Category: Buying & Selling Homes


The New Homeowner’s Survival Guide

If you've recently taken the home-buying plunge, our survival guide is a must-read that will help you avoid common pitfalls, budget your time and money, and glide smoothly into the joys of owning your own home.

New Homeowner Tips

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So you’ve bought your first house—congratulations! You’ve searched for and found a place that you love. You’ve secured a mortgage and successfully dealt with real estate brokers, lawyers, home inspectors, and insurance agents. You’ve learned about closing costs and the volumes of paperwork that must be signed, in triplicate, with a notary public as witness. No doubt, this has been an exciting time for you, and a very busy one. Believe it or not, there’s still more to do! So to help you through it all, we’ve prepared this handy guide.

We hope you’ll take away two essential things from this guide: an awareness of what you can expect in the first year of living in your new home, and some sound advice on being prepared for the most important aspects of being a new homeowner.

MORTGAGE AND INSURANCE LOGISTICS

Homeowner’s Insurance
If you have a mortgage, homeowner’s insurance was probably required for the loan. But it’s smart to reassess your insurance needs within the first six months of owning your home. You may discover you have too much (or too little) coverage. Once the dust has settled, take a critical look at your policy and solicit a second round of quotes from insurers.

Escrow
Most mortgage companies require your taxes and homeowner’s insurance to be escrowed, which means that the mortgage company totals those expenses, then charges you one-twelfth of the sum each month. (Some mortgage companies allow you to opt out of escrow, for a fee.) If you don’t have escrow, remember to budget for your tax and insurance expenses! If you do have escrow, take pains to make sure that the mortgage company is making all payments on your behalf in a timely manner; after all, it’s your house and your credit that are on the line. Also, double-check the accuracy of the estimate made by your lender’s escrow department. If there’s a shortfall, you can expect a bill for the difference at the end of the year. And if that estimate was way off, the bill you receive could be a real whopper.

SET UP YOUR UTILITIES
You’ll need to get all utilities into your name, so make a list and work through it. Call the electric, phone, and gas companies. Contact the county for your sewer and water, if it supplies both. Does the town pick up garbage/recycling, or do you need to contract for that yourself? If you want Internet and broader TV service than an antenna will get you, research your options and start calling for the best bargain. With all the digital entertainment options available, you may decide to cut the cord on cable.

Triple-Check Your Billing Address
Make extra sure each service provider has your contact information recorded correctly—down to the last digit of your zip code. If you don’t receive bills due to some administrative error, you may come home to find your water turned off.

Get on Utility Provider Budget Plans
With so many new variables, the first year in a new house is usually challenging financially. Get on budget plans where you can. Many utility providers will estimate your use for the year, and then break your bills into 12 equal payments. This reduces fluctuations in your charges throughout the year, which can be helpful. Money can feel extra tight after the big move.

New Homeowner Tips - Bills

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PREPPING THE HOUSE… OR NOT
Some work is more easily done before you get all your stuff in the house. If timing and budget allow, consider doing painting or floor refinishing before your move-in date. Do you need help with cleaning? If you want professional help with anything, bundle that into your move-in budget.

Don’t fret if there’s no money left for these things right away. Sometimes it’s better to live in a house awhile before deciding on paint colors, carpeting, or a new kitchen backsplash. A home is a work in progress, and it takes time to get the feel for a new place. Doing too much at once can be overwhelming and can kill the joy of the experience. Feel free to take a slow approach and live in your house as is for six months to a year or more. Who knows—you might just grow to love that vintage 1950s tile in the bathroom and use it as the inspiration for your interior design.

New Homeowner Tips - Moving

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MOVING IN!

Change the Locks
You can throw out the keys got at the closing—right after you change the locks! You have no idea who has copies of those keys, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. So, before you do anything else, call a locksmith or do it yourself—just do it.

Set Up the Move
Will you hire someone or do it yourself? If you’re hiring movers, get as many references as you can and at least three quotes. Make sure anyone you consider has insurance. If you’re doing it yourself, reserve your truck. Get one that’s slightly bigger—and reserve it for slightly longer—than you think you’ll need. That’s one place you can reduce stress.

