Many companies featured on Money advertise with us. Opinions are our own, but compensation and
in-depth research determine where and how companies may appear. Learn more about how we make money.

By Brad Tuttle
January 26, 2016
heater shaped like a coin purse
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Cheap crude oil, which is saving drivers big money at the pump, is also saving homeowners substantial cash on heating bills this winter.

In Maine, for instance, heating oil prices are down to $1.95 per gallon, according to the Portland Press Herald. That's the lowest level since 2004, and will save the average household using 900 gallons of oil this winter nearly $1,600 compared with a year ago.

In some cases, cheap oil has pushed natural gas prices lower as well. That, combined with above-average temperatures for the season, is being forecast to save homeowners in Michigan roughly $200 this winter.

So why might some homeowners be upset that heating costs are getting cheaper? Well, you might be peeved if you had bet that those costs would increase this winter. And that's essentially what many homeowners in the Northeast did months ago, by locking in oil prices at the going rate last summer or fall.

Companies that service homes with heating oil often give customers the option of signing a contract to lock in prices. Essentially, it's a hedge against the (generally strong) likelihood of oil prices rising as winter sets in and demand soars. "Locking in a price for home heating oil usually saves money," the Albany Times Union explained last winter.

Except that locking in oil prices didn't save money last winter. Instead, homeowners who locked in prices based on the levels being commanded in July or October wound up paying more for oil—because prices actually decreased during the winter.

It's the same story for the winter of 2015-2016, only homeowners who locked in prices months ago stand to lose out on far bigger savings, as heating oil prices have, well, tanked. "It's speculation," Barb Corliss, who handles customer service at Vermont's Keyser Energy, said to NPR. "People are innate gamblers by nature."

Read next: 4 Ways to Head Off Expensive Home Disasters This Winter

In this case, some gamblers bet that oil prices would rise in the winter. Not long ago, that would seem like a fairly safe bet. But as we now know, heating oil prices are down 50% compared with just two years ago.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, homeowners are growing reluctant to use fixed-pricing contracts to lock in heating oil prices. In the past, maybe half of Keyser Energy's customers opted for them. Lately, however, only one-quarter are doing so, NPR reported. And at least for this winter, it turns out that the smart bet was placing no bet at all.