Moving Up: Dream House Or Money Pit?

By Lisa Smith AAA

There's just something undeniably luxurious about a big house. Those huge windows, expansive lawns and massive rooms just embody the American dream in a way few other things in this life do. No, its not cost effective, but you've spent years, and quite possibly decades, thinking about it and driving past it. Now you're ready to move up to the neighborhood of your dreams. The question is, are you ready for it?

SEE: Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford?

The Things You Think About … and the Things You Don't
Big houses come with big mortgages. A mortgage of several thousand dollars a month is likely on the horizon if you plan to move up. It's a big number, but it won't come as a surprise, so you can plan for it. Similarly, a bigger space will require more money to heat and cool. Once again, you know these expenses are coming and can prepare accordingly. While the size of the mortgage and the cost of utilities are items that you are likely to take into consideration before making a move, there are a whole lot of other factors to consider. They fall into two categories: time and money. These categories are closely intertwined.

Time
The size of the responsibilities and the time commitment required to address them both rise directly in proportion to the size of your new home. What once seemed like a great idea can soon become a burden. The big new deck needs to be stained. The big lawn needs to be mowed. The big house needs to be cleaned. Sooner than you think, you can find every spare moment of your time filled with home maintenance chores.
A few examples illustrate the point. Let's start with what's right under your feet. In your old house, the wall-to-wall carpeting was fine but forgettable. In your new house, the endless expanse of shiny hardwood flooring is beautiful. It looks great when you first move it, but it doesn't stay that way for long. Weekly cleaning is required to keep it looking good. As the year pass, it will collect dents and dings, eventually losing its shine and requiring repairs. Unlike carpet that can be torn out and put back in less than a day, hardwood floors require hours of meticulous sanding just to get them ready for the next stage of the repairs.

Those eye-catching tile floors are much the same. That huge bathroom that looked so good when nobody live in the house will quickly show signs of use and abuse. Grout gets dirty and a quick pass with a broom and mop won't restore it to its original state. In addition to getting dirty, tiles also crack and chip. And caring for that bathroom is a perfect reflection of the effort required to maintain the rest of the house.

Money
The expenses associated with a larger home start long before you get inside. The magical "curb appeal" that realtors talk about costs money. Drive through a plan of beautiful big homes and you will probably be dazzled by the beautiful landscaping. Or maybe you won't even notice, as it's something you take for granted. Beautiful grounds come with upscale properties. While apartment dwellers have no lawn to worry about, and small homes generally have small lawns, elaborate homes have elaborate lawns and gardens. It's par for the course in upscale communities. If the place you build or buy doesn't have great outdoor space, you'll soon be planning and paying for one. Even the mailbox is going to cost you some bucks That $12 box at the old house now costs $120 for the shiny pole and fancy flag.

The wide expanse of green grass doesn't stay green and weed free without fertilizer and weed killer. For a one-acre lot, even the do-it-yourself program will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 to $200 per year at the local big-box hardware store. Once the grass is growing, you'll need to cut it. That little push mower you bought for $99 is probably not up to the task. While even an inexpensive riding mower will set you back several hundred dollars, a zero-turn model with a few handy attachments will cost you thousands. Yearly maintenance on this high-end equipment will set you back a few hundred dollars. After all, if you spent thousands of dollars on your lawn equipment, you'll want to keep the oil changed and blades sharp so that your tools work when you need them.

While keeping the lawn green and trim is a major effort, it's really just the baseline requirement. The lawn, trees and bushes require water, trimming, mulch and more. A small mulch bed with a few flowers and bushes can cost several hundred dollars. A lawn full of trees can push that bill into the thousands of dollars. Add a patio and enough trees to create a secluded back lawn and the bill can now be measured in tens of thousands of dollars. Toss in a hot tub, swimming pool, outdoor kitchen, sod and some decorative stonework and the bill can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just remember, neither the pool nor the hot tub are maintenance-free nor inexpensive to maintain. That hot tub alone will set you back about $30 a month to heat and another $30 to $40 per month in chemicals and test strips.