Related:  Moving 101—10 Ways to Make the Best of Any Move

Pack
If you’re packing your own boxes, pack them room by room, and label them very clearly, so they can be taken immediately to the right place after being unloaded. Make some quick signs for each room that correspond to the box labels. If you organize your move effectively, with any luck, you’ll be able to park in the garage by the end of the week.

Unpack
Set manageable goals for yourself. You probably have several wonderful years, if not decades, to enjoy your new home, so you don’t need to finish unpacking in one day. Decide how many boxes you’ll unpack each day—one or two is completely acceptable—and stick to that number. If you’ve unpacked them and still have energy, turn your focus to another task, like hanging window treatments or shopping for drawer organizers.

GET ACQUAINTED WITH YOUR SYSTEMS

Service Checks
Plan to have a service check on your HVAC, hot water heater, fireplace, and/or chimney, and any major appliances that require it. Check any filters, and replace if necessary. In short, evaluate all of your home systems.

Labeling
Go through all the breakers in your electrical box and label them. Label the incoming and outgoing pipes, as well as the shut-off valves, for your water and sewer service. Taking a little bit of time now will make it much easier to diagnose and fix any problems that may arise in the future.

New Homeowner Tips - Gardening

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GET THE LAY OF THE LAND

Equipment
If you have a lawn, you’ll need to purchase some lawn-care equipment or hire a landscaping service. Start researching lawn mowers and learn how to use a string trimmer. If you don’t have them already, acquire a rake, shovel, and some pruning tools, at the very least. If you decide to fertilize your lawn, you’ll want to purchase a spreader or hire someone for the job. Your new neighbors should have good references.

Related: Ultimate Lawn Care Guide—12 Steps to a Prize-Winning Yard

Utility Location
Before you start any new landscaping, call a utility location service to come mark where all your services are in the yard. You do NOT want to break a water main or cut off your electricity while you’re planting a tree or installing a fence. It’s worth making yourself a map to keep on file for reference in the future.

Yes, moving into your first home is a lot of work. But you’ll reap so many rewards—you’re building equity, lightening your tax load, and establishing roots in a community. With any luck, some of those new neighbors will become lifelong friends. Congrats, again, on your new home!


Hire a Photographer If You Want to Sell Your House

When it's time for you to sell, a professional real estate photographer can help make sure that your listing really stands out from the crowd.

Real Estate Photography Tips - Interior

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You don’t think twice about commissioning professional photos of your children, right? Even if you don’t have any immediate plans to move, it’s wise and cost-effective to hire a real estate photographer. The reason is that in today’s real estate market, when so many house hunters are browsing image-laden listings online, better-quality photos attract more interest, helping you to sell your house more quickly and for a higher price than you might have gotten otherwise.

For advice, we reached out to Brian Balduf, CEO and founder of VHT Inc., a national firm that links homeowners with professionals who are skilled in the art of creating glamour shots of home exteriors and interiors. (If you’re curious about the economics here, know that VHT charges $100 to $500 for a portfolio.) There are many good reasons for commissioning professional real estate photography. Five especially opportune situations are listed below, along with one type of photo that, according to Balduf, should never be taken.

Completed renovations. Before the paint chips and the carpet frays in the home addition you’ve completed or in the kitchen you’ve remodeled, look into real estate photography as a way of capturing that project in its best possible light. Remember to snap your own “before” photos to highlight the improvements.

Real Estate Photography Tips - Exterior

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Details and polish. Buyers want to see points of distinction up close. “What makes your house different from the one next door?” asks Balduf. “If you think it’s the fireplace, get high-quality shots of what makes it special.” In other words, identify your home’s selling points, then make sure the real estate photography emphasizes them.

Capture the best light. Even the best apps on the fanciest smartphone cannot match a photographer’s skill and expertise in correcting for deep shadows, fluorescent lighting, and miscellaneous other factors that typically compromise the work of an amateur. If there is a showcase room in your house that looks best at a certain time of day—late afternoon, for example—then schedule your appointment with the photographer during those hours.

