Sometimes when I watch HGTV and people complain that a house’s closets are too small or the kitchen doesn’t have granite, I just think how they would have hated my house.
No one ever says, “Harvest-gold sink and counters? Sweet! Yellow is my favorite color.” or “This bathroom carpet is going to feel so soft beneath my feet after a warm shower.”
When we were looking for a house, I gave my realtor this wish list:
I wanted pretty trees. I didn’t want to maintain a pool. I didn’t want a slick, modern kitchen.
It was kind of like when you’re single and you write this dream list of what you want in a mate, and maybe that list has things on it like “Can play guitar” and “Looks handsome but not too handsome.” It seemed reasonable.
As our house search progressed, we started to look more into fixer-uppers so that we could have the quality we wanted but still be able to afford it. I had to add a few more things to my house list.
Dream House or Deal Breaker?
If you’re looking to buy a fixer-upper house, first focus on the essentials:
The location of your house is vital. You can’t do anything to change it. It’s the first thing people think about your house when you try to sell it later, and your home improvements have to make sense in the context of the neighborhood.
2. Outdated but not neglected.
You want a house that has been maintained even if it looks old. When buyers look for “good bones” they usually notice the trim and the windows, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the structure and the way the house is built, and it involves the foundation, floor plan, exterior, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, walls, and roof. If more than one of these needs replacement, then walk away and keep looking. You want a house that will be strong in forty years, not crumbling around you.
Getting a professional inspection is essential, but for a first-time walk through, you can observe a lot yourself. Look for cracks in the wall and straight roof lines. Watch for signs of water damage. Check the electrical panel. Find the age of the AC unit, furnace, and the water heater. Turn on the faucets and check the water pressure. Notice if the doors latch easily or not. Go around the outside and make sure the brick isn’t crumbling. (If a house is so full of stuff like a near-hoarding situation, I don’t even bother. Don’t get a house that you can’t see to inspect.)
3. Floor plan
A good floor plan makes a house livable now and in the future. There should be a good flow of traffic and sight lines from one room to the next.
Our house had nice-sized bedrooms, a big kitchen, and an open living area, but one problem. The living room was divided by brick arches going right down the middle. Tsh from Simple Mom even said it looked like an old Taco Bell.
Those arches quickly came down with a hammer, and you can see the living room before, during, and after:
A fixer-upper is not going to be staged for you, so you have to think creatively. You will have to overlook wallpaper and ugly light fixtures. You have to imagine that house without the heavy curtains and all the stuff. Picture what it would look like if you cut back the overgrown hedges.
Assume you’ll replace the floors. (Go ahead and pick out the kind of flooring you’ll want so that you’ll know the square footage cost and can budget for it.)
In the kitchen we kept the original oak cabinets and had them painted white. They’ll last another forty years. We expanded the pantry and replaced the counters.
I made some concessions. I didn’t get to have pretty trees in the front yard, but I decided that I could buy trees for $50 each and plant them. In the end I got my essentials plus most of the things on my wish list. (Who am I kidding, it’s not the end. We still have a lot of work to do!)