Lots of us enjoy whiling away an hour or three watching those shows on HGTV that involve an attractive couple buying a house, spending what seems like a few hours (or days) making some repairs and upgrades here and there, then either moving into the home of their dreams or flipping it for some serious cash profit. And if you’re going to fantasize about some aspect of homeownership, you could do a lot worse than creating your own private castles in the clouds that you help build and finish all on your own.
What’s your plan for the fixer-upper?
Where are you going to live while this to-be-purchased house is being renovated, for starters? Whether you want to flip the house or turn it into your own primary residence, decide if you can stand living in a house that’s undergoing some serious changes or if it might make more sense for you to maintain a separate residence while the house is being transformed. The second option is obviously financially prohibitive for some people, but maybe you can get creative — do you have friends or family who might be willing to let you crash in a spare room while you’re working on the fixer-upper, for example?
If you do want to live in the home while it’s being fixed up, then you might need to truncate your timeline for some of the repairs. Living in a home where all of the bathrooms are off-limits at once due to simultaneous renovation is not really feasible for most of us humans, and you might want to remodel your kitchen step-by-step instead of doing it all at once if the idea of living off of take-out or soup heated up on a hot plate is enough to make you twitch just thinking about it.
Do the math
If you want to live in the house, then your timeline for getting everything done is more flexible, but you still need to be very clear about how much money you’re able to spend on the house, and what the major repairs will entail in terms of financing. You don’t want to run out of money mid-renovation and find yourself living among plastic sheeting and torn-up floors indefinitely, with no end in sight.
Take a good, unblinking look at your financial situation and figure out what you could potentially pay for a fixer-upper and how you’re going to handle the expenses of the actual fixing-up that you’ll have to do. There are a number of mortgage loans available that factor in renovation and repair costs for fixer-uppers; your mortgage broker should be a good source of information for which of those loans is best for you (if any), and a financial planner can help you figure out a good budget and timeline that will work for your household. (But before you set either that budget or timeline in stone, talk to a contractor to figure out if it’s realistic — if not, go back to the drawing board!)
Be willing to pitch in … and honest about your abilities
There probably is quite a bit you can do yourself, though, from replacing light fixtures to painting or wallpapering rooms, or even refinishing wood floors yourself. YouTube can be a wonderful resource for figuring out how to do these things, so watch some videos and get a sense for what you might be willing and able to tackle yourself, and what’s probably beyond your scope. When in doubt, opt to hire a professional — it’s probably going to cost more in the long run if you try and fail to fix something yourself, and only then decide to bring in the pros. You’ll be much better off if you can be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do and err on the side of “this looks beyond my current abilities” after you’ve watched a few videos and educated yourself about the process.
Location is key
That said, unless you’re willing to tear a house down and rebuild another one in its place, don’t go overboard just because you love the location or the lot — some things, like extensive mold problems, are so expensive to fix that if you don’t want to deal with a tear-down, you should skip it even if you love the location.
Popular is better when it comes to bed/bath count
If you’re not sure what’s common in the area where you’re looking, a real estate agent, a general contractor, or even your county records office can be good resources for determining what’s popular and what’s an outlier.
Looking past cosmetic problems
That said, if you can look beyond the obvious cosmetic issues to see the potential in a home, then you can often find a great deal that can be relatively easily transformed into a dream property. Old or outdated carpeting, shabby cabinets, peeling paint, ugly light fixtures, and other items like that are usually easy fixes, although they can be real deterrents to buyers who are looking for a move-in-ready home.
Evaluate the layout
Fixing up the fixer-upper: Easy or difficult?
Easy fixes include patching and painting walls, or adding wallpaper to them; replacing carpet, laying tile, or refinishing wood floors; replacing light fixtures or fans; fixing or adding trim and baseboards to rooms; fixing broken window panes; replacing doors; replacing or refacing kitchen cabinets; adding a deck; and painting the exterior of the house — although there are more repairs and upgrades that you might feel confident tackling yourself, depending on your experience and ability levels, so don’t consider this a comprehensive list.
Difficult fixes include adding a garage or another room to the house, especially if you’re not simply putting up a new interior wall but instead are adding square footage to the building; full bathroom and kitchen remodels; replacing or adding heating, cooling, or ventilation systems; fixing foundation problems; replacing plumbing, sewage, or electrical systems; replacing the windows in the house; and pouring concrete outside in driveways or to fix sidewalk or walkway cracks.
Figure out where you can add and conquer
Extra inspections are worth it
Prepare for permits
Save money on fixtures …
… But it usually pays to splurge on materials
Decide where you can (and can’t) compromise
Find reliable, capable contractors
Be prepared to go over budget and past schedule