The $7,000 Lesson I Learned the Hard Way

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  • I skipped a year of maintenance on my air conditioning system during the pandemic.
  • The following summer, it died completely, leaving me with a very expensive bill.

Talk about a financially painful experience.

As someone who's owned a house for over a decade, I'm usually pretty good about home maintenance. But in 2020, I let certain items fall by the wayside.

That largely had to do with the fact that we were deep in the throes of a pandemic. Back in the summer of 2020, there were still a lot of COVID-related unknowns and no vaccines. And so in an effort to be cautious on the pandemic front, I skipped certain home maintenance tasks so as to not have to bring strangers into my home.

One item I skipped was air conditioning maintenance. Normally, I have my unit inspected and serviced before the beginning of summer. In 2020, I didn't do that. In 2021, I scheduled maintenance, but I didn't manage to do it in time for a pre-summer appointment and figured I'd have the unit looked at toward the end of summer.

Meanwhile, that August, we had a heat wave, which tends to happen where I live. Early on in that heat wave, my air conditioner died without warning. And that left me $7,000 in the hole.

Don't neglect maintenance

The issue that arose with my air conditioner is something that an extra maintenance appointment may or may not have prevented. But all I know is that when I kept those appointments in previous years, we never had any issues, and so skipping that one probably wasn't the best move.

What really stunk about our air conditioner dying is that we had no opportunity to shop around for a good deal on a replacement unit. Rather, we had to move quickly to avoid days or weeks of a sweltering house, which meant we had to go with our regular HVAC company and hope they weren't taking us for a ride.

In the end, the price they quoted us -- around $7,000 -- was reasonable, so that helped soften the blow. But forking over that money wasn't a fun thing to do at all.

The one thing I did right

I may have fallen down on scheduling air conditioning maintenance. But one thing I did right in the context of that fiasco was build a solid emergency fund.

As a general rule, my husband and I make a point to keep about a year's worth of living expenses in our savings account. Most financial experts say to have three to six months' worth of expenses on hand in savings, but as homeowners, we like having that extra cushion.

Because our emergency fund was well-padded, our air conditioning issue didn't drive us into debt. And while it took a lot of effort and work to put back that $7,000, we also had the luxury of being able to take our time.

Lesson learned

To be fair to myself, a lot of people weren't inviting contractors into their home in 2020 unless it was an urgent matter. While I regret not having my air conditioning unit maintained, I wasn't being cheap or lazy -- it was a calculated health decision.

Also, to be clear, my lack of maintenance didn't necessarily cause the issue that resulted in my air conditioning system dying. Part of the reason we had to replace it was that the cost of a repair would've been $3,000 to $4,000, and based on the age of the unit, a repair wasn't advisable.

At the same time, though, I've learned to not put off home maintenance -- and also, to keep extra money on hand for those unpleasant surprises. Even though I've already managed to replenish my emergency fund after that big withdrawal last August, I'm still making an effort to pump a little more money into my savings here and there. In a best-case scenario, I won't have to use it for home repairs, but when you own a house, you just never know what unwanted surprises might be lurking.

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