Renovating a fixer upper and creating home you love can be an awesome journey. If you’re considering buying an old home, there are lots of things to look at, watch out for, and protect your bank account from. But it can also be a huge win when you find that diamond 💎 in the rough.
My first home looked pretty blah when I saw her. You had to look hard to see she was a Queen Anne Victorian stripped of her crown😞.
We restored her exterior over time, then hit the interior in a four month renovation that fully transformed her. A whole house reno in four months? Yup. It’s totally possible.
All the home shows on HGTV and DIY provide only a snapshot of the actual process. You don’t see the weeks, months or years some people spend on renovating. However, you do NOT have to buy into the cautionary tales either. If you do your homework, and hire the right people, the journey doesn’t have to send you over the edge 🙄.
Hunting For The Fixer Upper 🏚
The satisfaction of bringing a sad old home back to life is pretty awesome. But you also don’t want to end up in the money pit. When you’re looking at property, check out the neighborhoods, look at “comps” (what other comparable homes sell for in the area). Is your prospective property the ugliest boy on the block? What are the property taxes like? Is the purchase price low enough to allow you to make needed improvements? Sites like Zillow can be a great resource.
Once you’ve found the home that speaks to you, make the sale contingent on the home inspection and hire the best home inspector you can find. Ideally this home inspector is an expert on older homes. You may also want a structural engineer as well depending on the age of the home, especially if you plan on building out or up. While the home inspector doesn’t have X-Ray vision, he or she should be able to discern quite a bit from what’s visible.
It’s possible to restore any house, but there are situations where you may be putting more money in than the house might be worth in the end. For most of us, we can’t afford to have this be an unbridled labor of love. It’s important to get smart around what it’s going to take to bring that beauty back to life. And that means getting expert advice before you commit.
The Advantages Of A Fixer Upper 👍
While homes over 100 years old might scare some people off, chances are if you’re reading this you have the imagination, the desire and are summoning the courage to take the leap. The beauty of finding a home that is in need of renovation is you can get what you want without paying a premium. You can pick the finishes, the fixtures, change the flow of the home, ditch the bad design or “remuddling” all to suit your needs. Be brave. Do your research. And then make a plan.
Should I Do It Myself?! 🔨
I’m all for the DIY-er who figures out how to hang a little drywall in the afternoon or rents the sander to do their ancient floors. In my case, we had no idea how to do those things and have seen a lot of DIY projects that frankly, sucked. Our current home, The Manse, fell prey to a lot of DIY prior to our purchase as evidenced by the weird layout of bathrooms, the really bad layout of the kitchen, and lots of other cobbled together oddball things.
You don’t have to be Chip and Joanna Gaines to have your dream. However, it’s important to know when to bring in the Pro’s. You wouldn’t do your own dental work or take out your own appendix, right? Don’t be derailed by what you don’t know, just recognize your skill level and call the right people for the task at hand.
I’m not all together down on DIY. I have installed my own huge brick patio, I’ve sanded and oiled my own beams and took on sanding and staining during renovation projects, and even patched and sealed a driveway, and yeah, I know how to paint (but I hate it). 😜
I also do my own landscaping. But when it came time to renovate, I quickly saw it was a better use of my time to educate myself on what made sense to do and when to hire others to do it. In most cases, trying to do it yourself will take WAY longer, and may not turn out the way you hoped.
Architect: Yay Or Nay?
If you are doing anything involving moving walls or re-working kitchens or baths, spending some money on an architect is a wise investment, if only to get their opinion and a few rough sketches. Floor plans and flow MATTER. Anything big, and you’ll need drawings for the bidding process and building permits. I’m also a believer in living in a home for awhile (assuming that’s possible). Get to know the space before you start doing any major reno work.
On our first home, we hired someone who had just left a firm and was venturing out on her own. We were able to pay her a “designer” rate while benefitting from her expertise as architect. We also had a structural engineer consult since we were moving load bearing walls, and adding onto the home.
Architects help you think about how you use or want to use your space. They can also be pricey, which is why I recommend you NEVER agree to pay fees based on percentage of the project budget. Work with the architect based on the scope of THEIR work, not the entire project. Get an estimate up front for various phases and hold them to that price.
On The Manse renovation, we had a very nice guy who took my initial floor plans and created the construction documents (plumbing, electrical, materials, etc). While I was providing a pretty solid floor plan, I wanted an expert to validate it.
