Home Maintenance Rule-of-Thumb

May 23rd, 2014 by Potato

Back when we talked about the gross debt service ratio, we discussed how sometimes a simple rule can scale in surprising ways.

A set percentage of your house’s value is a very common rule-of-thumb for estimating ongoing maintenance costs — 1% is typically seen these days (and what I use), though older articles from before the massive run-up in prices can be double that. It’s a tough thing to estimate accurately because there are so many line items and they’re all irregular; however, maintenance is a pretty big part of the cost of ownership so you can’t ignore it when considering the costs of shelter. A rule-of-thumb at least gets it in people’s minds — people who might otherwise only consider the costs they had to pay in the last few months (indeed, so many bad amateur rent-vs-buy considerations just use the mortgage payment). So if it’s even approximately right to +/- 50% I’m happy to continue to spread the rule-of-thumb.

In a comment this morning, Geoff says:

My issue with such articles about homeownership is that anytime they mention home maintenance, they use a percentage of the house value to estimate costs; this worked maybe when home price reflected the size of the house. But there’s no way that my 1961 built 1200 sq.ft house in toronto (worth I’d say $750,000 easy) costs more to maintain than my in-laws 3500 sq.ft house in Trenton (worth I’d say $150,000).

And that’s totally fair. The rule-of-thumb isn’t perfect, indeed even for Geoff and his immediate neighbours their maintenance costs may not be that close because of luck or the materials and workmanship they choose. To some extent size will matter, but a maintenance rule-of-thumb won’t scale perfectly with size, either: it costs so much to get a new furnace in the first place, and only a bit more for a bigger one; likewise the expensive kitchen/bathroom/etc. stuff only scales up a bit for larger houses, with most of the extra space being bedrooms/offices/living rooms that are basically simple shells. And within a jurisdiction size is usually captured by price increases anyway.

But keep in mind that there are other factors that will make a smaller place in the city more expensive to maintain than a larger one in the country, so there will be some scaling with price (though it’s never going to be a perfect set percentage).

For instance, the potentially higher labour costs in the city is a somewhat obvious one, but a much bigger factor is that the standards will be different. More expensive houses (larger or smaller) will be more expensive to maintain because they are lived in by people with more expensive tastes (or are situated in neighbourhoods with more expensive standards). For example, on PEI my parents’ kitchen is now about 20 years old, and still perfectly fine — heck, it’s probably still one of the more recent ones out there! In Toronto a 20-year-old kitchen would be scandalous and require a reno — a 10-year refresh is de rigueur — though in that case it may not be a cash cost as you can choose to not do it and just suffer relative depreciation (or reduced appreciation) relative to the trendy neighbourhood. Likewise, when a kitchen renovation does come up on PEI a whole new set of appliances would likely come in a fair bit under $5000; in a prestigious Toronto ‘hood each stainless steel, celebrity-chef-approved piece might run that much. Similarly for the rest: the standard for outdoor appearance in a less-expensive area might be a bag of grasseed and patience whereas in a million-dollar neighbourhood landscapers, sod, and shrubbery would be expected. Etc.

Indeed, it’s for this reason that I think the more common rule-of-thumb is value-based rather than size-based. And for cases of extremely expensive small properties or very cheap large ones, well, you’ll hopefully know to nudge your estimates up or down appropriately.

Fixing Carrick’s Renter’s Guide

May 22nd, 2014 by Potato

I want to be clear up front: I like Rob Carrick. He talks a lot of sense, and is one of the few voices out there talking about the potential dangers to homeownership-at-any-cost, and breaking the misconceptions about renting. I also think the “rent and invest the difference” message is incredibly important — it was the central idea behind creating the rent-vs-buy calculator.

That said, I had a lot of head-shaking moments at his column this weekend called “the renter’s guide to successful investing.” These are mostly quibbles to be sure, but there are a lot of quibbles for a thousand-word article.

I really get the concept of trying to make advice bite-sized and manageable: something close enough that people actually follow is better than precise advice that people tune out (indeed, I have been guilty of that often enough). However, the maxim is that things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. I think this is unfortunately a case of over-simplifying. Similarly, I just don’t get his “real life ratio”1.

First off the message about saving is confusing. At the start he says “Homeowners build wealth by paying their mortgage down and increasing their equity in a house that they will presumably be able to sell for more than they paid. […] A homeowner with a paid off house has the luxury of choosing to: continue living mortgage-free in the home (and rent-free, for that matter);[…]” which leaves off the issue of homeowners also needing to save. He doesn’t actually say “forced savings” at any point, but this statement brings that terrible idea to mind. Homeowners also need to save — indeed, you can’t live “rent-free” in a paid-off house because you have to pay property tax, upkeep, insurance, etc. That notion does come in at the end, off-handedly: “Just as a homeowner needs to have dedicated savings for retirement, so does the renter.” That idea really doesn’t come through in the article, unfortunately, and I’m sure many missed it.