When the sun goes down, the good times don't end in upscale neighborhoods. Landscape lighting showcases the property, bathing it in gentle shadows. If the lights aren't there when you move in, the bill to put them in place will probably be measured in thousands (and possibly tens of thousands) of dollars. All of those summertime expenses can make you long for winter to arrive. While it's true that winter brings a break from the lawn work, all that snow will call your attention to the driveway and sidewalk. If you have to shovel the snow yourself, the size of your new property will likely encourage the purchase of a snow blower. In addition to the cost of the purchase, you will need to factor in yearly maintenance. Taking care of your tools makes them last longer.

SEE: 4 Overlooked Homeownership Costs

Tired? Hire Somebody
The time and effort required to keep your new home looking good can become overwhelming. After all the grass cutting, snow removal and house cleaning, you might decide that you've had enough and want to hire some help. This help costs money. Lots of money. So let's take a look at some of those expenses. Hiring help will certainly give you some time back in your day, but the cleaning lady, landscaper and pool boy don't work for free. Don't forget about the guy who picks up after the dog, the one who power washes the house and cleans the windows and the guy who puts that fresh coating of protectant on your driveway when it starts to look faded.

Before you go inside to take rest and figure out how you're going to pay all of your new helpers, take a quick look at the garage or rather what's in it. In addition to that upscale house you or your husband will probably want a new set of wheels to park it in that fancy new "man cave." You don't see many Yugos or Dodge Darts parked in front of those upscale homes. The car is the largest expense associated with the garage, but it isn't the only cost. Fancy storage units, specialized oil-resistant flooring and even flat-screen TVs can be found in the modern garage. Like everything else associated with moving up in the world, all of it comes with a price tag.

Let's Go Inside
Your miniature palace and the toys its holds will need to be protected. The alarm company will probably install the system for free because they make their money on the monthly service fee. Now that the exterior looks good and the interior is protected, you've got a house full of big rooms that need to be filled. Just as the scale of the rooms changes so does the scope of the furniture. What's a coffee table worth to you? $40 or $400 or $40,000. They are available in all of those prices. What about lighting figures? $25 or $2,500 or $25,0000. You can get the low-end one at the local big-box store and the other two at the boutique lighting establishment in the good part of town.

Time and Money in Another Dimension
The basic costs in terms of time and money also apply as the property ages. Maintenance and repairs come in proportion to the size of the property. A new roof on a large home costs more than a new roof on a small home. New carpeting in a large home can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. Repairs to stone and stucco can put a serious dent in almost any budget. Remodeling a large kitchen costs more than remodeling a small kitchen. Updating a large bathroom costs more than updating and small bathroom, and so on. As time passes, you'll also encounter an expense that may come as a surprise. After you make the final mortgage payment and you've thinking "free at last!," the tax man will be saying "not so fast." Even after the mortgage is paid, taxes are forever, and the taxes on that big new house can be the equivalent of a mortgage payment on a smaller property.

SEE: How Property Taxes Are Calculated

Test the Theory
Now that you're thinking about the costs associated with your move, it's time to create a "big house" budget. Before you buy the big house, live with its expenses for six months. Allocate your money accordingly. This exercise will drive home the value of truly understanding your finances. While this may seem like a lot of effort, it is really just a fiscally prudent approach to the lifestyle enjoyed by the upper middle class. Remember, the truly wealthy also have to pay for personal assistants, professional chefs, arborists, butlers, nannies and sometimes even personal security. In a 2012 article about affluent bankers, the Wall Street Journal noted that the lifestyle requirements for a family of four (Manhattan apartment, staff, private schools for the kids) "can easily top $500,000 a year." The article noted that "restaurants, clothing, second or third home upkeep and charity dinners" cost extra.

Conclusion
Okay, you've gone beyond the obvious and taken a serious look at the costs of moving up. You've tested the theory, found it wasn't too difficult to stash the cash, and you are now ready to move. If you've planned just right, your future will be filled with cozy winter evenings sitting by the roaring fire and lazy summer afternoons relaxing poolside with your friends instead of fretting about expenses.

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