Buying a Fixer Upper: Renovation and Remodeling Tips from the Experts

Updated on August 7th, 2019
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“Needs TLC. Loads of potential.” If you’ve spent time browsing real estate listings, you’ve likely seen one of these “fixer-upper” homes and fantasized about turning it into your perfect abode. With a little elbow grease, it could really shine. Plus, you’ve been looking for a new DIY project.

A fixer-upper home can be a fun project, and a great way to build instant equity, but it also requires a great deal of knowledge and hard work. In the excitement, it’s easy to overestimate your capabilities or overlook the many aspects that go into renovating a fixer-upper. If the home needs more extensive repairs, like electricity or roofing, even the handiest person may find themselves out of their depth. Since information is power, we asked professionals with a background of working with fixer-uppers for their advice on buying, renovating, and remodeling a fixer-upper home.

Partner with the pros

Investing in a fixer-upper can be intimidating, particularly given the uncertainties, construction costs, and project timeline. That said, fixer-uppers are a worthwhile investment – building immediate equity – if you’re well-informed and strategic. Two pieces of advice: First, you must know your market. Hire a seasoned, highly rated realtor and have them counsel you on the investment. Is it priced right? How much could the value increase after a remodel? Know the numbers and make a decision that will both protect and benefit your pocketbook. Second, bring a general contractor and/or interior designer with you to evaluate the home. They will give you a sense of the home’s potential as well as the possible costs to transform it into your dream home.

Oren Farkash, CEO
South Land Remodeling

Budget for home improvements

If you plan on buying a fixer-upper, you need to know which projects you can take on and which you will need to hire someone to complete. If you are not handy and need to bring in professionals to complete the renovations, the costs can climb quickly and a fixer-upper home may not be the best option for you. Create a budget and stick to it. Prioritize the projects so that you can take care of the areas where you spend most of your time.

If the house is “move-in ready,” you will be in great shape. Sure, the kitchen may be ugly, but is it operable? Don’t blow your budget on one area of the house. Take your time to get everything just the way you like it. It may take a bit longer to complete everything, but in the end, you will have converted the “fixer-upper” into a place you can call home while hopefully adding some equity to the property at the same time.

Colin Shaw, Owner,
Shaw Remodeling

couple remodeling

Don’t out-remodel your neighbors

You should look for homes that are solidly built and in good neighborhoods. Look for the home that is not necessarily the worst in the neighborhood, but not the best either. You want your home to end up being not the greatest, highest priced one in the neighborhood, but close to it. You also need a good realtor, one who is willing to look hard for what you need. 

When you get ready to remodel the home, make sure that you do not ‘out remodel’ your neighbors. Meaning, you do not want to spend so much that when you decide to list the home for sale, you are in upside down. There is a fine line to balance when it comes to pricing your home. 

Debbie Speck, Vice President
Specktacular Home Remodeling

Prioritize natural light

Focus on the space available and the lighting. Having a lot of natural light can make a big difference in the end result and atmosphere in the home. It can be expensive to knock down walls and add more windows but updating the color pallet, flooring, and accent walls are much more affordable and DIY-able. Look for places in the home where simple updates can make a big splash such as adding an accent wall for texture. 

It can also be helpful to have a theme in mind before you buy the home. If you are wanting to create a farmhouse look and feel, try to find an open concept house with the right bones for the style. You want to make sure that your plan for the interior style will match the exterior of the home. For example, a victorian style house might feel odd and disjointed with a modern minimalist interior.

Alison Milbury
Old Mill Brick

remodeling windows


Identify water leaks

If you believe you have water damage or a potential leak in your home, it’s important to locate the source promptly so there’s less opportunity for further damage or mold to occur. Unfortunately, signs of a leak like discoloration to walls, flooring, or mold are often ignored until the problem becomes much more significant. A reputable leak detection company can use their special equipment and expertise to locate the problem for you.

Jer Caruthers, Founder
Leak Pros – Fort Meyers, FL

Water damage isn’t always a deal-breaker

Most homes will suffer water damage at some point. Provided it is addressed promptly and properly, there is little concern about the integrity of the home. However, when the damage is not taken care of, or in many cases, not known until it’s too late, the required work can be extensive. Certain parts of the home are more likely to be impacted by water and/or mold. The areas that we typically find damages are the kitchen and the bathrooms, which have tale-tale signs if you know what to look for. 

Most home inspectors will point out differences is appearances, but often the person performing the inspection does not go into much more detail. Often times what an inspection paints as horrific conditions, may have a simple fix and can be handled promptly by a certified restoration company in order to maintain your home-buying schedule.  At this point in the home buying process, an experienced restoration professional’s evaluation can potentially save you money and avert headaches that are often associated with long term water damage.

Shawn Richards, Mitigation Manager
Complete Restoration Services – Boise, ID

Vet your contractors through the BBB

Don’t feel uncomfortable telling professionals how much you have allowed for your budget. They will better guide you to the right products in your price range. Hire professionals with impeccable credentials and research them thoroughly. Check the Better Business Bureau (BBB), National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and home builders’ association (HBA) in your area.  You will come across a lot of people who really do not know what they are doing and you could regret hiring them later.  

