Buying a house means taking on so many extra expenses that it's easy to forget about the hidden costs of utilities; the seller and your lender aren't likely to give you a report on what you can expect to pay. The size and configuration of houses, along with the sheer number of services that houses require, can make utility bills significantly more burdensome than for an apartment. But home ownership offers a bit more freedom to take action to lower utility costs.
Types of Utilities
When you rent an apartment, the price of the rent may include some utilities. For example, you may never have to think about paying for garbage collection or water because the apartment management pays those bills as a cost of operating the apartment building. When you buy or rent a house, though, you most likely will get a bill for every utility service you receive, including services that apartment dwellers may take for granted, like trash disposal and sewer.
Size and Usage
Some utility costs depend directly on the size of the dwelling. For example, you will pay much more to heat a large house than a small apartment. Similarly, although you may not bathe or wash dishes more frequently in a house than an apartment, the house also has exterior areas that need to be hosed down and a yard to water. Other utilities are less dependent on usage. If you only turn on lights in the room you are using, it doesn't matter to your electric bill whether you have one bedroom or four.
Even if the homes are the same size, an apartment can be more or less expensive to heat and cool than a house simply because of how the structures are configured. An apartment unit that's surrounded on all sides by other apartments absorbs some of the heat from those units, putting less strain on its own thermostat. A house is open to the elements and lacks this built-in insulation. On the other hand, an apartment on a very high floor could be more expensive to keep cool in the summer.
You have more control over utilities if you own a house: You're free to install an electric stove and radiant floor heating if natural gas prices are too high in your area, or put solar panels on the roof. Not only do renters not have this option, but some apartment buildings bill tenants for utilities based not on actual usage but on the size of the unit. This means you could pay more for hot water in a two-bedroom apartment than your neighbor in the one-bedroom who loves to take long showers.
Coral Fellows is currently a copy editor with Demand Media Studios.