We parted ways with him after the plans were done because we got a final bill that was WAY more than he estimated, so we moved on. This is why it’s important to have a written estimate up front and hold them to it. Nothing will ever be bullet proof, but you can cover your arse with proper agreements and a plan on how to deal with overages (i.e. they get your approval BEFORE hitting the overage). Think of these as pre-nups. Contracts protect you in the event of a divorce.
With our first (Queen Anne) renovation, we had the architect come in at certain points during construction to check on the work. This first reno gave me the confidence to be those eyes and ears on the Manse reno. If it’s your first rodeo, you should have the architect come in to check progress. The architect can be your advocate with the contractor. He or she knows a lot more than you about important stuff like floor joists, point load, and structural beams. It’s critical to know what you know, and what you don’t know.
Why Not Just Have The Contractor Do My Plans?
Most contractors do not have a design aesthetic. A contractor’s job is to manage his or her sub-contractors (plumbers, electricians, framers and carpenters). If he/she has a great design sense, you’ve found a rare one. But remember, you’re hiring this person to supervise the work and manage schedule. I just personally think it’s better not to mix these. If it’s a small job and you know exactly what you want, fine. In general, it’s much better to hire an architect who is not attached to how much you’ll spend, and will be the knowledgable watchdog as work progresses.
How Will I Know The Cost Up Front? 💰
This is where those plans come into play. The plans become the map to the entire scope of work. Once you lock in your plans, you’ll have what’s called a pricing set. This has details that could include every type of lighting fixture and types of material to be used. Ideally you want as much detail in them as possible. The pricing set is what the contractor will use to create a bid.
Don’t be afraid to have at least 3 contractors bid and give line item details, not just a lump sum. I’m amazed at how many contractors dislike giving you a line by line bid so you can see the numbers. If they want the gig, insist on a detailed estimate. Once you get a sense of the cost for your wish list, you can adjust your plans accordingly. PS: I created a Renovation Budget template that I used for both renovations. It’s free when you subscribe for updates (see below).
How To Choose A Contractor
We’ve worked with several and they’ve all had their positive and negative points. This is where you really need to do your homework. Don’t just trust Suzie up the block who just had her kitchen done. While you may love her kitchen, if you’re doing a whole house renovation, her contractor might not have the right experience.
If you’re doing an older home, aim to find someone who has worked on them before. There are quirks, and it’s different than new construction or finishing a basement. You want someone who understands what may be lurking behind walls. Look for the ones who have done the scope of work you’re looking to do. And then……cue drumroll and cymbal crash 🎶…
On the Queen Anne renovation, we spent little time on references because we watched our next door neighbor – a contractor – do his whole house. There wasn’t a day when work lagged. He ran his crew like clockwork and when we saw other big projects he did, we were sold. Plus, we knew exactly how to reach him. He was right next door! 😬
On The Manse renovation, we worked with a nice guy. He was very thorough in walking us through all the steps. He had pages of references, and we checked them.
But here’s what we missed: Most of the references were a year or two old, and during that time, he overextended himself on projects he wasn’t prepared to handle. We ended up having to burn a whole month more in a rental because he didn’t have crew at our house for days at a time which added up to a month over our intended end date. 😵
Every day I was on sight, and it made me crazy when nothing was happening. This is a sign the contractor is not scheduling their people well or has too much on his/her plate. We had other issues, like finding out he was behind in his payments to big suppliers, and had several unhappy clients waiting for him to finish. Lesson learned.
It’s not a bad idea to check out contractors via sub-contractors. If you have a trusted plumber or electrician, they can give you insight since they have seen how the sausage is made.
This is the biggest issue whether or not you’re living in the home. I do NOT buy into projects taking more than a few months to complete. You’ve probably heard horror stories where it took your friend 9 months complete her kitchen, or a year to finish a whole house reno. I personally think this is completely avoidable.
On our first renovation, we were hitting every room on what became a 3300 square foot home. That renovation took a total of 4 months. YES. 4 months. There is absolutely no reason any renovation has to take longer than a few months EXCEPT if there are acts of the Almighty, severe delays on materials or you change your mind. If you’re sticking with the plan, and making only minor adjustments or add-ons, it should not be going beyond a few months.
In the contractor’s defense, they’ve probably had several homeowners who can’t make a decision in a timely manner or keep changing their mind, which screws up the schedule. This is where you need to do YOUR job. For each renovation, I pre-selected everything from floor tiles, to kitchen cabinets, to bath and lighting fixtures. The big decisions were made before the first hammer swing.
