Spending Diary: Home Maintenance Is Eating My Renovation Budget

Our house in the country is under renovation just about all the time. It's not particularly old, just particularly quirky. Much of it was built by the previous owners. Some features, such as the plumbing, are mostly jerry-rigged; others are just plain odd; and still others are beginning to fall apart. We're fixing things a little at a time, so that when we move in permanently, seven to 10 years from now, the house will be completely renovated and the infrastructure up to code. We save money where we can, but there is ongoing tension between time and money. What can we do ourselves, and what should we pay someone else to do?

Because this is a house we don't live in full time, we delegate several maintenance tasks we would normally handle on our own. One of those chores is plowing the snow. The driveway is about 75 yards long and must be plowed before we arrive, or the path to the house would be impassable. We pay $40 for each plowing, and in the snowy winter of 2015, we spent $400 to clear the drive.

Other than that, we celebrated the new year with a determination to hold the line on maintenance costs. But our good intentions were dashed when the upstairs bathroom pipes burst in February, even though we're always careful to leave the heat on and the water turned off before leaving during the winter. The good news: The damage was minimal; the pipes that froze were on the outside of the wall. The bad news: The damage was minimal -- too small for homeowners insurance to cover. Fixing the pipe and replacing the parts cost $250. The contractor opened the kitchen ceiling to make sure there was no mold (there wasn't) and estimated four hours to repair the ceiling for a total of $480. Instead, after he put in a drywall patch, I took over and saved us $400.

In the time vs. money debate, the former doesn't always win. My husband works long hours during the week, and sometimes on weekends, and there is only so much you can do around the house. Last fall, we decided to forgo chopping wood for the stove and had two cords of firewood delivered ($500). We moved enough logs into the house to last most of the winter, but the rest sat outside, covered with a tarp. We wanted to move the remainder to a small studio about 100 yards from the house and my husband concluded that the $100 cost of having someone else haul it was well worth the price.

Last year's big project was installing a stone patio and moving and extending the balcony above it to serve as a pergola. For this we budgeted $10,000. But right away, things went awry. Removing the old balcony pulled off a chunk of siding and the existing electrical outlets were dead. The cost of additional labor and materials: $1,180. The patio work wasn't completed by the time snow started falling. When I was finally able to contemplate the patio in April, I realized the plans drawn up independently by the stonemason, the contractor, and myself didn't mesh. So this spring, the patio was amended and extended, with drains and a gravel/stone-dust mix in the driveway to ease spring flooding and a flower bed around the perimeter edged in steel -- all for an extra $2,800.

Once the weather warms, my primary job is the garden. We have about an acre and a half of lawn, and I would like to replace half of it, little by little, with flowers and bushes. I do the digging myself, although dig is something of a euphemism. The soil is typical rocky New England shale, and you can't so much dig as hack at it with a pick-ax, which makes very slow going. In the perpetual tug between time and money, I opted for time and resigned myself to spending five to seven years to bring the gardens to fruition. We budget $1,000 a year for the garden and this spring I spent about $1,020 on plantings and soil amendments. I easily could have overspent by calling in a backhoe at a rate of $350 a day, plus labor.

To prepare for next year's beds, I've laid compost-covered corrugated cardboard over large swathes of lawn to kill the sod and turn into mulch. This tactic, however, complicated the lawn mowing, and the guy we hired quit. So we're back to the time-money debate again. Should we look for someone else to mow or buy a mowing tractor that I can use? In the past we've spent about $600 a year for mowing, so a tractor would pay for itself in four to five years. But no one seems to want this job, and in the end we had no choice but to buy a tractor, with attachments, for $2,700. The next phone call was to an arborist, who wanted $2,000 to remove dead trees, dangling branches, and cut off parts of a diseased tree. We opted for a less professional approach and saved $1,400.

I really wanted this year's project to be a laundry room so I could stop dragging sheets and towels to the city and back. But we're using our home improvement budget for maintenance again: Several windows need to be fixed, so I'll be transporting laundry for some time to come.