Joe DeVito, like many other New Yorkers who wanted more space to weather the pandemic, headed north and bought a two-bedroom house in the Catskills in late July.
He learned almost immediately that there’s no such thing as turnkey when it comes to owning property. First, the outdoor wood-burning furnace didn’t provide enough heat for the 1,700-square-foot house, then the dishwasher needed replacing, then diseased trees needed to be cut down, the land needed leveling and he had to build a proper driveway.
It was a crash course in homeownership for Mr. DeVito, 46, a content and marketing executive for the New York Mets who still rents an apartment in Astoria but now spends most of his time in the Delaware County house he bought for $230,000. And now as the region settles into cooler weather, he and other recent first-time home buyers like him will have to learn how to grapple with unanticipated but seasonal home maintenance issues and costs.
Does the house have or need storm windows? How much firewood will we need for the season? When and how do we clean the gutters? Should we have known that the boiler was on its last legs? How do you stop a house from being drafty?
The lesson that every appliance and fixture has a limited shelf life and that maintenance costs add up quickly has already sunk in for Mr. DeVito, particularly because it seems the home’s previous owners relied on D.I.Y. fixes around the house.
He has also realized some stark differences between city and country life. “We are spoiled by a lot of the ‘amenities’ that the city and our buildings provide,” like sanitation and snow removal, he said. And country living, he has discovered, is an exercise in patience. “It takes weeks to get someone to do appliance repair. Even Amazon packages take 10 days, not two days.”
He suspects this might be why previous owners frequently took repairs into their own hands. “If you hire someone for every little need, you’ll go broke while waiting way too long for anything to get done,” he said.
“First-year costs can be very high,” explained Sarah Gerecke, a former deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Housing Counseling at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and now the principal at SSG Community Solutions, a housing and community development consultancy based in New York City.
Ms. Gerecke warns buyers to apply caution as they rush to secure new homes, and to seriously reconsider any urge to skip home inspections or boost their offer without fully comprehending the significant costs of maintenance and upkeep.
One option: HUD-certified housing counselors, who are specially trained to help consumers — especially low- and moderate-income families — grapple with the inevitable vicissitudes of homeownership. They assist homeowners in establishing feasible home budgets and plans for unexpected disasters, and by providing tutorials for simple home maintenance tasks. Pre-purchase counseling and education is more widely available, says Ms. Gerecke, who explained that most HUD counseling is available to anyone at no cost, though some education programs have a nominal fee.
For recent transplants interested in fostering a connection with their new community, an app like Nextdoor is one way to link up with locals to exchange information, goods and services. Stefany Elliott, a public relations professional, found the app invaluable for “getting to know our neighbors and the neighborhood in a pandemic.”
Ms. Elliott, 36, and her husband, Spencer Elliott, recently moved from a rental apartment in a doorman building in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park to a three-bedroom house they bought for $465,000 in New Jersey’s Lake Hopatcong community. The couple spent a few thousand dollars replacing a broken refrigerator and furnace oil pump, and updating their fireplace and chimney for the season. A smart video doorbell, which cost $300, was also purchased, to help them adjust to no longer having a doorman to greet visitors or accept packages.
The app was most helpful for solving more day-to-day queries. Within weeks of moving in, the couple successfully crowdsourced questions about local events, veterinarians, solar panels, and where to get fresh cut flowers.
Substantial traffic on similar apps like Sweeten, Thumbtack and HomeAdvisor (a brand affiliated with Angie’s List), which connect home service professionals with homeowners and their projects, underscores the degree of competition for contractors and handymen nationwide.
Customer demand for vetted contractors on Sweeten grew by 104 percent in the third quarter of 2020, compared to the same time last year. Thumbtack reported a jump of 138 percent year-over-year for appliance installation in the New York tristate area.
“Our professionals are busier now than ever before,” said Mallory Micetich, a communications representative for HomeAdvisor, who says the industry is currently experiencing a labor shortage of available service professionals across all skill sets.
Online, brands like Family Handyman and Better Homes & Gardens offer seasonal maintenance checklists with helpful prompts for gutter cleaning, servicing the furnace and sealing drafty windows. “First-time home buyers don’t think about or plan for important home emergencies,” said Ms. Micetich, who revealed that the average cost of serious plumbing or weather-related emergencies is often around $1,200.
This was a lesson that Daniel Glass, a lawyer, learned the hard way.
In mid-July, Mr. Glass, along with his fiancé, Jordan Brodsky, left where they were temporarily staying on Long Island and closed on a two-bedroom house in Falls Village, Conn., in the town of Canaan in Litchfield County. They paid $550,000 for the property, which is on the Housatonic River. Shortly after they moved in, the air-conditioning stopped working.
