Secret to Home Repairs: Plan and Save

Which is harder: saving for a down payment and getting a mortgage on your first house, or paying for maintenance and repairs after you buy it?

If you think paying for maintenance and repairs is easier, you're probably among the majority of first-time homebuyers -- and wrong, housing experts say.

"So many people who are struggling and saving and working two jobs, they think getting in (a house) is the hard part," says Jorge Casas, who oversees classes for new homeowners at the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. "Staying in it, that is the real challenge."

Here are some tips from the experts on how to keep ahead on household repairs and avoid falling behind on your mortgage.

Home repairs can be predicted and planned for. That might seem like an odd thing to say, especially if your central air suddenly went kaput on a hot June day. But every major appliance and household system has a life span. You'll need to replace your roof and central air conditioning system every 20 years. Your furnace and dishwasher may last 10 years, while your gas-fired water heater will conk out somewhere between years five and 10. "A lot of those appliances last as long as a dog," says Jim Morrison, president of Allan Morrison Home Inspection in Tewksbury, Mass.

Get a second opinion. Before you even buy your home, you should trail behind the home inspector taking notes. Failing that, shell out another $300 for a second inspection after you've moved in. This will give you an idea of the years left on the major appliances and systems and form the basis of your maintenance plan, Casas says.

Build a team. You will also need the numbers of a few good contractors you can call when something breaks. At the least, you will need the number for an HVAC professional, a plumber, an electrician and a roofer, says Casas.

Start saving. Knowing that your furnace has three more years to live is pointless if the dreaded day comes and you don't have a dime socked away. Depending on what blows, you could be faced with having to come up with anything from $1,000 for a water heater to $15,000 for a new roof. Consider stashing away money regularly in a savings account. At the least, you should have access at all times to at least $5,000, Casas says.

One formula calls for putting aside 1 percent of your home's value each year. That sounds like a lot, but Larry Hoytt, head of Hoytt Inspection Services in Novato, Calif., and former president of the Amer ican Society of Home Inspectors, offers no apologies. "There are a lot of people out there buying homes that have no business buying homes," he says. " If they can't afford to properly maintain a home, they shouldn't be buying it."

Consider financing options. Home equity loans are nice, but given falling home prices, they can be tough to get. However, one way for buyers to cope with the risk of a major household system meltdown is to buy a home warranty. In fact, given the sluggish housing market, buyers now might have the leverage to persuade sellers to throw in warranties with houses, says Kit Hale, general manager for MKB Realtors in Roanoke, Va. "I encourage our sellers to do it. You want to set yourself out -- it's a buyers' market right now."