Buying a new house is stressful. There are lots of people involved in a real estate transaction but their expertise is limited. Our real estate agent introduced us to a mortgage broker which is great. And normally you could ask the seller for copies of utility bills but the house we're buying is a flip. So there aren't any valid utility bills to tell me what the utility costs might be, although contacting the electric and water companies might work.
Most buyers focus on the expenses the mortgage holder looks at – mortgage, taxes and insurance. The mortgage is going to be the biggest expense for most homeowners, but utilities can add significantly to a homeowner's monthly costs, especially when you have electric heat and air conditioning. Electric heat is very different than oil or natural gas, and even more interesting is this house outside of Phoenix has what's called a conditioned crawl space.
So following my own advice, my goal is to project utility costs for our new house. And that's challenging when moving to a new part of the country, the desert where it's unlike any place I've lived before. What is surprising is how challenging the search is for relevant information, and specifically the information I need to project utility costs for a house in Fountain Hills, Arizona, which is just outside Phoenix.
Projecting Utility Costs With Electric Heat
When you're used to living in the northeast, it's hard to imagine a house where you only have to turn the heat on a few days out of the year. That's the first shift needed as the true cost of living in Arizona is air conditioning, because the temperature exceeds 90°F more than half the year.
The chart here was created at Outflux.net, using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). You can compare climates across multiple cities in the US. Here I'm comparing Boston (near my NH home) and Phoenix (new home), and the contrast is striking. It's why many houses in the northeast don't have air conditioning, and every house in Arizona does.
So this chart is similar to the real estate agent's advice that you need to run your air conditioning continually from mid' May to the middle of September.
So let's look at all the factors that affect how much electricity you are likely to use (learn about the relative energy costs of different home features).
- Home construction with a focus on energy efficiency.
- Start with size, both square feet and ceiling heights.
- Air conditioning and heating systems; newer systems are more energy efficient.
- Ceiling fans which can help lower heating and cooling costs.
- Hot water heater.
- Kitchen appliances with the refrigerator using the most energy.
- Washing machine and dryer.
- Running pumps for a swimming pool, which can be reduced with a pool cover.
- Home electronics for entertainment and home (read about monthly costs for technology).
For another perspective, here's what one homeowner shared at Phoenix.About.com, which illustrates how many things can affect your home's electric bill. “… Brand new 2011 Energy-Star home, 1906 sq ft, 2 story, 9 ft ceiling downstairs, 8 ft ceiling upstairs, dual pane windows, wood shade blinds, ceiling fan + box fans, and all electric appliances. Home 24/7 with baby, thermostat set to 82 degrees 24/7, no pool and the electric bill during the summer is $305 and $140 during the winter. Seems a little high to me. AC constantly runs during the summer….like it can't maintain 82…but again its 110 degrees outside.”
The costs here are pretty consistent with many other comments, including summer electricity costs double winter costs. So if summer highs run for 4 months, the average monthly electricity bill across 12 months is $195, or if you assume 6 months of summer, the electric costs rise to an average of $222.50/month.
Water Utility Costs When Living in the Desert
Water costs vary greatly depending on family size (bathing, laundry and cooking), landscaping and whether your house has a pool. We specifically didn't want a pool as we travel quite a bit so we wouldn't get much use from a pool at home. We would have liked a neighborhood pool like we had in California, but that didn't happen.
Adding Up Monthly Utility Costs in Phoenix, Arizona
What everyone really needs is a worksheet to fill out for their specific house, so you can compare your total homeowner monthly costs for where you live today … and the house you're buying. The worksheet (we're working on it) will help you avoid cash flow problems as home ownership is much more than a mortgage payment.
- Heating fuel costs – oil, natural gas, propane and/or electric.
- Air conditioning costs which are always electric.
- Electric costs which include hot water, all kitchen and laundry appliances and home electronics.
- Phone, Internet access and cable.
- Trash disposal.
- Pool pump (electric) and maintenance costs.
- Lawn/landscaping costs.
- … and if you can afford a pool and lawn care, then you probably have a cleaning service too!