Considering a Fixer-Upper? 15 Ways to Avoid a Money Pit

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By Marilyn Lewis

Fixer-uppers are back in style. During the housing boom, few homebuyers wanted to bother with renovation projects. New homes and those in move-in condition were the ideal.

That's still true for many buyers. But others are finding that, done correctly, remodeling a fixer-upper can save a lot of money. Fixers are getting attention because:
  • Home prices are high in many cities, and a fixer-upper may be the only affordable choice in decent neighborhoods.
  • Home decorating and improvement TV shows inspire many buyers to turn to remodeling to get a home perfectly suited to them.
  • Lovers of period homes always want to restore older structures.

However, the wrong remodeling project can become a money pit that strips your bank account right down to the studs. Here are 15 ways to identify the fixer uppers worth your time and money:

1. Make cool calculations

Bring a cold analytical eye when shopping for a home to renovate. Put your emotions in the back seat while you assess each home's possibilities.

2. Love the floor plan

Look for a floor plan you can live with. Moving load-bearing walls is an expensive proposition and generally to be avoided. SFGate tells how to identify load-bearing walls.

3. Start with the basement

Inspect a home thoroughly, inside and out. Check inside and outside the basement or foundation for exposed wires and pipes, cracks in the foundation, or water pooling around the home.

"The biggest problems in a house typically arise as a result of poor stability in the structure or foundation," contractor Tyson Kunz told Bankrate.

Wise Bread says:

[A basement] can provide valuable clues on the quality of construction; condition of the HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems; and how well previous owners have maintained the building. Avoid sagging floor joists or unstable supports, ancient heating and AC systems, leaking water heaters, and electrical panels with loose wires.

HouseLogic and offer more details on inspecting basements.

4. Inspect the roof

Get a home inspector or trusted roofing specialist to tell you if the home needs a new roof, which costs $20,000 to $40,000 and up.

In an article on assessing fixer-uppers, Consumer Reports says:

Runaway water can wreak havoc on any home, and a leaky roof is its quickest way in. If the home has an asphalt roof, look for cracked, curled and missing shingles. Gutters, downspouts and leader pipes should also be in place to collect rainwater and channel it away from the house.

5. Scrutinize bathrooms

Bathrooms deserve special attention because leaks cause rot and structural damage.

"Sloppy showers lead to repeated occurrences of water on the floor that seep through into the floor of the bathroom and adjacent rooms," says

6. Avoid ancient plumbing and wiring

The presence of these elderly building materials is a sign of trouble:
  • Galvanized steel pipes: Sediment can build up in the pipes, and they may leak and corrode.
  • Aluminum wiring: It's a potential fire hazard.

Replacing a home's plumbing and wiring are budget-killers involving thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dollars.

7. Back away from funky smells

If your nose wrinkles when you enter a home, that's a sign of problems. A home that emits bad smells may have a dangerous gas leak, sewer or septic problems, or mold — all of which require expensive remedies. Save your money for improvements you can enjoy.

Musty and dank smells come from mildew or mold and disqualify a home from consideration. Mold is not always visible; it may be inside walls. Don't assume you won't find mold in a dry, arid climate. It can be caused by condensation inside walls.

8. Watch for rot

Rotting wood is another red light. Use a pencil to push on trim and the wood around windows, and look for soft or crumbling wood.

9. Inspect drywall and floors

Keep an eye out for stained, uneven or warped, discolored or peeling flooring or drywall. These can indicate rot or mold.

10. Run from bad siding

Deteriorating siding raises a red flag for two reasons:
  • It's expensive. Depending on the material you choose, new siding starts at $10,000 to $13,000. Costs increase with the size and complexity of the job.
  • It may indicate other problems. Siding may be rotting, blistering or disintegrating because of rot or mold hiding behind the home's exterior.
11. Beware leaky windows

If you want to replace old windows with new, energy-efficient ones, and it's a priority in your budget, that's cool.

But be careful of committing to a home with leaking windows. Water seeping into a home through window leaks can cause untold — and unseen — problems from rot and mold. You can't tell how bad the problems are without removing the windows.

12. Spot a bad location

Become an expert on the neighborhood. Bargain homes are often in less desirable areas. Knock on doors on the street and chat with neighbors about crime. Your job is to assess how bad a neighborhood is and whether it's really going to turn around.

Even if you don't have children in school, your home's next buyer might. So learn about the quality of local schools. Get neighborhood crime statistics from the city police. Assess the home's proximity to jobs, stores, banks, cafes, restaurants and playgrounds.

13. Look for pests

You'll need an expert to tell for sure if a pest infestation is present. But you can spot some telltale signs, including:
  • Insect wings left on sills (termites)
  • Teeny sawdust piles along baseboards (carpenter ants)
  • Urine stains, odors or scrabbling sounds (rodents)
The legal experts at describe tip-offs to other pests.

14. Hire a home inspector

Once you've found a home that passes muster, hire a well-regarded home inspector to professionally look at the structure from top to bottom. (Cost: $300 to $500, on average, according to FoxBusiness.) Don't buy a home without a professional inspection.

You can locate inspectors in your area on the websites of these national home inspector organizations: Tag along as the inspector tours the home if you can. You'll learn a lot by seeing it through the inspector's eyes.

Note: Don't try to search for lead paint and asbestos. These are dangerous substances, so let the inspector do it.

15. Inspect after a rain

See if you can schedule your home inspection right after it rains. Visiting at that time lets you and the inspector see if water accumulates around the foundation — a bad sign, as it can cause leaks and foundation problems.

Have you bought a fixer-upper? Tell us about it in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
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