Front and façade. Studies indicate that house hunters online pay the most attention to façade photos. The real estate photographer is very likely to understand that for a stunning shot of the exterior, it’s best not to capture a panorama of the nondescript driveway and unadorned garage door. “Obtuse angles often work best,” says Balduf.

Professional ambitions. If you’re considering a career (or a sideline gig) in real estate sales, home design, or property development, then you may be able to advance your career goals even as you source beautiful photos of your own home. Not only should you be sure to include these images in your professional portfolio, but you should also expand your network of contacts by hiring a different real estate photographer each time you complete a new renovation.

Finally, Balduf warns that there is one set of photographs a seller ought never to include in a real estate listing: unfinished remodeling projects. “You see what it could be,” he says, but house hunters see only what it isn’t.


The Right 5 Questions to Ask a Prospective Selling Agent

These 5 questions will help you figure out whether the agent vying for your listing is really the one who can get your house sold.

How to Choose a Realtor

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Groomed and energetic, the real estate agent seated on your sofa seems like a perfect fit for the job of helping you sell your property. She loves your house and neighborhood, and having promptly delivered a complimentary marketing analysis, she hints that she may already have a buyer in her back pocket.

But how can you be sure that she’s capable of making a sale in a timely manner and for the best possible asking price? The questions that follow will help you identify the top-performing realtors among the handful of professionals you are considering.

Related: 10 Simple Home Staging Tips Every Seller Should Know

1. What percentage of her listings does the agent actually sell? 
This number, the agent’s sell-through rate, is the percentage of houses an agent successfully sells within a given time period out of all the listings she represents. Check to find out how this agent’s rate stacks up against the average maintained by the local realty association. Consider only those candidates whose sell-through rate exceeds the norm.

2. Among the sales the agent has made, what is the median ask-to-sale ratio?
This figure lets you know to what extent the agent discounts her listings to make deals. Realtors are notorious for initially setting a high asking price, then later recommending a lower figure. If you discover the agent routinely sells houses at a discount of 5 percent or more, that means her modus operandi may set you up for a disappointing sales price.

How to Choose a Realtor - Sold Home

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3. How will the agent market this house to its most likely buyers?
Whom do you envision as the most likely buyer of the house you are selling? If you think your place would appeal most to an existing homeowner in the area, that’s a good reason to opt for an experienced agent with ties to the community and a network of local connections. If, however, you would like to reach first-time buyers, an agent who is more adept with online marketing, even if she is less experienced, might prove more effective. If you think your property would appeal most to younger house hunters, ask the agent you are vetting whether she has a social media strategy or whether she intends to cross-post the listing. Knowing that 92 percent of home buyers rely on online sites like Zillow and Trulia, many agents expect houses to sell themselves on the Web, when in fact more aggressive tactics generate better results.

4. In online listings, what key metrics does the agent collect, and to what end?
Agents collect an array of metrics from online real estate listings. Perhaps the most important is known as the conversion rate: What proportion of those who look at the listing ultimately go ahead and ask to see the place? And here’s a follow-up question: When a given listing has a low conversion rate, how does the agent diagnose and fix the listing so that it invites more interest?

5. Will you sign a three-month contract?
Because the market undergoes so many rapid shifts, the last thing you want is to be locked into a long-term contract with a realtor who has given up on selling your house. For a talented agent representing a well-priced home, three months is long enough to get at least one qualified offer.


Selling to Seniors: How to Win Over Older Home Buyers

Looking to sell to an older home buyer? Thoughtful improvements both inside and outside the home could help seal the deal.

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In the past, retirees have fled south, eschewing the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest in favor of sunnier, more benign climates. But for older folks today, it’s a different story: Aging baby boomers might be downsizing, but with greater frequency, they are opting not to relocate geographically.

What does all this mean for home sellers? Traditional enticements, such as a generously sized backyard, may not be effective in drawing interest. Rather, thoughtful improvements like grab bars and wheelchair ramps might, in fact, do more for the marketability of your real estate listing.

• Design counts. No matter how practical the improvement, if it flies in the face of buyers’ style sensibilities, you are not likely to see a return on your well-intentioned investment. Translation: Instead of awkwardly propping a plywood ramp over the stairs on your front porch, take the time (and spend the extra money) to usher in accessibility without alienating those who don’t want or need assistance.