The big issue though is this mysterious 1.5% rule-of-thumb he comes up with. I mean, the logical thing to do would be to take some average figure for the principal paid down with a mortgage payment and use that. Or to go to a rent-vs-buy calculator and find out what the actual cost difference is and invest that. Instead, he takes an estimate based on maintenance + (1/2)*(property tax). What?

This is not remotely accurate for the areas where the rent-vs-buy debate is most important. Check it out for Toronto: the so-called “renter’s dividend” is almost twice what Rob’s rule-of-thumb predicts. I get 2.7% (if you insist on putting it into a percentage of the house price instead of a dollar value for each situation), and that’s for the apples-to-apples case. If you’re a renter saving up for your first place and plan to move up from your rented accommodations (e.g. to move to a house from a small apartment), then you should be saving that difference, which might be 5% of the house’s value.

Secondly, it really irks me that he doesn’t ever suggest that you should calculate it accurately. The rule-of-thumb is all that’s presented, and that is further simplified down to 1.5%.

Now rather than just bitch and not provide a solution, here is a new rule-of-thumb derivation:

Rule-of-Thumb for Amount of “Renter’s Dividend” for Apples-to-Apples Comparisons

How much does it cost to own a house? Roughly speaking property taxes are a hair under 1% in many municipalities, combine that with insurance to make the estimate an even 1%; insurance maintenance rules-of-thumb are about 1% (as Rob has in the article); transaction fees and/or discretionary “while we’re at it…” renovations run about 0.5%/yr amortized out (~10% every 20 years); the last tricky part is figuring out the mortgage payment — remember the renter wants to save the cash flow difference, so this time we do want to include the principal repayment portion. For a 25-year mortgage with 10% down at 3.5%, the mortgage is 5.5% of the property value. The total cash cost of owning is thus 8.0% (which includes principal repayment).

So find what your rent is as a portion of that, subtract, and voila.
Toronto: price-to-rent of 240X translates to rent being 5% of the price of a house; thus save 3%.
Vancouver: price-to-rent of 330X translates to rent being 3.6% of the price of a house; thus save 4.4%
Canada: if the more typical price-to-rent is 180X in other centres in the country, then rent would be 6.7%, so save 1.3% (I guess this is kinda close to what Rob got).

[Note the rule-of-thumb figures are not quite in perfect agreement with the spreadsheet — people should also save what the homeowner would be (e.g., 10% of income for retirement, depending on your guideline of choice]

Rule-of-Thumb for Amount of “Renter’s Dividend” for Moving-Up Comparisons

Now if you’re in a small apartment but planning to move up to a house it gets a bit more complicated. If you want to budget as though you were already in that house and saving the difference, then you would be saving much more. To make the rule-of-thumb simple, assume that the move up is for double the cost of your current place. That is, if you’re in a 2-bedroom apartment and want to move up to a 3-bedroom detached house, assume that if the house is $500,000, your apartment is $250,000.

So if you’re in a Toronto apartment, saving up for your first house (and planning on living to that budget — i.e., it’s not so far in the future that you’re counting on significant wage increases to make it work), then you’d want to save the “renter’s dividend” from your rental versus a comparable condo (half the house) plus all of the cost of owning on the difference between that condo and the house (approximated as half the house). So that first half would depend on the price-to-rent in your city, say 3% in Toronto, plus 8% of the difference, for a total of 11% on the half the value of the house, or 5.5% on the full value of the house.

Now maybe Rob went through a similar rule-of-thumb derivation, and was simply afraid that the numbers were too large — either that no one would believe the so-called “renter’s dividend” would be so enormous in this environment, or that the suggested amount to save would shock people. Moving on.

