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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Ritchie

Bought A Fixer Upper: What Now?

In 2015, after getting used to being a widow, I decided that I needed a project to help me restart living my life again.  My dad built a house on South Padre Island, Texas. I grew up going down there at every opportunity.  So, I learned to love being by the water and I decided that I missed it.  So began my search for the right house in the right location.  After selling my rental house in Texas while still living in another house over an hour away from my fixer upper, I decided the time was ripe to use that money to buy a house on the Chesapeake Bay.  My realtor kept showing me the 4/5-bedroom party houses, but I wanted a cottage on the bay with some history, character, and charm.  What I finally fell in love with was a fixer upper.  Now what?

There are normally two types of buyers of homes that need to be updated. When it comes to a fixer-upper, some buyers hope to make it the home they’ll live in for the next 40 years. For others, it’s a house to transform and, in a few years, sell for a sizable profit. A fixer upper can encompass a range of homes from a complete gut to a cosmetic fixer. If you're considering purchasing a fixer-upper, the most important considerations are:

  • How much work are you willing to do and how much work will it take to get a property to where you want it?

  • Are you willing to add on or tear down walls or are you looking to update surfaces and materials in a fixer upper that needs a lot of work but has good bones?  In other words, an opportunity to customize and make it a home of your choice.  One major plus for purchasing a fixer-upper is that you have the freedom to transform a property to truly make it your own and make it work for you. You have control of all of the design choices and the ability to create a property that meets your unique needs that may not already exist on the market.

  • Then the challenge becomes identifying properties that fall within that range.

Fixer uppers are notorious for surprising their buyers with unforeseen, expensive repair needs. Maybe you rip up a floorboard to find rotting wood underneath or come up against some pests who are reluctant to relocate. I had two major surprises during my remodel.  As the contractors removed the kitchen cabinets, they noticed how many layers of flooring there was.  Their suspicions were correct.  It tested positive for asbestos in a home that was originally built in 1900.  So, all the flooring in the kitchen, hallway and laundry room had to be remediated before they could continue.  As they removed the floor in the laundry room, they also discovered major termite damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  Several support beams and footers had to be replaced.

That’s not to say that you can’t buy a fixer upper when you’re on a budget, but you do have to leave room in your finances for surprise costs. Use a remodeling calculator to get a rough estimate of how much a certain fixer upper might set you back—then add about 10% on to that for wiggle room.

You can change a lot of things about a house, but one thing that is downright impossible to adjust is where it’s located; you can’t pick it up and move it to a different lot without spending a lot more money than you’re probably willing to invest. Homes near a landfill, in a crime-ridden neighborhood, or located in poorly performing school districts are likely not going to be a great investment unless something well beyond your control happens to change the surroundings completely. So, prioritize the location when you start shopping for your fixer upper. By the same token, waterfront homes, homes near national forest or parks might be perfect choices even if you think the repairs are going to be extensive. I had to look for the right location on the Chesapeake Bay in a safe community.

If you’re in the market for a fixer-upper, it takes a certain amount of vision to look at a property in its current state and see what kind of potential it has.  Are you dreaming about how you might customize an outdated house bought at a rock-bottom price?  Are you intrigued by houses on the market that aren’t exactly move-in ready? Especially if it means saving on the purchase price of a house, many homebuyers are inclined to take on renovations and updates to get the keys to a home of their dreams.

Why Are You Remodeling? Before you start drawing up plans for an addition to your house or a major kitchen conversion, identify the reasons behind your home improvement project: Does your plumbing need an update? Are you looking to convert a room to more usable space? Understanding your motivation behind the project will give you a better idea of how to apply your budget and prioritize projects as well as whether you should search for professional help. An old oil boiler

There are several primary reasons you may want to remodel your house:                            

  • Maintenance

  • Update rooms

  • Try out new styles

  • Improve efficiency

  • Growing Family

  • Open Spaces

  • Take advantage of the view with large windows and doors

Maintenance. Whether the house is five or 105 years old, maintenance is required to keep everything working smoothly. Especially if your house is decades old, you’ll likely find the electrical, plumbing and even the foundation may need a little love to maintain a safe, stable structure for you and your family.  The fixer upper I bought was originally built in 1900.  It still had cast iron (with lead) plumbing, an old oil boiler for heating and window units for air conditioning, very old bathroom fixtures and a miniature fuse box with wires looking like spaghetti, just to name a few of my concerns.   Difficult fixes can include adding an additional room or garage, full bathroom and kitchen remodels, replacing or adding heating, cooling, or ventilation systems, fixing foundation problems, replacing plumbing, sewage or electrical systems, replacing windows and pouring concrete outside in driveways or to fix a sidewalk.  A renovation project driven mainly by the need for maintenance will likely mean the majority of the budget goes toward hiring licensed professionals and replacing dated materials.

