You don’t even have to be a fan of old homes. You needn’t even be on the lookout for buying residential real estate. The appeal of fixer upper homes has transcended such limited niches in the past few years. They owe their popularity to runaway reality TV shows like HGTV’s Fixer-Upper with Chip and Joanna Gaines, which, in turn, has spawned several clones. It seems American audiences simply can’t get enough of watching old homes having their appeal restored.
So, if you’re entertaining the thought of maybe one day opting for such a home, you also need to know what to be on the lookout for. Of course, you’re going to want to look at location, pricing, and neighbors; obviously, you’ll be aware of the fact that such a purchase requires some elbow grease. But we’re not going to talk about what you already know—we’re giving you a short and sweet cheat sheet of how to buy a fixer-upper and what to look for in one.
How to buy a fixer upper
Step #1: Look for a good home inspector in the area. Specifically ask for one who has relevant experience with houses as old as the one(s) you’re interested in. Less experienced inspectors will usually turn their noses at any little defect, which might call the entire transaction off, even when the home is in otherwise relatively good condition. Another important aspect to bear in mind is that home inspectors who work with realtors often tend to kill fixer-upper sales, since they are inherently biased. Your safest bet would be to work with a builder/inspector.
Step #2: Analyze the home’s structure. Together with the inspector you’re working with, you’re going to want to look at several specific structural aspects. Be aware that problems in the following departments spell out massive spending toward fixing them.
- Foundation and walls. This one is a no-brainer. You don’t want a home that is about to collapse onto itself. Also, make sure to check the basement for cracks in the foundation and excess humidity.
- Membrane. The home’s roof is just as important, so look for leaks. Similarly, you don’t want a home whose cladding is falling apart, because you’re going to be in for some sizable heating bills.
- Utilities. Insufficient power for a modern home, bad wiring, leaky plumbing, poor water pressure, and an old, dysfunctional heating system all spell trouble and high repair costs.
- Access points. Windows and doors are far more expensive than most prospective fixer-upper buyers care to imagine (about $300 a piece for new windows). Always ask the home inspector to give you an appraisal of their status.
Step #3: Assess the home plan. If the home checks on all the above counts and you find the cost estimate bearable, take a good look at the floor plan for each of the home’s levels. Discuss it with a professional, if need be. You either want a home whose rooms are of an appropriate size for your household’s needs, or one which can easily be transformed into what you want.
Step #4: Be prepared to work, work, work, and spend, spend, spend. Always try to get a realistic idea of how long the renovation process will take. Both the financial and the personal strain that it involves will take their toll on your household and you need to be sure if you can handle this for months, or maybe upward of one year on end.
Is a fixer upper worth it?
Buying a fixer-upper will inevitably incur some costs. You might decide that some are too much for your budget, or you might spring for them anyway. Here’s what to expect, in terms of renovation expenses:
- Roof repair. The lifespan of the typical roof is 2 to 3 decades. After that, it will need to be fixed or replaced, depending on the state it’s in. At the very least, some of the shingles will have to be renewed. If the roof is in a more dire state of neglect, you might actually have to replace it entirely and get the new one insulated. The costs range from $5,000 to $7,000.
- Heating system. In terms of life span, most furnaces fare like roofs. They last for 20 to 30 years; when that time is up, you have to decide whether to get a new, modern system, or fix the existing one.
- Electric repairs. The vast majority of affordable fixer-uppers require electrical repair. Some of it can be handled as a DIY project, if you’re only looking at socket replacement and basic wiring. Issues in and around the breakers and/or mains box are best handled by professional electricians. Electricians and plumbers charge an average of $85/hour. If you need to replace or upgrade the whole system, you’re looking at a minimum of $2,000.
- Kitchen remodels. These are not absolutely mandatory, but they can be very expensive. Depending on the size of your project and whether or not it involves buying all new appliances, expect the costs to be in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.