“Whether you’re a renter or an everyday investor, there’s only one way to set up a disciplined investing program. You need to have money transferred electronically into your investment account from your chequeing account every time you get paid, or once per month.” [emphasis mine] Ok, maybe it’s just hyperbole, but there are lots of ways to set up a disciplined investing program — as individual as the person. Sure, I’m a big advocate for automation: there are lots of good reasons for it to work and it’s proven2. I make a strong case for it in my new book, too. But it’s not the only way. Indeed, automation is very much a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do recommendation: for my situation, with highly seasonal spending and freelance income, I do almost all of my saving in the first half of the year. If I went automated I would just have to compensate with a larger savings account to buffer the changes in my budget. Plus a natural frugal inclination means I don’t worry about blowing my budget just because I don’t hide my money from myself. I recognize that there can be better ways: some people for instance, respond best by taking out a loan for the next year’s savings to invest, and then target paying down the loan. Others may target a few “no spend” pay periods and save in say 3-4 bi-weekly binges (even those who just save the “triple bonus” pay periods that come up twice per year on a bi-weekly paycheque system manage to hit a 7.6% savings rate, which is not terrible). Whatever works3.

A penultimate, minor quibble: the first table is near-useless. It’s a table of “if you get X% return saving $Y per month, after 30 years you’ll have $Z pile of money.” It’s completely dissociated from the message of the article. Would have been much more useful to combine the first and second tables: pick a rate of return (say 6%) and show that you would have enough to buy the average house price (or not, or buy two, whatever the case is) for each city if you rent and invest the difference.

A final complaint: he ends off with a specific mutual fund recommendation. I know he doesn’t phrase it precisely as a recommendation, instead as an example backing up what returns to expect (which is sadly needed when many readers may think investing means a HISA at 1.2% nominal), but still, the mention of one specific fund to end a column titled “…guide to successful investing” irked.

1. As an aside, if the real life ratio spreadsheet is targeted at potential home buyers I would have built-in defaults on some of the calculations based off purchase price, like mortgage payments, property tax, insurance, and maintenance, because first-time buyers may not know these numbers in advance.

2. Well, as proven as something like that can get.

3. Which yes, is usually automation/pay-yourself-first.

Blueberry: Life at Two

May 12th, 2014 by Potato

I had a good day with Blueberry today. In reading the anecdotes I chose to share it might not sound that way, but any day that includes an uninterrupted 2.25-hour nap and a few hours snuggling and reading books is a pretty good day.

We had our first potty-training accident of the past few days at lunch. I should have known better and asked if she needed a break before giving her the blueberry* course: nothing interrupts blueberry dessert. She’s started learning her numbers and counting, which means that at lunch I can now say that “she stuffed 8 blueberries in her mouth” rather than the previous estimates of “holy crap she just stuck two giant handfuls of blueberries in her mouth at once!” Counting them individually as she crams them in is also way cuter and seems more refined than the simultaneous two-handed “holy crap, Blueberries! I need them all in my face right now!” approach she used before.

As she is now entering the “terrible twos” I have seen a lot more random meltdowns. Today’s meltdown seemed to be triggered by the fact that the inside of her mouth was wet. We had just finished on the potty, and she was crying “wet, wet, weeeeeet.” I tried to reassure her that in fact she was a good girl and had done everything in the potty, and had kept everything important bone-dry. “No, wet.” She’d continue to scream and cry. Then she’d start pointing to her mouth, finally licking and goobering all over her hands and showing me: “WeeeEEEeeEEEeeeEEEEt!!!!”

“…Your mouth is wet?”


“Ummm… Daddy doesn’t know how to make this better.”

She has a little sweater that says “bookworm” on it, and we did spend a large part of the day reading books. Today’s innovation was to read a book, then read the same book backwards. I personally didn’t find it added much to the experience, but she seemed to think it worked. I’m just hoping she didn’t overhear the idiom of knowing something “forwards and backwards” and taking it literally. She knows that her sweater says that on it, and pointed that out many times through the process (in a way that is way more adorable than I’m making it sound).

We also built a little garage for her toy boats and cat. She’s really into her building blocks lately, but usually gets frustrated when I try to help engineer things (though she also gets frustrated when her towers collapse under their own weight). So today she seemed fully willing to take direction, and listened raptly as I explained at a level entirely unlike that appropriate for a toddler, how important braces and structural support were for stiffening the frame against sheer forces. One day she’s going to talk like a total weirdo and I don’t know if it will be my proudest moment as a father, or if I will realize the folly of letting scientists raise small children in their crucial language-development years.

* – She acquired the Blueberry nickname when she was that size in the womb, but they’re also totally her favourite fruit.

The Not Dead Post

May 6th, 2014 by Potato

I hate the “I know I haven’t posted in a while, but relax guys I’m not dead.” posts. They usually signal the end of an author’s involvement in a blog, and tend to be the epitaph that stands until the domain registration expires. Yet here I am with one.

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but relax guys, I’m not dead.

Of course, I’ve been at this for 16 years now (nearly 10 on the WordPress platform) so I’m not too worried about this lame set of excuses becoming my site’s final post. I don’t think I can stop blogging, so you’re stuck with me.

