- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

Can you afford to buy a home? The first person you'll want to talk with about your qualification will obviously be a lender or real estate agent. Once you find out your buying power, then you need to calculate what new expenses you'll have once you move out of the apartment and into your first home.

Depending on your personal tastes and requirements, you could put out thousands of dollars more per year that you don't spend now in your rental. Some of your monthly charges will head upward and some down.

If you're in a condominium, for instance, your condo fee will now be spread over several service providers instead of through one middle man (your condo association). Whereas all your trash, snow removal, water and some utilities may have been included in your monthly fee, now you'll have to track those expenses separately and pay for them.

Here are some expenses you need to watch out for:

UTILITIES: The Energy Department (www.Energy.gov) reports that the average household spent $1,338 for energy in 1997 (the last time those numbers were tabulated). Total annual energy expenditures per household were highest in the Northeast ($1,644) and lowest in the West ($1,014).

Electricity accounted for 35 percent of all the energy consumed in U.S. households in 1997, compared to 23 percent in 1978.

For gas users, your average annual expense should have increased by nearly 35 percent by 2001. The average gas household paid out $568 in 1997 and would have paid $765 at 2001 prices, according to Energy Department estimates.

These two expenses will obviously increase according to your personal usage. They will definitely jump if your move is from a two-bedroom condo to a three-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home. When I moved from my all-electric condo a few years back to an all-electric single-family house, my bill went up about $100 per month ($200 more for high-energy use periods).

The phone is part of the utilities bill and that must be included in your tabulation of expenses, but it shouldn't increase the same way as the other utilities. More than likely, if you're using the same telephone services in the single-family as you did in the condo, your charges should be the same if you stay with the same phone company.

Nevertheless, in researching this column, I did find some interesting charges accompanied on the phone bill that aremore the government's faultthan the all-powerfultelephone conglomerates.

WRC (Channel 4), the Washington-area NBC affiliate, looked over the phone bill issue and did a great job explaining how all the little charges add up. The following information is from a report aired on WRC and covers charges by Verizon to subscribers in the metropolitan Washington area. Your local charges might differ.

Calls to Verizon, long-distance companies and the Federal Communications Commission provided this information.

• The federal subscriber line charge. It costs $4 per month to cover the cost of running phone lines to your house and connecting you to the rest of the world.

• Telecommunications Relay Service, also called the Telecommunications Access of Maryland Fee or the Relay Center Surcharge, depending on where you live. This helps pay the cost of phone service for folks with hearing and speech disabilities. In Virginia, it's 16 cents a month; in Maryland, it's 20 cents; and in the District, it's lumped into your dial tone rate.

• Number Portability Fee. You pay this to cover the cost of keeping your phone number if you change local phone companies. You pay it even if you never change phone companies. In the District, Virginia and Maryland, it is 23 cents a month.

• Right of Way Surcharge. This doesn't show up on all bills, but if it's on yours it goes to pay the local municipality for the right to use the streets for wires and poles. It's about 50 cents a month.

• The Federal Universal Service Fund. This money goes into a fund to pay for low-income phone service, rural phone service and service to libraries. On your local bill, it's 36 cents.

• Federal Excise Tax. It's 3 percent of your bill both local and long distance. Why is it there? It was imposed by the federal government in 1898 to fund the Spanish-American War. Today, the money goes straight to the U.S. Treasury. It will take an act of Congress to stop it.

All these charges add up to about $10 a month.

TRASH PICKUP. This may have been included in your condo fee or rent, but now you may have to pay for this individually through a private or city service. Depending on your locality, the fee can run up to $30 per month.

WATER. Depending on your use, your water bill can range from a few bucks per month to more than $100. Ask the neighbors in your community about the average bill they pay.

HOME REPAIR AND MAINTENANCE. The Commerce Department's Census Bureau reports that Americans are way ahead of last year for spending on repair and maintenance of their homes. Expenditures for improvements and repairs of residential properties in the first quarter of 2002 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $168.5 billion. That's up 14 percent above the fourth quarter 2001 estimate of $147.8 billion. (That's roughly$1,500 per household for the quarter.)

Spending on maintenance and repairs was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $43 billion in the first quarter 2002; improvements amounted to $125.5 billion.

LAWN MAINTENANCE. U.S. homeowners are turning to lawn, landscape and tree care professionals in record numbers, spending an all-time high of $17.4 billion on outdoor home improvement in 1999. More than 26 million households hired a professional lawn service, a 23 percent increase over the previous year, according to a 2000 Gallup survey. The number is expected to grow, according to Professional Lawn Care Association of America, which is based in Marietta, Ga. That turns into $150 per year for hired lawn care.

Don't forget the regularly scheduled painting, carpet repair and replacement, hardwood floor maintenance and other expenses you're sure to come across through the ownership cycle.

There are some good online resources to help you figure your cost of home maintenance.

• Homes Inspector Locator (www.homeinspectorlocator.com/resources/Costtorepair.htm).

• All Around the House.com (www.allaroundthehouse.com/lib.repr.htm).

• 411HomeRepair.com (www.411homerepair.com/contractor/estimatorTool.shtml).

M. Anthony Carr, director of communications for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Contact him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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