• Enlist pros. When building home conveniences to facilitate the day-to-day lives of seniors, don’t ignore the expertise of architects and/or landscape designers, especially if your remodeling work includes the addition of an access ramp. On the one hand, an architect can make sure the project adheres to standard specifications. On the other hand, a landscape designer can minimize the extent to which the curb appeal of your property is impacted as a result.

Related: Senior Moment: Boost Home Value by Enabling Independent Living

• Bragging rights. One homeowner had an elevator installed—in her ranch house. The lift ensured that her husband could reach the finished basement, often the venue for family get-togethers. The elevator also proved handy in the course of entertaining, as serving platters and dirty dishes could be easily carted between the kitchen and party space. A $20,000 investment, reports the homeowner, the elevator is as much an accessibility measure as it is a lifestyle amenity.

• Integrate accessibility. No longer purely practical, accessibility features have taken on aesthetic value, too. Makers of bathroom fixtures and finishes now offer such things as wheelchair-height toilets with sculptural panache, or grab bars that look like classy towel hangers. If you insist on accessible elements in line with the quality of choices made elsewhere in the home, the accessible features will be obvious to those who need them, transparent to those who don’t.


Don’t “Fall” Down: Surviving Autumn’s New Real Estate Rules

Whether you're buying or selling, these familiar tips may help you navigate the unfamiliar territory that characterizes real estate this season.

Fall 2013 Real Estate Tips

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Well, that didn’t last long. The buoyant housing market of this past spring has already sputtered out, and mounting evidence suggests that autumn won’t go easy on either buyers or sellers. Real estate activity fluctuates in keeping with a slew of factors; in the best times, those factors strike a delicate balance.

Right now, things are a bit off kilter: Mortgage rates are high, and the number of homes for sale is low. New data from the agency Redfin show that in the spring, 50 percent of survey respondents thought it was a good time to buy. Months later, at the beginning of fall, only 25 percent retained a positive outlook.

The only certainty is uncertainty, as the market changes gears again and again over time. Those looking to buy or sell a home this season are wise to ignore countrywide trends. Focus not on what you have no hope of changing, but on those elements that are within your power to control.

Tips for Sellers
Rattled by higher mortgage rates and unexpected fees, buyers are likely to be attracted to any guarantees you can give them. Set a firm move-out date, commit to paying a percentage of closing costs, or promise a sweetener—say, $1,000 towards new appliances. Meanwhile, assure buyers that your house is a solid investment: For instance, create a chart illustrating the stability of home values in your neighborhood over the past several years.

Related: Selling This Fall? Court Millennials and Empty-Nesters

Tips for Buyers
Gain as much clarity as possible as to what closing costs you can expect. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides a comprehensive list that should enable you to generate an accurate estimate. Plus, heed the following best practices and money-saving strategies:

  • Clamp down on spending to insulate yourself from undesirable swings in your credit rating.
  • See if you can combine your auto and home insurance to get a lower rate.
  • Negotiate a lower rate for a midweek move.

Anticipating costs and, when possible, minimizing them affords home buyers a rare bit of breathing room in this unpredictable housing climate.


Quick Tip: House Hunting

When you're out visiting homes on the market, these house hunting tips can help you distinguish between properties with potential and mistakes waiting to happen.

If you’re house hunting, here are some things to keep in mind on your walk-through. Check for structural integrity. Excessive damage could indicate more serious problems. Look for updated wiring and note the age of the heating and cooling system. Look for architectural details that could add value, and check out the condition of the kitchen and baths. If you like the house, get a professional inspection with a written report.

For more on buying and selling homes, consider:

House-Choosing Checklist
5 Pro Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Fixer-Upper
10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Foreclosed Home


Selling This Fall? Court Millennials and Empty-Nesters

Looking to make a quick sale before winter arrives? Target the types of buyers who drive the market in autumn.

Fall Home Selling Tips

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If you’re planning on putting your house on the market this fall, be aware that folks at different stages of life enter the market at different times of the year. For example, the lively spring real estate season thrives on families wishing to relocate while their kids are on break from school. Home sales in autumn, however, are driven mainly by millennials and empty-nesters. As we near the end of the summer, many would-be home sellers are wondering whether either of those populations can be counted on to be active in the coming months.

