Most homebuyers base what they are going to be spending every month for their new digs on how much they are borrowing and the interest rate they're paying. But if that's all they consider, they are missing a big component of their monthly housing costs -- their utilities.
What's more, the cost of gas, oil and/or electricity to heat and cool the house is only one part of potential utility bills. Unless you will be using a well for your water and a septic tank for your sewer, you'll have to pay for those conveniences every month, too. And then there's trash removal and possibly even homeowner association fees.
The total cost for these necessities could add as much as 25 percent of your mortgage payment to your total monthly housing costs. Depending on the size of the place and how often you run your dishwasher and dryer, the outlay for utilities could run as much as $500 a month. Maybe even more.
Fortunately, if you are purchasing an existing house, it won't be terribly difficult to estimate your utility bills. At least, not if you have a cooperative seller.
Ask the seller for a list of what he or she paid for the various segments of utilities for the last 12 months. It may be a chore to compile, but bills just for the last month or two won't be terribly meaningful.
Of course, your monthly bills might be different from the seller's. You might be setting your thermostat higher or lower, depending on your comfort level, for example.
You might use more or less water, depending on the number of people in your household and how hot they like their showers and baths. And your kids might be running in and out all day long, which will run up your heating and cooling bills. But at least you'll have a decent approximation of what your costs will be.
Another way to estimate your costs is to use one or two or maybe even three of the various online utility estimators. They aren't pinpoint accurate, and as noted above, how you use the place will have a great deal to do with your monthly outlays. But again, they will give you an idea of what you'll have to spend in addition to your mortgage payment.
Myutilityscore.com is one of the newer sites. Simply plug in your new address, and it will divine your monthly, yearly and peak costs for electricity, gas and water. The site also will estimate your total annual bill and give you an overall score of one to 100, with 100 being the lowest costs.
It also will allow you to refine your estimates by adjusting for the number of people who occupy the house, your intended thermostat settings for winter and summer, and whether or not the place will be occupied during the day.
CPSEnergy.com has separate calculators for appliances, ghost-energy (plugged-in appliances use energy, even when they are turned off), heat pumps, televisions and lighting, plus an overall home energy calculator. These appear to be somewhat more cumbersome to use, but they still do the trick. (San Antonio-based CPSEnergy is the country's largest municipally owned energy utility.)
General Electric has a detailed electric cost calculator that also includes lighting and personal appliances, and a Home Energy Saver (energy.gov/energysaver/energy-saver) estimator from Uncle Sam that allows you to estimate your annual costs plus the cost to operate specific products.
In addition, look for the EnergyGuide label, the yellow tag you'll find attached to most appliances. It tells how much energy an appliance uses. Add the figures up and you'll have something approximating what you will be spending every month.
As you can see, trying to determine what your costs will be for a brand-new house is somewhat more problematic, if only because the place has never been occupied. But savvy builders will have asked the local utilities to provide estimates of what it will cost to run the house.
If your builder hasn't already done so, you can call each provider and ask for an estimate. Not all gas and electric companies do this for individuals, but it is worth a try, nonetheless. (With some, it's a mixed bag.)
Assuming all the major electrical equipment is installed, Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO) in the Washington, D.C. area will "come out and give a customer an energy bill estimate," a spokesman said.
For people buying existing homes in suburban Maryland, PEPCO will send them the previous 12 months' worth of utility bills on the property so they can gauge their energy costs. And if you are an existing customer moving to a new total-electric house, you can enter your account number to use PEPCO's online energy cost calculator.
Finally, if you are willing to spend a little cash -- and your builder is willing to do so -- hire an energy-auditing firm to estimate how much your utility bills should run. Savvy builders will have done so for each of their models. But if yours hasn't, pay a certified auditor using a generally accepted index such as HERS, which stands for Home Energy Rating System, to give you an idea of your monthly outlay.