I read this great article today on the Life Hacker.com website and if you’re considering buying a house that is a fixer upper, you will want to read this.
Buying a new home is one of the most rewarding things you can do. And then comes the work — more than you think if you’ve bought a “fixer-upper.” Make sure you ask the right questions to make sure the work is worth it. The DIY experts at Stack Exchange are here to help.
Illustration by Stack Exchange.
My fiance and I are considering buying a fixer-upper house rather than an apartment when we get married.
Obviously things like location, neighbors etc. are important, but what should we be looking for in terms of fixing it up ourselves? Neither of us have much DIY experience.
1) What are the huge hidden expenses? Broken water heater? Bad foundation?
2) What things can we simply not do ourselves?
3) What sort of things can we do with little experience and little cash?
4) What are the “Gotchas” the realtor might not mention?
– asked by BlueRaja – Danny Pflughoeft
This question has been edited. See the original question.
Find a Good Inspector by Chris Cudmore
Most of your questions are the same question, just asked in a different form.
Before you even start looking — Before you even find a realtor — Do your research on a good home inspector in your area. If you are looking at an old house, make SURE to tell the home inspection service that you want someone who knows about houses xxxx years old. Most inspectors of newer (1-40 years) houses think everything in an old house needs replacement and will give a bad review of everything. Then get references and talk to people he’s worked for. If he’s not willing to give you references, then move on. When you find an inspector, go with them to the house & follow them around. You will learn a lot more than what will be written on the report, whether you buy the house or not.
Generally, you’ve got to look at the following areas:
- Structure – Will it stand up
- Membrane – Roof, cladding – Will it keep water out and heat in.
- Foundation – is the basement dry? does it have cracks.
- Electrical – Enough power, and properly wired.
- Plumbing – Leaks and pressure.
- Heating – Primarily this is the age and type of the furnace.
- Doors and Windows – These cost more than you think, so get an estimate before buying.
Essentially, you don’t want to mess with 1 and 3 at all, and the remainder, you need a good estimate of the costs.
The next important detail is Architecture. Are the rooms of appropriate size or is the floor plan easily convertible to something you can live with and enjoy.
I haven’t included cosmetics at all. Because this is where you are going to do it yourself.
Money you can’t avoid spending:
- Roofing – This needs to be replaced every 20 – 30 years. It can range from a re-shingling to a full wood and insulation replacement.
- Furnace – Again, 20-30 year replacement.
- Electrical – IF you’re hunting for a bargain, you’ll probably need electrical work. Most of it is easy and you can DIY if you know what you’re doing. (lights and sockets, pulling wires if the drywall is off) Talk to the guy at Lowes or Home Depot for a good book for your area. Get an electrician in for stuff around the box.
An Inspector’s Perspective by shirlock homes
Danny, I respect your enthusiasm. I am a certified home inspector and general contractor in Maine. There’s some great advice in the answers here, and I won’t repeat the obvious.
I will warn you, however, learn realtor language. “Fixer-upper” means a train wreck about to happen! Get a real good inspector that has building experience. DO NOT take a recommendation from your realtor for an inspector. Find a qualified builder/inspector. I have always felt inspectors that often work for realtors do not have the buyer’s best interest in mind as problems found nix sales and rrealtors don’t like that. I personally only work for buyers, never for realtors.
With all that said, renovations can add up fast. Roof $5,000-7,000, electrical or plumbing $85/hour, bathroom $6,000, kitchen $15,000-20,000, electrical service upgrade $2,500, windows $300 each, structural repairs, mold, insects, water damage, septic/sewer…
Unless you learn what to look for and are able to calculate the costs of repair or renovation before you buy, you are headed for stormy waters. The joy of home ownership will quickly turn into an unbearable nightmare.
You mentioned you didn’t want to spend $30,000 on a house that you already spent that much on. Where in the world are you going to find a livable house for $30,000? If there is really such a thing, I will buy 10 of them tomorrow and rehab them myself and make a mint, even in this housing market.
I apologize for sounding a bit negative here, but rather be bluntly honest with you considering you admitted you have minimal skills and resources.
Get Serious by Jay Bazuzi
This isn’t really a “fixer-upper” question, as every house needs work. Every home buyer should get a good inspection. Every home buyer should be prepared to deal with the responsibilities and burdens of repairs and ongoing maintenance.
However, if you want to do more than minor, occasional work:
1. Decide that you want to live in a house under construction.
You will have areas of the house that don’t function, tools everywhere, and lots of dust. Are you OK with that? For a long time? Consider living elsewhere while you do the work. Parent’s basement, small apartment, RV in the driveway. Or live in one part of the house while working on another part.
2. Decide what work you want to do.
Instead of asking what issues to avoid, decide which issues to accept. Anything else that a good inspector finds is either something to hire out, or a reason to reject the sale. Personally, I enjoy doing electrical work (like adding subpanels!), so I wouldn’t mind if there are electrical issues.
3. Be realistic about how long it will take.
If you’re working full time, then your house project will only be in the marginal hours. You’ll spend a lot of time learning, and a lot of time fixing your mistakes. As others have pointed out, you may be better off financially working for a paycheck and paying a pro to do the house work. The horror story I think of is the time my landlord replaced the roof, as described here: What projects should never be DIY?. Are you OK with that happening?
4. Seek professional help!
Find a friendly builder who will guide you through the process. Maybe they’ll spend a day each week on site with you, helping with tasks, giving advice. Also, if you have the humility to recognize when you’re getting in over your head, you’ll be better off than if you wait until things are really screwed up.
5. Be prepared for marital strain.
People are emotionally attached to their homes. As newlyweds, you’ll just be starting to figure out a new relationship (even if you’ve lived together for many years). The additional strain of living in a construction zone may be too much.
If a child joins your family, you’ll have almost no time to work on the house, and safety will be a concern. And parenthood triggers more deep emotional stuff around shelter, etc.
An alternative is to rent a small apartment (saving money & workload) and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. You’ll learn skills while contributing to your community. You’ll also get to find out whether this kind of work really suits you.
My home is cheap because we decided to lower our standards – much, much lower. Now I get to putter around with home improvement projects at my own pace, watching our comfort gradually improve. Plus, I love learning new stuff.
Good luck, hope it works out for you.