buying a house, find out what its zoning category is and what the zoning is for the rest of the block and nearby commercial properties.
      .
      Most D.C. residential streets looked pretty much the same in 2010 as when the houses were first built, but the advent of pop-ups and the interest in tearing down larger buildings and replacing with new construction means that — depending on the zoning — the look of your block/neighborhood is subject to change in a way now that it didn’t use to be.

  • Pre-Sale Items: Find a realtor and mortgage broker you are comfortable working with and shop around. Get a good home inspection to understand what the house needs immediately and what it may need in the not-to-distant future. Your realtor can likely recommend a home inspector but you can also find your own. Before you make a commitment to buy the house, check out the house/ neighborhood at night and talk with your perspective neighbors about the neighborhood.

    Once Purchased: For utilities, you’ll need: electricity, gas [maybe], water/ sewer, cable and/or internet [maybe]. Taxes, home insurance, and mortgage insurance [maybe] will either be handled by your mortgage company as part of your monthly payment or it will get mailed to you annually or monthly. You can pick your own home insurance company. You’ll need various tools for home repair and yard maintenance. In full disclosure, buying tools is one of my favorite parts about owning a house. I am also a huge believer is preventive maintenance and would recommend having an HVAC tech come out and clean/ inspect your heating/ cooling system. And perhaps most important, enjoy home ownership! I can be stressful/ a lot of work at times, but the joy and sense of accomplishment I get out of owning a home far outweighs the negatives.

    • I second all this advice.

      Also – You Tube is your friend when it comes to general maintenance or repairs. Often watching someone do something successfully can give you the knowledge or confidence to say “I can do that myself.” Note: this is also worthwhile whenever you hire someone to do jobs around the house. PAY ATTENTION and learn so if you don’t have to pay someone next time if possible.

      All that said – know your limits on DIY once you do become a little more knowledgeable. For example, I’ll do minor plumbing things under the sink or swapping a toilet wax ring. But once something goes into the walls or if it’s in the ceiling I call someone in. Likewise with electricity. I’ll do general outlets or plugs, light fixtures or maybe a ceiling fan, but anything more complicated either really study up or call a pro. There is a ton of pride in DIY but being blindly stubborn and charging forward can get way more expensive if you don’t know when to stop and say “I’m in over my head on this project.”

      Good luck!

      • HaileUnlikely

        Good advice here. Don’t be afraid to try stuff, but think carefully about what the consequences are for f*cking up and consider those in relation to a realistic assessment of what you can do without f*cking up. I draw the line at things that might flood the house (practical application: more willing to work on plumbing in basement [unfinished] than on 2nd floor), burn it down (don’t open the circuit breaker panel to do anything other than switch things on and off unless you really know what you’re doing), or kill me (see previous about electric panel; also, my house is tall and has a pitched roof – I don’t go up there).

  • I would echo what others have said about the home warranty. We had one for the first year becuase the seller included it in the sale. We did end up using it a few times for things that broke, but it was not worth it to renew. One of my complaints is that you don’t get to choose the service provider when you go through the warranty company, and in our experience those service providers were pretty lackluster in terms of customer service and quality of work. Granted, our warranty company did give us the option to take a cash payout in lieu of using their designated service provider, with the expectation that the payout would not cover all of the cost of repairs and we would be on the hook for the difference. But overall, going through a warranty company when something broke was a hassle.

  • Does anyone have a home inspector they could recommend?

    • Tsar of Truxton

      I used Cliff Kornegay (Capitol Hill Home Inspection), as did a number of my friends and everyone was extremely pleased. He is very thorough. Both me and one of my friends walked away from a home we were under contact for based on his report. I don’t know if it is true, but my realtor told me that the place I walked away from ended up having water issues based on the structural issue he found, i.e., he thought it might lead to water issues, and it apparently did. Despite the name of the company, he does inspections all over the city.

      • I’ve also used Cliff, also very happy. He caught exterior structural and plumbing issues in a condo (many inspectors stick to what’s inside the condo since that’s all the buyer is *directly* responsible for…he actually climbed up on the roof and went through the basement), which I was able to ask the association about when the condo docs came. All was square (they knew, they budgeted, some of the fixes were even already scheduled), but it was a good experience because he went above and beyond when doing the inspection and gave me good insight into what I should be asking the association/looking for in budgets, reports, etc.

  • Budget 1% of purchase price annually for repairs and upgrades.
    You may be lucky enough to have lots of neighbors who will be friends, to a degree that just doesn’t happen with renters.

    • 1% probably works in popular areas of DC and the inner suburbs. It may work less well in affordable areas, esp. with an older home.

      Neighbors are a crap shoot. I had wonderful neighbors in my neighborhood in Atlanta even when houses turned over. But on the next block–same kinds of houses, similar demographics–no one knew each other.

    • HaileUnlikely

      I agree with the gist of this (save $$$ for maintenance and repairs) but can’t imagine the basis for a percentage keyed to purchase price. I paid less than half as much as my new neighbors for a structurally-identical house (I bought it a few years ago, prices have gone up since then, and I think my neighbors probably overpaid). I reckon their maintenance costs will be pretty similar to mine, not twice as much, however much it works out to be. I’d just recommend making an honest assessment of what routine maintenance and major repairs might plausibly be needed and make sure you are equipped to handle it.
      .
      A condo board will (or should) do something called a reserve study (or similar) every several years to inform them regarding how much they should aim to keep in their reserve funds. A homeowner should do basically the same thing, albeit likely less formally than a condo board that will likely pay an outside consultant lots of money to do for them.

  • Buy a shovel now. If you wait until snow is in the forecast, it will be impossible to get one. Everyone will be sold out.

  • Make sure you start any big repairs/changes to your new home the FIRST year you move in. I’ve seen it happen time and time again that motivation for these actions rapidly diminish the longer you live there. You just get used to things and find other uses for your money.

    Year ONE we repaired the roof, did a little structural work in the basement and had a lot of fun with our new gardening space. Only the garden was an activity that was financially flexible.

    Good luck!

  • Just be prepared to spend a lot more time on maintaining your home since you will have the exterior and possibly a yard to take care of. Our yard takes quite a bit of weekly work during the spring, summer and fall. If you like that then go for it and buy a home. If you prefer to have more weekends free, stay in a condo. Pros and cons to both.

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