The obligatory excuse paragraph: I had a massive non-blog-related to-do list going into my Potatomas vacation. That was completely deep-sixed by the ice storm that left me without electricity, couch-surfing (with a 2-year-old no less) for 10 days. With deadlines at work through January and February, and continued craptacular winter weather, I didn’t make much headway on anything — including projects like the Ballparkinator — until March/early April. Then just as I put the Ballparkinator up, I had to sacrifice a weekend of free time to get my taxes done. Though I’ve been working on a few other posts (which are not yet ready for posting), I haven’t wanted to bump the Ballparkinator from the top until it’s fixed and I can try to push it on you all again.

Unfortunately, for the past few weeks my amazing, incredible baby girl has suddenly forgotten how to sleep through the night or how to sleep-in in the mornings, so I’m chronically sleep-deprived*. Though I’m nearly done fixing the Ballparkinator, I just can’t brain at the moment for careful Excel formula debugging. I also need to rewrite the accompanying post because, to give you a glimpse inside my own mind, I thought the Ballparkinator was something amazing and incredibly useful for people, yet the reception was very “meh” — zero comments! — and I suspect that’s because I didn’t do a good enough job at linking it back to my thoughts on the importance of preparing for multiple scenarios (plus perhaps the fact that it had bugs for early retirement). So it’s going to take a little bit longer to get up, and as I was trying to find a well-rested night off to finish it, my other projects suddenly leapt up in importance.

I’m proud to say that one of those projects was working on the second edition of my book, as hinted at earlier. I completed the first draft of the 2nd edition and sent it around to some friends and colleagues for feedback — I’m a strong believer in beta testing something like this and in the power of constructive criticism and early substantive editing. I expected a few minor changes: typos and requests to a few small sections for clarity, with general criticisms. What came back was amazing: everyone (who has replied so far) has loved it (or lied to me in a way that helps my ego but not my material). By and large, people liked how clearly I explained one thing or another and requested new sections to cover common investing problems and things that confused them or were commonly confused. In other words, I’ve been dealing with a major case of scope/feature creep for the past few weeks. So even though I’ve been writing like a madman** almost every spare minute that I’m not at work or watching Blueberry, none of it has shown up here (yet). For the curious, it is now well over twice as long as the original book, and has gone from the “booklet/short guide” range to “typical trade paperback” length, and I still have a few thousand words to go with the last few suggested section additions (and there are at least 4 readers I’m still hoping/expecting to hear back from). It’s a real book!

I’ve spoken with some people who have gone through the traditional publishing route (Preet Banerjee was particularly helpful) and learned that personal finance books tend to be released in “RRSP season” (even if said book explicitly encourages ignoring such a thing), which with what I’ve read about typical publishing timelines means that if I want to get published this year I need to be pitching to publishers now. I had set Victoria Day as a personal deadline anyway because I know my free time will disappear then due to other commitments, so that just moves my timeline up a bit — but that “just a bit” means that I’ve pretty much had to drop any blog writing for the time being. Though nothing is showing up for you now, I have generated a lot of new material — in addition to posts that I’ll throw up as preview chapters to help promote the book, I have a fair bit of excised material that just didn’t quite fit the book but which could be adapted into a future post.

Then on top of my book writing self-commitments, my dad asked me to take on a personal writing project for him and a friend of his. That friend is now seriously ill and so a project I had hoped to push off to August has taken on rather more urgency. So even once I send off my proposals and manuscripts to potential publishers, my writing focus won’t be coming back to BbtP just yet.

Excuses and litanies aside, what can you, dear BbtP reader, expect in the future?

  1. I will fix the Ballparkinator and revise the accompanying post, but likely not until after Victoria Day now. The top half still works in the meantime.
  2. I will dust off an excised chapter or another old draft post in a week’s time so you’ll have something to chew on and stop issuing amber alerts on my behalf.
  3. The summer is going to seriously, seriously suck for me on a free-time-to-blog basis.
  4. An awesome, much needed book on index investing for Canadians that focuses on implementation and process and still needs a punchy title. If I can’t sell it to a publisher by Christmas, I will self-publish by early 2015. Stay tuned. Until then, I will keep the original up and available as-is.

* – to be fair, much of that is my own fault for working on side projects until too late at night, leaving me with no margin of error for being awakened by screams or yodeling.
** – in that I’m going fast and putting in crazy hours, not in that I am ranting about the oil cartel conspiracy to keep Harper in power by controlling our thoughts with orbital mind-control lasers.