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Should Your First Home Be a Fixer-Upper?

Houses needing a little TLC might seem like a bargain, especially for your first home, but are you the person to give that house an overhaul? Find out whether or not should strap on the tool belt.

Photo: candysdirt.com

Mark Brock is a fan of fixer-uppers. He bought his first in the midseventies, a circa-1935 house in Columbia, SC, that was rich in history but short on modern conveniences. “Very little had been done to it, but it was in good shape and structurally sound,” he says. It turned out to be a good investment of time, money, and sweat equity.

It takes a certain mind-set — and budget — to see the project through, and a slow market is also making more of those handyman’s specials available and attractively priced.

How can you tell if a house is a diamond in the rough worth excavating? It has to do with the actual house —and with you. Here are some considerations to make when you’re thinking of buying a fixer-upper.

Is the Problem Cosmetic or Structural?
Cosmetic fixes are those that would make a house prettier, like replacing unattractive awnings or painting or landscaping — “things that won’t cost a lot of money and won’t require a lot of contractors,” says Ilona Bray, author of Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home. You’re more likely to find these kinds of homes now, too.

But if the problem is structural, you might want to pass, especially if you’re new to home repair. Fixing it will it be expensive and possibly time consuming but the issue at hand could be a sign that the house is not in good shape. Structural problems would involve anything that requires a contractor or knocking down walls, like trouble with the foundation, termites, or plumbing. These are things that should be found on a home inspection, which generally happens after you’ve made your bid and before closing on the house. If any structural issues are found on that inspection, think seriously about whether or not the home is going to be worth the extra cost.

Do You Have the Time?
If you’re the kind of person who wants to go to the gym after work and wants your weekends free to go to the movies, then you’re not a candidate for a fixer-upper. Fixer-uppers are time drains, and they disrupt your life.

But if you have an alternate place to stay while the work is being done or can continue to rent and pay the mortgage on a new place, the disruption won’t be a big issue. Of course, if you’re a DIY diehard and love the process of turning one thing into another, then the disruption might not bother you as much as someone who likes things neat and clean and finished.

If you’re hiring a contractor, you also need time to do some research before asking for bids. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost when calling a contractor and which contractor in your area is the best person to use.

Realtors often get involved in fixing houses they’re trying to sell, so real estate agent might be a good source for candidates. Get at least three estimates for any work you’ll need done, ask for references, and if possible go and see examples of their work. You can also ask your neighbors who they used and what they thought of the work.

Do You Have the Money?
If you pooled every last penny for that down payment, you’re not going to have much left over for home renovations, so you might be better off buying a house that’s livable as is. But if you have money set aside for repairs or you plan on taking out a loan, make sure you get an accurate estimate and then add another 20 percent on top of that. If you’re doing everything with borrowed money with no margin for error, think again. There will be extra expenses no matter how carefully you plan.

And don’t forget to factor in those extras that pop up when you’re living in a disrupted space: child care, dog care, takeout, and days missed from work because you have to be at home when the contractor is there.

Expect some things to go awry and when you’re budgeting for you fixer-upper, face the fact that at some point you’ll probably need to call in an expert

How Solid Is Your Relationship?
Buying a house is a stressful experience. Throwing a renovation on top of that, especially for a lot of first-time buyers, isn’t always ideal. “A lot of people move into houses soon after they’ve entered a long-term relationship,” says Bray. “That can be tough on a relationship if you’re trying to figure out these difficult things that have big implications for your finances and how you want to spend your life.”

If you’re single and still want to fix up an older home, make sure you have a network of helpers and never do the work by yourself. “The other person’s perspective is invaluable in figuring the best way to attack and complete a project, and by using a checks-and-balances system you ensure you’re not skipping steps and you’re using the right material — and you’re just getting some help getting the job done,” says Jennifer Musselman, author of Own It! The Ups and Downs of Homebuying for Women Who Go It Alone. “If you’re fortunate to have handy family members or friends, definitely enlist their help. Just make sure to enlist the help of people you trust and know their level of experience and expertise in what you’re asking them to do. Nothing could start a family feud faster than getting free help and someone accidentally breaks something or does something wrong.”

The one thing you want to make sure you don’t do, whether you’re single or not, is to watch the myriad of renovations shows on television and think that those dramatic and quick transformations will be your experience. Remember, that’s not really reality TV, and you might end up a disaster episode. But if you plan ahead with your time, money, and resources, your handyman’s special could be more than worth it.

When Remodeling Uncovers Hidden Treasures

Photo: Home DSGN

Ask any seasoned renovator or restoration contractor and they will have at least one good demolition story to tell—not so much about the one that got away, but perhaps about the one that got in the way. They may have been happily tearing out a partition when they uncovered it—a fireplace opening, Victorian wallpaper, feathered molding—and faced the question, How to proceed with the demolition project?. The answer is to continue with caution:  Additions are added to a home in layers; remove them one at a time and you may find treasures intact underneath, as was the case with several real-life projects:

  • At the Spaulding School in Barre, VT, workers tearing out interior walls came upon elaborate, intact stained-glass windows behind paneling. The windows were not part of the renovation plans, but keeping them has brought an unparalleled beauty and a sense of history to the new reading area.
  • In Manlius, NY, a couple yearned to straighten out an awkward stairway with a turn at the landing. It made no sense, they thought. Homes of that era featured straight stairways with no side entry. They attacked the project, opened the wall, and found the original stairs buried in the wall, with all treads intact.
  • A Manhattan brownstone remodel delivered the unexpected: a complete, ornate interior cornice behind a false ceiling. Bob knew to look for period details and to remove the layers one at a time, taking a  sensitive approach to deconstruction, treasures can be uncovered, whether you expect them or not.

