What to Know Before You Buy a Fixer Upper

Written by Lauren

Have you ever dreamt of buying a “fixer upper?” With home improvement shows, including the aptly-titled Fixer Upper, and design makeover blogs becoming more and more popular, it’s no surprise that many people are taking an interest in buying “project houses.” While a house with room to renovate might be a challenge, it’s also a great potential investment, and an opportunity to get creative with your home renovations. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you sign off on a new-to-you house…that will need some work to look brand new.

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How much work are you willing to take on?

For some homeowners, a DIY painting job is a big project, whereas some others might just think of that as a quick task. Houses, especially ones that need updating, require a lot of time, energy, and technical skills. Before you commit to a fixer upper, ask yourself how much time you can realistically commit to home improvement per week. If the idea of spending a whole weekend tearing up and replacing flooring sounds exciting to you, a hands-on house project might work perfectly for your lifestyle. If you’re only interested in spending a few hours per week on a place, consider its condition before you make a purchase.

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Another aspect of the work to think about is your own skill level. Are you comfortable around tools, wiring, or construction projects? What parts of the renovations could you do without consulting a professional? It helps to make a list of every project a potential house would require, and consider how many of them you can handle.

Ultimately, a house worth investing in will have some projects that would interest you and would be worth your time. Pick five or six projects that you would enjoy, and feel comfortable completing, on the house. If there are additional projects that require professional help, see if you can budget accordingly. Regardless of your goals, make sure your timeline and budget are reasonable, so you can keep the project on track and low-stress.

How flexible can you be in your neighborhood choice?

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Permit laws and zoning areas are definitely less fun to talk about than crown molding, but they’re equally important for any construction job. If the house you’re considering needs any add-ons (think: a new garage or a second bathroom), be sure to research the construction permit process.

Some areas will allow DIY-ers to change the facade or structure of their house as they wish. But some neighborhoods have approval processes, and even contractor rules that could put a damper on your dreams of an added story, or even a new exterior paint, depending on how strict the area is. The good news: most areas are reasonable about their guidelines, and have very clear resources online, so you can make sure you’re in the know before you start.

What is your budget?

As with all home-related projects, creating a detailed budget is crucial to managing a DIY home renovation. It’s easy for those hardware store trips to add up. And the last thing you want is for your fixer upper to turn into a money pit. Research what similar overhauls in your area have cost, and find ways to plan out all of the materials and supplies you’ll need.

Don’t forget about the little things, like gloves, painter’s tape or a new power screwdriver. There are easy ways to cut down on your costs, like buying supplies in bulk, or offering a knowledgeable friend a dinner out in exchange for a few hours of their time (let them order the lobster– think how much you’ll be saving in carpentry bills). Be sure to have a cushion in your budget for unexpected surprises like leaky pipes or new wiring, and you should be able to keep money in check.

What is your best case outcome?

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Most important of all, think about what you are hoping to get as a result of the process of fixing up a house. Are you looking for a way to use your DIY skills, or are you more interested in adding value to a property? Whatever your goal, make sure you find ways to reach it while you’re scoping the job. Some houses will be harder to add value to, but easier to find fun projects that your partner or kids can help with. Whereas others will be easy to upsell, but will require more challenging labor.

Whatever you decide, keep in mind that the process should have fun moments along the way, but don’t expect perfectly smooth sailing. Home makeover shows are popular because the projects can create drama good enough for TV. So, be ready for a few ups and downs in your own journey.

While the challenges of fixer uppers are well-defined, no story worth telling is one that goes perfectly; any problems that come up will make for great, interesting memories in the future. So long as you are prepared, there are many opportunities to make great spaces and memories as you peel off old wallpaper and build out new kitchen cabinets. Old houses are challenging, but the reward is the amazing “before and after” moment you’ll have when your project is complete— that in and of itself is worthy of a camera crew.

About the author



Lauren Walters is a freelance writer and marketer who lives in Sacramento. She loves good design, cooking, and antique stores. When she's not writing or moving her furniture around her house, you can find her out hiking Northern California's amazing trails.

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