Related: 10 Simple Home Staging Tips Every Seller Should Know

Millennials. What’s keeping millennials from moving out of their parents’ basements? Only money. To scrape up a down payment, young and financially insecure house hunters are likely to seek loans either from family members or the federal government. But are they actually going to obtain those loans?

Watch the stock market for clues. If investment returns are strong, waffling parents might feel rich enough to subsidize their adult children’s dreams of homeownership. Less vulnerable to uncertainty are government home loans, namely those offered by the Federal Housing Administration. As we’ve reported in the past, the FHA makes loans that combine purchase and improvement expenses. Mention those programs in all of the materials you prepare to market your property. Hey, it’s a worth a shot: You might end up informing a potential buyer of something he doesn’t already know.

Here are a few tips to help you court millennials:

• If someone visits your open house with parents in tow, pay as much attention to the parents as you do to the apparent buyer himself.

• Supplement the listing with a document that highlights the amenities that millennials view as must-haves (for example, wireless Internet infrastructure).

• Allow plenty of time for the loan to be approved. The average millennial’s credit history lacks a landlord’s verification of his ability to meet payments.

Empty-Nesters. Having already raised children, empty-nesters understand the value of good school districts, but nowadays they are more interested in amenities that suit their child-free lifestyle. If you have a hunch your house may appeal to empty-nesters, here’s how to play up that attraction:

• Emphasize multipurpose space—for instance, stage one bedroom as a home office-cum-hobby room—because empty-nesters crave flexibility for the future.

• Provide a map to points of interest within walking distance. To the extent possible, aging baby boomers wish to integrate exercise into their daily habits. 

• Showcase quality. Without teenagers around, empty-nesters can enjoy more delicate finishes and fine details, so give them something to brag about. They want to upgrade as they downsize.


Moving? 5 Ways to Minimize Surprise Costs

As if moving weren't stressful enough, it can also carry with it a host of unanticipated costs. Prepare yourself with our rundown of surprise fees and hidden expenses.

Moving Costs

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In the weeks before you close on a new house, it’s tempting to think you’ve overcome the most challenging financial hurdles of real estate. The truth is that in the run-up to moving day—and heck, even after you’ve completely relocated—unexpected fees and expenditures can pile up. Here are a few steps you can take to keep costly surprises to a minimum.

1. Protect Your Credit
Moving involves a litany of expenses that can have you reaching again and again for your Visa or MasterCard. Be careful: Eating up your available credit can throw off the assumptions that shaped the terms of your pending mortgage. If you start maxing out your credit cards, your lender might be forced to deem you a greater risk, which could in turn make your mortgage rate go up. So hold off on charging any big-ticket items (for example, new furniture) until after you close.

2. Research Municipal Fees
Believe it or not, some municipalities require a payment from outgoing homeowners, while others slap a fee on those who are just joining the local population. You might even get dinged by both the place you are leaving and the place you are moving to. There’s no way around municipal fees like this, but because they can amount to thousands of dollars, take the time to determine whether you’ll be facing any.

Related: Moving 101: Easy Ways to Make the Most of Any Move

3. Avoid Building Fines
If you’re moving out of a condominium or apartment building, check with the board or management company well in advance of your move. Outgoing occupants are most likely required to follow an established procedure. It’s possible, for example, that your building enforces quiet hours or that moving trucks are permitted to park only in designated spots. Failing to observe the rules could mean a hefty fine, so be sure to find out what the regulations are.

4. Beware of Outstanding Payments 
Directly question the home seller about any outstanding or impending fees, assessments, special taxes, or improvement costs. If there is money owed, it’s not your obligation to pay it—at least not prior to the closing. Settle all questions of debt before taking formal ownership of the property, or else you could be stuck picking up the previous owner’s tab.

5. Expect Mortgage Add-Ons
Thanks to the ongoing realignment of lending norms, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) has boosted the fees it charges buyers at closing. The FHA guarantees about one-third of mortgages each year, so don’t assume that your new loan is going to resemble your old one. Identify the differences between the two and know what you’re getting into.

