Here's exactly how much it costs to own my 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom home outside of Cincinnati

hamilton houseCourtesy Laura LeavittCourtesy Laura Leavitt

  • My husband and I bought our first home together in Hamilton, Ohio - it was in between our jobs, so neither one of us would have a terrible commute.
  • We paid under $100,000 for the house, but it's an older home and has some quirks.
  • We think it was a steal, though, since it's in a great location and our monthly bills come to about $1,000.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

When my husband and I got engaged, we started shopping for our first home together. Up until then, we'd both always rented apartments or rooms in apartments.

We had a unique challenge: Our jobs were a total of about 1.5 hours away from each other. I wanted to take on a bit more of the commute (I'd chosen my job knowing it would create this giant commute; he applied for and got his job earlier) and we wanted to live somewhere between the two cities where we were employed. That landed us in ... Hamilton, Ohio. 

Lucky for us, we were able to buy our first house for under $100,000. Here are the factors that we think made it such a steal.

Location, location, location

Hamilton is a city of 60,000 people, which makes it substantial but not a big city by any stretch; it's too far from Cincinnati to really be a suburb - about a 40-minute drive - but it isn't really out in the middle of nowhere either. 

Our area is not a high-income zone. We've experienced, like other cities in the Rust Belt, problems with factories closing down and jobs heading to other places. 

Near Hamilton are a few more prosperous towns where the cost of housing is higher. In nearby towns like West Chester, homes are much more likely to go for higher amounts for the same square footage as Hamilton. According to Zillow, the median house price for Hamilton homes is $161,600, while West Chester has a median price of $243,000. 

Looking for your first home? Find out how much house you can afford:

We made the choice to live in Hamilton instead of the other towns around us based on these housing prices as well as the commuting distance to our jobs.

We discovered that Hamilton is experiencing a lot of urban renewal and that there are lots of great civic organizations functioning here, so opting for an up-and-coming town was a good choice for us.

Older home vs. new construction

By opting for a home built in 1912 or so (the records are murky), we got a lot of charm but also a not-ideal amount of future maintenance. 

A very thorough property inspector helped us verify that we'd need some serious repairs, though the previous owners had been in the house for 30 years and had done a great job keeping it updated. 

Within the first two years, we replaced a hot water heater, fixed a broken chimney (nothing with roofing is cheap), and had a dead and dangerous tree taken down. Those costs - $600, $2,500, and $450, respectively - were not chump change. 

The third and fourth years of living in the house were much less costly by comparison, but we're saving for when the furnace or central air inevitably bite the dust.

While by no means ideal, even a few thousand dollars' worth of repairs didn't raise the overall cost of owning our home by very much. Opting for more recent construction - and a higher price tag - would have made it much less possible for us to purchase a home. 

We also feel that we got a better deal than we would have in a house with newer construction, since our home has stained glass, hardwood floors, and beautiful detailed woodwork on the staircase, all things that would be out of reach of our budget if we went with a newer home. 

Oddities of the house 

While these things don't bother us, there are some oddities that we notice about our home. For one thing, our yard is not large (just 0.11 acres), which mostly means that mowing it is easy. It'd be a bad fit for a family with a super-active dog or two, though. 

It also had only one bathroom when we moved in, and the bathroom was on the second floor. We've since changed a big closet on the main floor into a bathroom, but I can see how "four bedrooms, one bathroom" was a tough sell, since families with enough members to need four bedrooms are likely to want at least two bathrooms in their homes.

The last thing I thought might have helped us score a lower price is that the kitchen is small and not modern, a little galley off the main area of the house. I don't mind it, but it doesn't have that "open-plan living room/dining room/kitchen" look that is so popular right now.

While we don't know for sure, I believe that the $98,000 list price we saw when we first considered the house was artificially low already because of these quirks. 

Houses of similar size in our area were going for a little more, around $110,000, and the original list price of the house, before we saw it, was $105,000. 

We placed an offer of $93,000, since we liked the house but weren't in a rush to buy, and they countered with $96,500. When the inspector's report showed some needed repairs, we documented what they would cost and were able to negotiate another $3,000 down for a final cost of $93,500.

Our mortgage interest rate is low

Between my husband and I pooling some savings, we were able to put 20% down. That offered some benefits on costs like private mortgage insurance, which is required for smaller percentages. 

We also opted for a 15-year mortgage with a low interest rate of 3.25%. While literally everyone told us that it is perfectly fine to keep a mortgage long-term at such a low interest rate, both of us really loved the idea of paying off our house in under 30 years if we could. 

Others said that the lower monthly payment on a 30-year mortgage would increase our cash flow, but we liked the slightly higher monthly payment with the lower interest rate (the rate would have been closer to 3.75% for 30 years).

We  also figured out property tax in our area (around $2,000 a year on our house's current valuation, which was just a little lower than what we paid for it) and we figured out what it would cost to insure it ($1,200 a year, once we found a good insurance agent). 

When everything was said and done, our monthly bill amounted to around $750 for property tax, home insurance, and our mortgage itself. We'd seen one-bedroom and two-bedroom places that cost more than that in rent. 

We also worried that utilities would eat us alive - after all, 1,800 square feet feels like too much for two people. But it has worked out: With a smart thermostat that keeps us from heating and cooling excessively when we are out of the house, our bills for all climate control, electricity, water, sewer, and trash rarely break $200 per month. This probably varies by location, but it was good enough for us. 

The takeaway

If you divide everything out, we've been paying something like $1,000 a month, including occasional repair and upgrade projects on the building, to live in our beautiful old house. We like the low cost of living in Hamilton, and we try to pay ahead on the mortgage whenever we can.

Can you afford to buy a home? Use this calculator to find out:

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