“After being in apartments — and having a super to call for things — we were at a loss on how to find someone to investigate and make repairs as necessary,” said Mr. Glass, 35. A technician discovered that a mouse had chewed through wires, which caused a coolant leak. After a week and $1,000 out of pocket, they had functioning air-conditioning again.
Then, at the beginning of August, a brief but destructive tornado and hailstorm caused extensive damage to trees on their property and to part of their home. Power was out for two weeks, and damage from the storm cost several thousand dollars. While the house has a built-in propane-powered generator to run all electrical systems, it had to be switched off while workers were repairing the lines. “It proved useless for this situation,” Mr. Glass said.
He warns anyone transitioning from an apartment to a house to budget more and plan for the worst.
“Living in a rural area became amplified — it was difficult finding certain services, like a roofer or contractor, especially without electricity or internet,” Mr. Glass said, adding that the remote location meant fewer available options, and being new meant no support network they could yet rely on.
Experts suggest being proactive in building a go-to list of home professionals like an electrician, landscaper and plumber.
To help new arrivals acclimate to their surroundings, Megan Jo Collum, an agent with Country House Realty in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, makes a habit of asking sellers for a list of approved service professionals at closing. “That way the buyers get a little local services ‘Rolodex’ of people who have some recent history with the house, so the buyers aren’t starting from scratch,” she said.
Buyers who are clients of Amy Rosen, an agent with Ruth Gale Realty in Phoenicia, N.Y., likewise have asked for information on how to gird a home for changing seasons and against determined wildlife. “I am always asked for advice on trash management, a hot topic around here. Bears get into it all easily if you don’t know the tricks!” she said.
Ms. Rosen recommends putting trash out at the very last minute on the morning of pick-up day, or taking it directly to the dump, which often requires a small fee per bag and means more time in the car, another aspect of rural living.
There are also services, like Home Sweet Hudson, a rental management company in Rosendale, N.Y., operated by Vanessa and Ray Vargas, that can help local and remote property owners looking to outsource tasks like home maintenance checks and repairs, snow plowing, and pest management. Rates start at $50 per hour.
The falling leaves and incoming chill of winter have others realizing they may be a little late in prepping for seasonal shifts.
In July, Katie King, 41, left a rental apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens with her husband and two sons, ages 6 and 4, and moved to a four-bedroom cabin in New Jersey with a wood-burning fireplace and views of Lake Shawnee, for which they paid $300,000.
“It’s colder here, that is surprising, and prepping for seasons has been different already,” said Ms. King of the property, which is 40 minutes west of Manhattan. Though they were recently able to get a cord of firewood for the short term, $275 for a supply lasting a month or two, they’re already strategizing for the future. “We now know that next year we’ll have to order months in advance before the cold season hits.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Igor Tumasov, 30, a sales leader for IBM Watson, and his fiancée, Ally Tam, 29, who works in venture capital. In April, the couple closed on a two-bedroom home in a remote section of Mount Tremper, N.Y., near Woodstock, which was built in 1973. The soonest they can get their boiler serviced is January 2021, a scheduling setback that was unexpected. “Now I know for next year,” Mr. Tumasov said.
Turning to neighbors was an analgesic for adapting to full-time country living for Katie Deedy, founder of Grow House Grow, a bespoke wallpaper and tile company.
Though Ms. Deedy, 39, and her husband, William Robison, have owned their cottage in Stockport, N.Y., in Columbia County, since February 2019, a foreclosed property they bought for $75,000, the pandemic put an immediate halt to a series of vital home repairs that had been in motion.
In late March, the contractor they had been using suddenly disappeared. “Two weeks after we gutted the kitchen in March, we suddenly found ourselves quarantining and living there full-time. No sink, no stove, it was nuts,” she said.
Running her business full time, sans Wi-Fi, and settling their 10-year-old daughter, Ruby, into a remote learning routine only added to the pressure to bring functionality to the circa 1890 home. A $100 plastic utility sink provided a temporary fix.
A few weeks later, their water heater blew and they needed a new washer and dryer as well. It is an all-new and pricey reality for the longtime Brooklyn renters, who had been attending to piecemeal cottage repairs on weekends. The home now also needs gutters, updated windows and a new roof.
Since their daughter’s school went remote full time, the family spends about five days a week upstate. With a shortage of available contractors and the imminent winter weather, Ms. Deedy and her husband have bartered with neighbors. In return for assistance installing a wood stove, they will help one neighbor affix new siding to their house.
“Because of Covid, we’ve been able to make really special relationships with some of our neighbors,” she said. “We help each other, and it’s allowed us to get some work done we couldn’t have due to the contractor scarcity. They’re amazing. It really is the silver lining.”