When the contractor needed materials, they were on sight, ready for install. The time to agonize over whether you like the marble floor or porcelain tile is BEFORE you start the show. Get samples of everything. Look at them endlessly. Annoy the crap out of your husband about it before you put the contractor on the clock.
Being prepared means when you pull that trigger, it’s full steam ahead. If the tile you picked is literally coming on a slow boat from China, make sure you give some pad on schedule and order in advance. Don’t let someone else’s schedule impact yours.
The items your contractor will supply are generally not an issue (lumber, roofing, insulation), but there are some made-to-order items. Things like a steel support beams, or headers, windows and doors are typcially all custom orders . Make sure you have the conversation up front about when those need to be on sight and ask about lead time. Lining these things up ahead of time will help your contractor, and you just may become his/her favorite client by staying engaged in the process.
Construction: Staying Or Leaving
With both of our renovation projects, there was too much work being done to even think about staying in the house–although I did have a brief departure from sanity thinking we could be clever and do it. If you’re only doing a kitchen or bath reno, then you can probably suck it up, but just know it’s not gonna be pretty. There are dangers when walls are opened and demolition begins. If you have small children or someone is pregnant in the household, you DEFINITELY should not have them in the house. Virtually every old home will have lead paint. Or mercury. Or asbestos. Definitely a ton of dust and debris, none of which you want your kids or your cute little puppy, or YOU, breathing in. Even new materials may off-gas (like kitchen cabinets), and there are all sorts of airborne particles no matter how clean your contractor keeps the site.
Plus, your contractor can work more quickly if you turn the house over. They don’t have to worry about you wanting to dry your hair when they need to cut power or heat. They can work as needed, rather than working around you.
It’s a royal hassle to move out, but in my experience it speeds things up and gets you to your dream home much faster. You have to move most of your stuff out anyway, so why not put the non-essentials in storage and move to a rental? Or maybe you have friends or family nearby who don’t mind you squatting for a few months.
I think the only exception to this might be if you’re doing a family room addition where a temporary wall can be built and it’s essentially all new construction (minor electrical, no plumbing). But if they’re going into walls, updating electrical and plumbing, you’re much better off getting the heck out and letting them do their work. Then you can be the annoying homeowner who is showing up everyday (me), making sure work is happening (me), and when it’s not, lighting the fire under your contractor (me again).
This brings up another point: You need to be there. No matter how awesome your contractor is, there will inevitably be questions or issues that arise. Making regular visits to see progress will send the message you’re on it, that you want to see things moving and you’re serious about whatever schedule was agreed upon. Remember they are working for you, and this home is probably your most valuable financial asset.
Myth: All Jobs Go Over Budget – Expect 20-25% 💵
This was something I heard time and again when we were planning our renovation. We heard the war stories of others who went through overruns, delays, and general financial torture. It doesn’t have to be this way!
In most businesses, regularly running over budget would be unacceptable. Businesses would fail. So why is that a thing in home renovation? If you assert this is unacceptable to you and you are clear about your expectations up front, be not afraid to hold your contractor accountable to do what is promised.
To say that everything will go according to Plan A is not realistic, but guess what? You should be budgeting for that, and the contractor should build in some contingency based on the condition of the home.
If your 1800s house is getting a new kitchen, you need contingency for when they open the walls. Once you open a wall, you’re required to come up to current building codes. What’s behind the wall is the demon that potentially pops out at you. It’s the area home inspectors can’t vet. You might find that all the allegedly replaced knob and tube wiring is still present in some parts of the house (me ). You might find that the previous owner was Mr. DIY and put in new plumbing using garden hose. If all is well, you can go out and splurge on the Italian marble you love. But if it doesn’t, you’ve got some pad to handle it or you might have to make adjustments to some of the more cosmetic items (like maybe now you just get the plain white subway tile versus the fancier stone mosaic).
Previous owners may have cut corners, or house flippers may have done something halfway. Before you lock your budget, pull all the info on your home from the local building department (county or township). These will give you a snapshot on what was done. If there are none, and you know for a fact that significant work has been done, expect you may have some issues. The work was probably done by Mr. DIY. If there are no renovation records, it could also mean you’ll need to plan for more work because the old stuff needs replacing (like heating, electrical and plumbing). The more you know before opening the walls, the more accurately you can budget.