Have a good idea of what you really like aesthetically. Take time to look at photos of other kitchens to get ideas and inspirations that appeal to you. Eventually, you will see a pattern of what you like and you can incorporate that concept into your space.  The remodeling “reality shows” are great inspirations for “before” and “after” but they do not show what really goes on behind the scenes. Do not rush into making decisions just to appease someone else. You want to feel good about your choices!  

Nancy McRobb, Kitchen & Bath Designer
The Kitchen Specialist

Deck safety is a priority

With a deck “fixer-upper”, safety is your main priority. Sometimes you only need to replace some deck boards; however, many times a deck that has not been properly built or maintained needs a complete overhaul. First, inspect the deck to make sure it has all the required safety hardware: 

  • The ledger board needs to be attached to the home with ½ inch galvanized lag screws and bolts 
  • Metal galvanized fasteners need to be used on all joists and posts
  • Deck railings need to be securely fastened with hardware to be able to withstand 200 pounds of lateral force

If any of this hardware is missing, you can sometimes retroactively add the correct metal fasteners to make the deck more secure. However, sometimes a deck is not built to code and beyond repair: 

  • Deck joists need to spaced according to building code
  • Deck railings need to be more than 36 inches high with less than a 4-inch gap between balusters
  • Deck posts should be secured by post anchors to concrete footings that aren’t cracked or sinking
  • The deck frame should not have any signs of insect damage or wood rot (insect damage and wood rot could be a problem if you can push a screwdriver ¼ to ½ inches into the wood)

If the deck frame is not up to code or beyond simple repair, then you need to factor deck demolition and replacement into the cost of buying the fixer-upper.

Trent Irwin, Owner
TnT Builders Inc.

home remodel

Roof issues can be expensive to fix

When buying a fixer-upper, the following types of roofs should be avoided if possible:

  • Light wright tile roofs: Although these roofs are beautiful, they are expensive to install as well as maintain. If you buy a fixer-upper home with this roof, you can expect to pay a lot in repairs down the road.
  • Low sloped or flat roof: These roofs are extremely expensive to repair. Assuming the previous owner had this roof for years, since these roofs have a shorter lifespan, you can expect to pay a lot to replace the flat roof.
  • Roofs that have not been maintained: Even though you’re looking for a fixer-upper, broken tiles, slipped tiles, missing shingles, mold, or leaves and debris across the roof are signs that extensive restorations may be needed.
  • Houses that have multiple trees over the roof: Though not as important as the other signs, a house with many trees over it can cause major damage to the roof. As weather changes, the tree debris clogs roof drainage, which can lead to mold, leaks, and costly repairs.

Besides a standard home inspection, always pay a licensed contractor to do a roof inspection, which usually costs $200 to $300. The roof inspection will provide you the general condition of the roof and can uncover serious and costly roofing issues that could impact your purchasing decision. 

Charles Petri, President
All Climate Roofing

Sort your recyclables from your trash

Recyclables shouldn’t go in dumpsters. Old electrical wire, copper plumbing, light fixtures, flashing, etc. can all be recycled. You can take old appliances to your local recycling facility or donate them. If you do decide to go with a junk removal company they can do the sorting for you.

Sean Smith, Founder
Junk Smiths

Research how to legally dispose of debris

It’s important to know what types of debris can go to a landfill and which need to go elsewhere. If you don’t have time to figure it out yourself, a junk removal company can dispose of old appliances, sheetrock, shingles, carpet, yard waste, and other debris in their proper locations.

Adam Butler, Managing Partner
Jiffy Junk

Check for asbestos

Homeowners should have their prospective home checked for asbestos before purchase, especially if they are planning major renovations. Asbestos is a toxic substance found in cement siding, insulation, ceilings, and even hiding under piles of yard debris. Many cities have strict laws for disposing of remodeling and demolition debris that contain asbestos. Junk removal professionals require a Construction and Demolition Waste Acceptance Form before they will pick up items suspected of containing asbestos. If asbestos is present, it will raise the cost of hauling, and require specially trained contractors to perform work on the property. This could drastically raise the cost of remodeling your fixer-upper home.

Dupree Carter, Owner
Junk it Junk Removal Portland 

Rent a dumpster or hire a junk removal company

When getting rid of your construction debris, you can choose to a) rent a dumpster or b) hire a junk removal company. Renting a dumpster often make sense because you can add to it as you go and then simply call the company to pick it up when you’re done. Be mindful of weight limits on dumpsters – the pricing can be higher than anticipated for heavy debris like drywall, concrete, tile, or roofing shingles.

If you want to skip having to load the dumpster yourself, simply find a convenient spot to throw your trash and debris, and a junk removal company will actually go onto your property and pick it up for you. Junk removal tends to be cost-effective for smaller jobs because when you rent a dumpster you pay for the entire space whether you use it or not.

Lee Godbold, Founder
Junk Doctors

If you’re dreaming of buying and renovating a fixer-upper, you don’t have to go it alone. There are a wealth of resources available to help you along the way. Skilled professionals such as roofers, contractors, and designers are generally happy to offer a free or low-cost estimate for your project. The most important thing is to be realistic about your capabilities – even the handiest DIYer can find themselves in over their head and over their budget. Doing your research and will save you from investing in a dream home that turns out to be a nightmare.

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Jennifer enjoys writing about the intersection of real estate and technology. Her dream home would be a mid-century modern desert oasis with a pool for lounging.

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