Sensitive Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a method for proceeding with caution. Instead of demolition—a process that involves the destruction and wholesale dumping of materials as waste—deconstruction suggests the disassembling of building components for protection or reuse. This may be practiced in a number of ways, including removal, storage, salvage, or documentation and protection.

A savvy approach to rehabilitation includes research to establish important dates, styles, and influences on a building. Most buildings have been altered to some degree over their lifespan. A bit of sleuthing will assist in determining the age and appropriate period of significance of any discovery. An eighteenth-century home may have brick nogging between the walls; a late Federal period home may have a fireplace with a cast-iron fireplace hidden behind a new wall; even farmhouses may have wide moldings and detail work that was covered up years ago. Knowing that some details were common to your style of home will help keep you on your toes as you begin the deconstruction. Ultimately, some alterations may be significant, while others lack historic or architectural merit. It doesn’t mean the components won’t be valuable for others, however, so keep an eye on those items that can be salvaged for reuse.

Identify and Evaluate

Tenement Museum

Once you make a discovery, the first step is to understand what you have uncovered. Research and identification will determine the value and appropriateness of a feature given your home’s original period. Architectural treatments, including room sequence, spatial arrangements, and design ornament, are elements that make up a building’s historic character. Specialty wood treatments and signature craftsmanship that were specific to early building practices are simply not replicated today. Stop, identify, and assess.

An evaluation of your discovery should include the condition of the surviving component. You should document whether it is intact, whether the materials are sound and stable, and whether enough of the original element is left to repair or replicate it. If this is a feature that provides architectural interest or corresponds to a significant period, it may be folded into remodeling plans. You might find a fireplace surround, ghost marks from hardware that once existed, or even an entire cornice intact, any of which could complement and add character to a renovation or remodeling project.

Document and Protect
Document the presence of any architectural find by photographing the element as you discovered it. This will be an important record for you and future renovators, as you decide whether to replicate components and which treatments to use.

The worksite should also be supervised to avoid unintentional damage to the newly discovered feature. Protect and preserve significant ornaments and finishes during the assessment period, with notations for workers written directly on the plans and posted at the worksite.

The discovery of unforeseen features is often a bonus for the renovator. Light fixtures, plaster, columns, stenciling, and other decorative elements give a glimpse of the atmosphere and the historic character of the building. They act as a physical link to social history. However, retaining features may not be conceivable in every instance. Unexpected discoveries may slow the project, test the budget, or hamper renovation plans. Take time to determine if the feature has a place in your remodeling scheme. After complete review and documentation of the find, it is possible to respond in one of several ways.

Retain for Gain
You might be lucky enough to discover an ornament or feature intact, like an entire fireplace surround or enough of the plaster cornice to enable a restoration. Think of it as a gift, smile at your good fortune, and work it into your remodeling plans.

Selective Protection
Maybe you simply cannot manage a sudden preservation project, but you need to move ahead. It is not unwise or unheard of to simply document the artifact, carefully cover it, and move on, leaving it for discovery by another generation of renovators. After all, you found the treasure because someone else covered it up.

Architectural Salvage
If you haven’t the space or the inclination to store removed components on site, consider selling them to a reputable dealer in architectural salvage or a neighbor who may be restoring a period home. Even if you think it has little value, somebody in your community may want it. Remember to document your piece when you provide it to a salvage dealer—period pieces are desirable and command a high price, which has resulted in some unscrupulous vendors dealing in stolen building parts. Protect yourself and your buyers by documenting your treasure. A responsible dealer will want to provide the new owner with the provenance of your architectural feature.

The surprises of rehabilitation offer opportunities for historic interior interpretation and encourage the reuse of building parts. In addition , the reuse of these materials will offer the benefit of diverting tons of building material from your local landfill.

For assistance in repairing architectural features, consider Preservation Briefs, a series of booklets published by the National Park Service that can be ordered from the U.S. Government Bookstore.  Information about the benefits of deconstruction may be obtained from the Deconstruction Institute.

Questions to Ask a Contractor

Though it may be tempting to rush into hiring a contractor, take the time to ask a considered set of questions.


Photo: dexknows.com

After a damaging storm, it can be hard to find a contractor who will repair your home right away. Although it is tempting to rush into a contract with the first available builder or handyman, it is very important to take the time and check their licenses. Licenses are required in most states whenever contractors work on structural, plumbing, electrical, alarm, air conditioning, permitted, or roof-related work. 

Meet the contractor on site. Have a complete set of questions ready to ask. Make sure to interview more than one contractor and compare their estimates to see if the work, materials, schedule, and pricing are alike. If they are very different, be sure to ask why. This may help you discover any underlying problems that go unnoticed by other contractors.

Interview Checklist

  • Ask to see the contractor’s state-issued license and write down the number. Verify that the license is current and active. Check with your local building official about certification guidelines.
  • Ask for references. Licensed contractors should be happy to provide you with names and contact information for recent customers.
  • Get written estimates from several contactors that include all costs and a completion date. Beware of contractors that promise to be the fastest and the cheapest, this may result in poor quality or unfinished work.
  • Get a written description of the work being done, including a schedule and the material that will be used.
  • Check that the contractors you hire are fully insured.
  • Ask for a firm completion date, including cleanup.
  • Ask for a warranty agreement that guarantees the work for a specified period of time and provides for necessary repairs.

The time you take to hire the right contractor will pay for itself in safe, reliable repairs and peace of mind.