Contract & Payment Schedule
Once you settle on your plan and budget, it’s important to have a written agreement that basically says…we have these plans and we’re going to work according to these plans, and here’s the timeframe and payment schedule. Most contractors will have a standard boiler plate. This doesn’t mean you can’t clarify or amend the boiler plate.
The payment schedule is the only way to keep things under control. Do NOT pay 50% up front, unless it’s a small project that will be done in a matter of weeks, and do NOT work without a written contract clearly spelling out the work. Your construction plans should be attached as “Exhibit A”. Any changes or amendments should be in writing. This protects you AND the contractor.
The payment schedule should cashflow the contractor as he or she needs supplies and labor. Payment milestones are key in making sure you are protecting your investment and that work is being done on time. Typically these milestones are based on stages of the project, like foundation, framing, drywall, tile work and completion of all plumbing and electrical (meaning passed inspections as well).
You should not be asked to make an early payment if work is not complete. Stick to your guns. You don’t want the contractor holding 75% of the money when only 25% of the work is done.
Permits And Inspections
All significant home renovation requires a construction permit, and this is for a very good reason. You WANT someone checking the work beyond you and your contractor. Don’t trust it when the contractor tells you “we don’t need a permit.” Maybe he/she is right, as some work doesn’t require it. Make sure you talk to your local building department to know for sure.
One of the most stressful parts of home renovation is making a choice and sticking with it. There are so many decisions to make! Beyond paint colors, there is tile, bathroom fixtures, countertops, cabinets, appliances, flooring, HVAC systems, and lighting. If you’re someone who doesn’t feel equipped to make all these choices on your own, an architect or designer can help.
For instance, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed about kitchen cabinets. There are dozens of manufacturers and this is one of the more expensive pieces to the renovation puzzle. Once you’ve picked the brand you want, then you have to think about things like whether you want drawers or cabinet doors, shelving, that fancy spice rack, moldings, stain versus paint, etc. For some, using a kitchen designer makes sense. In my case, I knew what I wanted and didn’t want to get locked into a design place that only had certain types of cabinets. We ended up saving big bucks on both renovations by going semi-custom through a big box store, but I still paid my architect the first time around to help with the initial layout.
Paying an architect or designer by the hour is better than locking into one kitchen design place that may only have a limited number of brands.
The thing to know is this: You will never REALLY know what it’s all going to look like, but you can get pretty darn close by getting as many samples as possible and living with them for awhile. ALWAYS bring the samples into the space. Showroom lighting can be deceiving. Whatever route you take, don’t be afraid to shop around, ask a lot of questions and ultimately go with your gut.
My first thought: If you love it to death, who cares what anyone else thinks? Yes, there are lots of do’s and don’ts, but at the end of the day, it’s your house, and chances are, if you’re taking on a beefy renovation, you’re gonna wanna stay in the house for a long time. But, if you’re begging me for my advice? I say go for timeless. I don’t want to have to re-do my kitchen or baths in 15 or even 25 years. And one of the ways to avoid that is to go with more timeless, classic options. I find that nothing dates a kitchen or bath more than tile. Awhile ago, tumbled marble was all the rage, then it was glass tiles or an all travertine bathroom.. Now? They look dated.
I’m a subway tile girl. In 19th and early 20th century homes, it just works. I can walk into the baths I did 12 years ago in my Queen Anne, and they hold up just as strongly today. Things like classic white marble in the baths will be around longer than you and I. That look has graced fancy hotels and vintage homes for decades.
If you want more trendy picks, aim to do it in places where it won’t break the bank if it becomes dated. I’m not a hardcore period home fanatic. I lived in a Victorian but dislike Victorian furnishings. I love the modern farmhouse style and Joanna Gaines’ sensibilities, but I pick and choose what works for my space. Your home should be unique to you, and rules are made to be broken. For instance I recently saw an 1860s home with all modern furnishings and lighting, and it totally worked!
For the purists who believe every old home should look the way it did back then, I wholeheartedly disagree. We live differently now. We have indoor plumbing! And electricity! And dishwashers! We have open concept that works for many families and I’ve personally loved it since before it was “in”. I don’t like formal dining rooms that only get used once in a blue moon. I want to live in all of my rooms and make use of my entire space.
It’s not a bad idea to make a list of what you like and don’t. Get inspired and begin honing in on how you like to live in a space.
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