Update rooms. The plumbing may still be OK, but a 1970s kitchen might be an eyesore. Plenty of homeowners remodel to bring a space out of decades past and into current times. For a kitchen or bathroom, much of the renovation budget may go toward new appliances. These updates may also involve high-cost materials like marble, granite, quartz, new tile, and custom cabinetry.  Or maybe the home has three or more different types of flooring? (photo above) As a result, consider splitting your budget between updating the function and the appearance of the room.

Before Kitchen remodel and removal of wall

Try out new styles. You may have redone the living room 10 years ago, but those beige walls now make your stomach churn. Or your remodeling project may aim to bring your home in line with current interior design trends of more open walkways for easy flow. In many cases, this might be a small remodeling job, so the budget can be dedicated to paint, furnishings, or other decorative materials.  Or more expensive to remove walls for a more open floor plan.

After kitchen remodel and removal of wall

Improve efficiency. Many homeowners are looking to do their part to reduce energy waste and their utility bills by making energy-efficient upgrades. These may include adding solar panels to the roof, insulation inside the walls or new energy efficient windows and doors. Bigger windows and French doors also bring in lots of natural light.

Or updating a gas fireplace and mantle for more efficient heating in the winter. 

Updating Kitchens and Bathrooms:  It's no surprise that kitchens and bathrooms are the most popular remodeling projects. In a Houzz study in 2019 reports 27% of surveyed homeowners renovated or added to their kitchen, while 25% renovated a secondary bathroom and 22% renovated a master bathroom.Whether you’re looking to update a room or incorporate a few trendy pieces, there are some areas where it's easier to embrace a trend than others.

Lighting:  You always have the option to make permanent lighting changes or simply add lamps throughout a room. Recessed lighting is currently popular and considered a classic, long-lasting look.  Lighting is also easy to update as needed.

Color:  Embrace the hottest colors of the year – Pantone’s color of 2020 is classic blue – by painting your living room walls or buying an accent pillow. Trade out the dark-stained wood floors of the 2010s for a lighter or varied stain option. Paint your front door to make it pop. Bring in a multicolored rug to infuse some life into your guest bedroom. Color trends change annually and month to month, and they’re fortunately fairly easy to implement and switch out in a room or area of your home.

The bigger your project, the more time you can expect it to take as well. A major renovation can take weeks or even months, and you should factor in the level of inconvenience if you’re still living at home during the renovation, or the cost of living elsewhere temporarily.  For me, I already had a home and could continue to live there while the yearlong renovation was completed.

Permitting:  If your renovation involves any electrical, plumbing, or structural work, there’s a good chance your local municipality will require an inspection to approve the permitted work. This inspection ensures the work was done properly and won’t be a danger to the home or anyone in it.  Even if it’s a simple repair, leave any project that could potentially harm you or the house to a professional.  A design/build contractor will handle the permit application and inspection scheduling process as part of the total cost of the project.  For some work, like plumbing, the inspection must be conducted before walls are installed to cover up the pipes. Complex systems like electrical, plumbing, heating, and cooling, and the foundation and structural support of your home require a trained, professional eye and an experienced hand. If you spot any potential issues with those key systems, you’ll definitely need to call a design/build contractor.

Remodeling can also fix problem areas in your new home.  My home had two bay windows.  The one downstairs looked into the close window of my neighbor.  She kept her blinds down and so did I.  Since I now had so many new windows, I proposed closing in the bay area.  My contractor had a designer on staff who suggested a reading nook with additional storage under the seat.  It is perfect!

The other bay window was in the master bedroom.  My design/build contractor suggested a balcony.

Another concern was the front door opening into the kitchen.  I pointed out to my contractor that the original brick front steps were still in the yard just outside the laundry room.  He suggested that we change the front door to the middle of the house with wider hallways.  The old front door was changed to a window.

Now when I open the front door, you immediately see the beautiful water views.  This change also included moving the electrical meter to the side of the house out of sight and a beautiful roof shielding one from the weather at the door.

Another problem area was the lack of a pantry in the small kitchen.  I also hated wasted space.  So, a pantry was designed and built up under the stairs to include a barn door.  And plenty of storage!

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that while the work was going on all year, I lived over an hour away while working full time.  As I hired my contractor, I was concerned about staying up-to-date on the progress and the ablility to easily communicate with him.  I was lucky in my choice of design/builder.  I was kept informed during the entire remodel and able to make timely decisions as needed. We also had a great working relationship, which is important to ensure a smooth yearlong remodel.

If you don't live in your fixer-upper while it gets remodeled, the process tends to go faster because multiple rooms can be done simultaneously. Once you have an idea of how you want to go about fixing up your home, begin the search for the right contractor for your project. Contractors are busy people, so plan ahead of time instead of waiting till the last-minute hoping someone is free!

As you begin your journey with your fixer upper, carefully choose which projects you tackle first. It will sometimes feel like one project bleeds into the next, and that you’re not ever going to be finished. Shift your thinking: it is not about when the job is going to be done. It’s about the process of making your house your home. Also hire a design/build company like Creative Spaces Remodeling to build your vision.  And that’s worthy of careful consideration and planning at every step. Good luck with your Fixer Upper! I love mine.


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