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HVAC

Should You Install Central Air?


May 25, 2020 by Matt Frankel, CFP

Unless you live somewhere that rarely gets hotter than the upper 70s, you probably want to have air conditioning installed in any home you live in. In fact, 46% of homebuyers say that a lack of air conditioning is a deal breaker.

When it comes to air conditioning, there are two main options -- central air conditioning or window units. While the cost difference between the two is substantial, so is the difference in features and benefits. Here's a quick rundown of how much you can expect central air conditioning to cost and the reasons it could be worth the extra expense.

How much does central air cost?

According to HomeAdvisor (NASDAQ: ANGI), the average cost to install central air conditioning is $5,603, which includes the air conditioning unit itself, the cost of installation, and any required ductwork. However, this cost can vary dramatically depending on several factors.

For example, if you are installing a new central air conditioning system in a home that already has ductwork in place, it can be significantly less expensive than installing central air that needs all new ductwork. Central air conditioning units also vary dramatically in price, mainly depending on size and energy efficiency. Plus, if there is already central heat installed in the home, there is some overlap among the equipment, which can save money.

So, the point is that you should use this average as a ballpark only. Most central air conditioning installations cost between $3,778 and $7,427, according to homeowner reports, but it's not uncommon for large or complex projects to cost more than $10,000. And keep in mind that newer, larger homes often have two separate central AC units.

The cost of central air conditioning is the single largest potential drawback. Window air conditioners typically cost $150 to $500, so even if you need to buy several window AC units, the cost difference of central air conditioning can be enormous. Plus, you can easily install a window unit by yourself.

Reasons to consider central air

Central air conditioning is expensive when compared to the alternative, but you get what you pay for. Here are the biggest advantages of central air conditioning over window units:

Efficiency

Central air conditioning systems are typically more efficient than window units. To be fair, you can choose to only turn on the window units in certain rooms instead of cooling the whole house, but on a square-footage-cooled basis, central air is the more efficient option. The largest portion of the average homeowner's electricity cost is for cooling, so this is certainly worth considering.

Even cooling

Even within the same room, temperatures vary quite a bit with most window AC setups. It can be very cold right near the unit but significantly above the desired temperature in the far corners of the room. Most central AC systems have their warm spots and cool spots -- mine certainly do -- but it's still far more even than most window units can match, especially on a whole-home basis.

Filtration

Window AC units have filters, but central air conditioning systems can provide filtration that a window unit simply can't match, especially if you choose higher-grade air filters. Central AC is much friendlier for allergy sufferers and asthmatics.

Value-add

A central air conditioning system can add significant resale value to a home that doesn't already have one, especially in the first few years after installation. As a homeowner and real estate investor myself, I'm always glad to see "new HVAC system" in real estate listings.

The Millionacres bottom line

In a nutshell, central air conditioning is superior to using window units in virtually every way -- except cost. There's a major price difference between the two options, but central air conditioning also adds value and desirability to your home while window units generally do not. The bottom line is that if you can handle the expense, central air conditioning is usually the best way to go.

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Matthew Frankel, CFP has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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