Finally, a tip about tips: Don’t forget to have plenty of cash on hand for those folks who will make your life a bit easier as you go about the always-tedious task of moving. Everyone appreciates a little appreciation.


3 Steps to an Easy Mortgage Approval

If you think you'll be in the market for a mortgage in the near future, now is the time to make sure your life and your finances conform to a few commonsense rules.

Getting a Mortgage

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Risky practices consigned to the past, mortgage lenders are now returning to applying the same standards that your parents had to meet when they purchased their homes. In this landscape, hewing to three commonsense rules will help you receive swift approval of your mortgage application.

1. Maintain a high credit score. Will you pay the money back? That’s really all the lender wants to know. If you have a solid track record of repaying past loans, then you are likely to repay this one. Each credit reporting agency—Experian, Equifax, and Transunion—calculates your credit score. That figure summarizes your reliability as borrower. The higher your credit score, the lower your mortgage rate. The lower your mortgage rate, the lower your monthly payments. So at least in the context of mortgages, good guys finish first.

2. Prove that you earn what you earn. Traditional employment makes loan officers smile because their ideal mortgage candidate has always had the same job, working for the same employer, and enjoying a yearly raise. That level of stability may seem boring to you, but in the eyes of a mortgage broker, change equals risk. Self-employment, career transitions, or periods of unemployment, therefore, present challenges. None of these make it impossible to secure a mortgage, but you may need to work a bit harder to make your case.

3. Make a juicy down payment. Typically, 10 percent is the minimum down payment required for a mortgage, but if you can swing it, putting forward more than 20 percent gets you off the hook for some exasperating expenses—for instance, mortgage insurance. The business of borrowing money can become pretty complicated, but this part couldn’t be much simpler: The more money you put down, the less risk there is for the lender. The less risk for the lender, the greater your chances of getting a mortgage.


5 Pro Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Fixer-Upper

On the hunt for that elusive diamond in the rough? Real estate wizard Randy Florke shares his top tips on buying a fixer-upper.

As founder and president of The Rural Connection, a real estate company based in Upstate New York, Randy Florke has purchased and restored more than 40 old farmhouses, creating gracious and comfortable homes from these diamonds in the rough. When scouting a property, which qualities catch his eye, and what are the red flags that make him walk away? Read on for pro tips on buying a fixer-upper.

 

1. Location, Location, Location

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Location

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“If a house has an amazing location, there’s almost nothing in the way of renovation hurdles that get in my way,” Florke says. “My dream location is all about privacy. I love a house that’s set back from the road. If it’s also got a great view or a water feature, such as a pond or creek—those are both bonus features.”

 

2. Budget for Renovation Costs

Buying a Fixer Upper - Budget

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“When I first tour a house, I’m thinking about what I’d like to change and what needs to be done,” says Florke. “By the time I walk back out the door, I already have a preliminary idea of what the renovation costs might be.” These costs, Florke continues, have to be factored into your overall budget. If you’re unsure about the costs yourself, ask someone you trust to come along and offer you an honest estimate. “It’s essential that you know what you’re getting into.”

 

3. Focus on Roofing and Foundations

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Roofing

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Issues with roofs and foundations often scare off potential buyers, according to Florke, but if you adore the house, ask a contractor to take a closer look. “I’ve bought many houses with both of these issues,” he says. “Provided the cost to fix them properly is within your budget, it could be a great opportunity.”

 

4. Know Where to Draw the Line

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Wood Rot

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Repairable roof and foundation problems aside, Florke would pass on an old home with termites or significant rotting. “If a roof has been left in disrepair for too long, a house will rot from the inside out. That’s not worth an investment.” But don’t rush to dismiss the land on which the tear-down is sitting. “It you’re in love with the location and your budget allows, you can raze the old house and rebuild a new one in a similar style.”

 

5. Stay Positive

Buying a Fixer-Upper - Stay Positive

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If you’ve found an old home you feel is perfect for you but have reason to believe the renovation costs will not realistically fit into your budget, “walk away,” Florke advises. “There will always be another house to fall in love with.”