Grass may be greener, but is it cheaper?

Met my neighbor Sally in the alley this morning. She’d been slamming around trimming shrubs and cleaning up the yard. Drenched in sweat, she said she’d about had enough of the house maintenance care, and she’s fed up with the guy next door to her who’s letting his house, which he inherited from his parents, go to pot.

She said she’s thinking of putting her place on the market and downsizing. This brought to mind a remark I saw a little earlier this very morning by Duchesse, commenting on a post at Frugal Scholar, who asked, “Have you replaced a money-sucking product recently?” Said Duchesse:

But actually, it was downsizing our living space, so much less maintenance and far lower utilities bills.

Well, as you know off and on I think of moving someplace less workful and maybe less burdensome financially. Inspired by Sally’s thought that she would consider one of those loft-like apartments they’re still trying to unload downtown (now at outrageously reduced prices), I called my Realtor friend, who sent along a few listings.

Some friends moved into a two-bedroom at One East Lexington. It’s a nice shiny new(ish) high-rise, and some of the apartments have awesome views. I could imagine myself living there. Further downtown is a much prettier, midrise development on Portland. The apartment has a gas stove (infinitely preferred!), the property has green areas to walk the little dog, it’s right across the road from the lightrail, and it’s in the center of what alleges to be the arts district. It’s not the greatest part of town, but it would be reasonably safe to walk around down there in the daytime. That’s a place I definitely could picture myself and Cassie living in.

Another possibility is an aging enclave with a dozen freestanding homes not far from here, in a more solidly middle- to upper-class part of North Central. It has an HOA that covers the (lush!) landscaping, the pool, the water, and the garbage, so you don’t have to deal with the yardwork and pool care. Though it’s right up the road from my ex’s $650,000 rancher, the price is much closer to right. But you do have to cope with the usual house maintenance stuff: roof, paint, and the like.

Would it really be cheaper to live in a smaller but newer unit in a rabbit warren? One that while it has no pool also would have no beloved orange, lime, and lemon trees and no real place to sit outside and take the morning air? And how would this place compare with the nearby house in an HOA, which would relieve me of yard and pool work but still have the things I really enjoy about my home?

Well, interestingly, smaller is definitely not cheaper, at least not in Phoenix if you want to stay in your present socioeconomic class. Check it out:

How amazing is that? As much as it seems to me that this four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre of land with a big, deep pool and a forest of trees is costing, apparently it costs a lot less than a two-bedroom fake “loft” in a renovated high-rise or a new building in a sketchy neighborhood.

Two things are pushing the One Lexington and the more desirable Portland Place condos so high: taxes and HOA fees.

Now, the HOA fee does cover the roof: repairs and replacement. And it covers the water and garbage pickup and exterior maintenance.

Since reroofing this house costs about $8,000, that’s not inconsiderable. Thanks to last year’s act of God, though, it shouldn’t have to be done for another 20 years, by which time I’ll be in the old-folkerie. Another big cost that will come due in the next ten or fifteen years is replastering the pool: about $10,000. If I started saving for that now, you could add about $83 a month to my monthly costs. That still would be several hundred dollars cheaper than living in a stylish two-bedroom apartment.

The enclave on Third Place has a much, much lower HOA bill. Taxes are lower, too. So from month to month it probably would cost about $100 a month less to live there, give or take some. But it has a flat roof, which requires expensive maintenance every four or five years; it’s aging; it may have black iron plumbing; and the exterior paint and plaster have to be maintained.

Given the hassle and expense entailed in moving, is it really worth the grief to decamp to a comparable house in a roughly similar neighborhood just to get 19 blocks from the blight to the west of me? Does one really want to go from a roomy house with  shade trees, a pool, three exterior sitting areas, and lots of elbow space to a hutch in a people warren? Hm. One wonders.

For the $300 or so in added expenses, I could stay in my present home and hire a pool service.

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George Fedelski September 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Except for the fenced 2 acres of desert we have downsized from a 2400 sq ft 2 story in Las Vegas 14 years ago to a modest 1380 sq ft modular (yes it arrived on wheels).

The Mrs. nor I could deal with living in a condo with a balcony and a shared common area. We love our dogs too much to deprive them of the great outdoors.

Plus the Mrs. has her Victory Garden, yes there are things you can grow in the desert to eat.

frugalscholar September 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I would be terrified of HOA fees–they would make it hard to plan for the future, since they can go up at any time.

funny September 15, 2011 at 3:16 am

Yes to both George’s and Frugal’s points.

I’d love to have several acres. But I can barely take care of the quarter-acre I’ve got, and I’m not getting any younger. The pool requires daily maintenance, and this year I just haven’t done it. That will wreck the thing.

And it’s true, homeowner’s associations are renowned for raising the rates and levying nasty assessments. One place I looked at had a $70,000 assessment the new buyer was expected to shoulder.

On the other hand, consider what a life-care community would cost. Some time back I thought about some places in California that appealed to me, so I wrote to inquire. The price was so high it didn’t even register with me: thousands of dollars a month.

A few hundred bucks a month more to be free of the yard maintenance and get into a place where all that has to be done is to keep the interior clean is, by comparison, a bargain. For what it costs to live in a place tailored to the elderly, you could buy a very nice condo, have someone come in once a week to clean, and as life progresses (if that’s the word for it…) hire someone to drive you around and care for you.

Stephen September 15, 2011 at 9:01 am

Wow, your water and electricity bills are so high. AC must consume a lot of electricity, but I don’t understand why the water bill is so high. Maybe it’s the pool.

funny September 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

The water bill is high because we have had the hottest, driest August on record in a low desert where normal August high run upwards of 110 degrees. To keep my ornamental plantings and fruit trees alive, I’ve had to run the water every single day. Even so, I lost about 30% of the yard’s plants to the heat. August, however, is humid, even when it doesn’t rain, and so rather little water evaporated from the pool.

Air conditioning bills are astronomical here, and rates were raised substantially this year. The new heat pump is supposedly ultra-efficient. It seems to be, because no matter how you set it, the interior is hotter than the hubs of hades: it may “run” efficiently but it sure doesn’t “cool,” efficiently or not. Works about like one of those grand water-saving toilets that doesn’t flush or the fine water-efficient faucets and showers that have to be run three times as long as the “inefficient” versions to extract enough water to fill a pot or rinse the soap out of your hair.

George Fedelski September 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm

We have a well so my water only costs what it takes to run the submersible pump.

There is a utility company that provides water for some of the high density developments and they do pay through the nose for water and sewer.

We are usually hot and dry during the summer and run a big evaporative cooler and only need AC for our 2 weeks of monsoon season. Except for a few days when the dew point was low enough we’ve been on AC since the 2nd week of June. It’s been an expensive summer.

I’m looking forward to fall weather.

funny September 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

@ George: What do you do about trash? Burn it? Haul it? Or is there pick-up there?

George Fedelski September 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Even 60 miles from nowhere we do have a disposal company.
They soak us about $10 a month and pick up once a week.

They take it to a landfill and bury it.

We do have a tumble weed issue and this year was pretty bad. My weekends are busy cutting them off at the roots with my shovel that I cut a notch in the tip of. I toss them in the pit (old pond) and burn them in the winter.

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