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Related topics: homes, home buying, emergency fund, spending, Liz Weston

A good friend recently bought her first house. When I suggested she put her $8,000 first-time buyer's tax credit into a savings account for home repairs and maintenance, though, she waved away my advice.

"Oh, I won't need that," she assured me. "The house has been inspected, and everything is fine."

That sound you just heard? It was the collective groan of millions of experienced homeowners. We know a house can be an expensive proposition at best and ruinous at worst. The variety and scale of costs are often far more than first-time buyers can imagine.

Now, you might be fortunate, like message board poster "grumpyoltroll," who budgets $100 a month for home maintenance and sets aside another $100 a month to pay for big future repairs. The latter savings have yet to be tapped.

"I guess we have been really lucky," grumpyoltroll wrote, "or our preventive maintenance program has paid off in the 12 years we have owned this house."

Or you might be at the other end of the scale, like poster "whippets," whose problems began with a flooded basement, right after moving in. Another leak required a $7,000 fix, including new drywall, and then there was the problem with the septic system, and the air conditioning that needed to be replaced, and the bad wiring in the kitchen, and on and on.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"By the time we moved 2 years later, we added up all the bills and came to a total of $36,000," whippets wrote.

You're not out of the woods if you live in condo, co-op, town house or other shared-expenses situation. Yes, you pay a monthly fee to cover the maintenance costs of common areas, but that doesn't mean you won't face additional assessments if something major goes wrong and your homeowners association doesn't have adequate reserves to cover the bill.

How to cope? Here's what you need to know:

A home inspection is just the starting point

A competent inspector can alert you to obvious problems and give an expected life span for a house's components, including the roof, siding, water heater, and heating and air-conditioning systems.

Using the home-inspection report, you can start to prioritize what needs fixing when and start saving for down-the-line expenses, such as replacing the roof.

An inspector cannot, however, see through walls or predict every problem that could affect your home.

Your costs will vary

When I asked National Association of Home Inspectors President David Kolesari how much it costs to replace a roof, he asked me, "How much does it cost to buy a car?" His point: You can spend a few hundred bucks or tens of thousands of dollars. It all depends on your standards and, with homeownership, how much of the work you're willing and able to do yourself.

My experience has been that most big jobs -- roof replacements, heating and air-conditioning replacements, re-piping and repainting -- seem to cost somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000.

One of the best ways I've found to estimate repair costs is to use Angie's List, a subscription site that includes member reviews of an array of services. I pick contractors with a lot of reviews and high ratings, then read the individual reviews, which usually include details of the job's scope and cost.

Budget for maintenance

If you don't take care of your house, minor problems can blossom into major repair bills. Good maintenance doesn't come cheap, however.

"You can expect to spend anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to more than $10,000 per year, depending on the size and condition of the house, on general maintenance," said Ilyce Glink, the author of "100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask." "Some years it will be less and some more. Keeping up with the maintenance will be easier and less costly than if you wait for a small problem to grow exponentially bigger."

Glink cites the example of her friend Alice, who had to have almost an entire wall of her home replaced after a tiny roof leak went undetected.