A General Contractor’s Guide to Buying a Fixer-Upper

What to look for, and what to avoid, when you're buying to remodel.

We’ve all watched HGTV, we know the drill: fall in love with a fixer-upper, hire Chip and Joanna, remove a load-bearing wall, and 45 minutes later, you have a completely finished and perfectly staged forever home.

In fact, here’s us on HGTV’s House Hunters Renovation, inspecting a load-bearing wall:

Remodeling a fixer-upper on HGTV

But if you’re in the market for a fixer-upper without a film crew behind you, keep reading for our advice to guide your search.

Know how big of a project you’re willing to take on. As your general contractor, we can take much of the weight off your shoulders by coordinating all the trades, deliveries, and inspections and overseeing and warranting the work. Even so, a large project can take six months or more. If that sounds like a long time to be out of your house, and/or if you’ve never experienced a remodeling project before, you will probably want to look for a house that is in good condition, built in the last few decades, with just the kitchen and bathrooms that could use some updated fixtures and finishes. If you are up for a larger project, you might open your search to older homes that require a whole-house gut rehab.

Buy a house with good bones. Fundamental problems with the structure and foundation should be a deal-breaker, no matter how big or small of a project you are willing to take on.

Follow up on the home inspection with specialists. The home inspection is a good starting point to understand the condition of the house’s structure and foundation, exterior and roof, and interior and mechanical systems. However, if your inspector alerts you to one of the following, it’s a good idea to bring in a specialist who can tell you the extent of the problem and how much it will cost:

  1. Bring in a structural engineer if there is a questionable crack in the basement wall—it may be harmless or it may be a sign of serious structural problems.
  2. Get a sewer line or septic inspection if things aren’t draining properly—it may simply need rodding or it may need to be replaced.
  3. Hire a pest control company if there are signs of termite or carpenter ant damage—it may be an ongoing problem, and the damage may be more extensive than you can see.
  4. If the roof has flaking, buckling, or otherwise deteriorating shingles, bring in a licensed roofer.
  5. Have an environmental inspector test linoleum and pipe insulation for asbestos, trim for lead paint, and the basement for radon.

Be aware of the lifespan of, and costs to replace, big ticket items. The average shingle roof can last 20 years, but premium brands can last twice as long. A water heater lasts 8-12 years, and a furnace lasts 15-30. For water supply pipes, copper pipes are the gold standard today and last 50+ years, while older homes often have galvanized steel ones which last 20-50 years. For drain lines, older homes often have cast iron drain lines which last 75-100 years, while newer homes have PVC ones which have an indefinite lifespan.

Fix the big problems first. If you do buy a house with any of the aforementioned problems, they should usually be tackled before continuing onto other remodeling projects. In fact, your home insurance provider may require you to immediately address a problem in order to stay insured. If you are phasing work, you’ll want to be sure the shell of your house—the roof, siding, and windows—are in good condition to protect your future interior work. Of course, the exact sequence depends on what you’re remodeling (don’t replace the roof if you’re adding a second story), so do consult with your general contractor.

Be prepared to discover surprises during demolition, and set aside 10-20% of the project cost for unforeseen expenses. Even the best inspectors and contractors can’t see through walls.

Live in your new home for a full year before remodeling, if you can. You’ll learn how you use the space and also how the house weathers all four seasons. Does it get too drafty in the winter? Does the basement flood when it rains? Does sound travel between the walls and floors? This approach makes good sense if you are planning on remodeling only a few rooms, or phasing your remodel. On the other hand, you may be buying a fixer-upper that is uninhabitable as-is, and doing full gut remodel. In this case, you probably don’t want to move into your new home, only to have to move everything out again during construction.

Understand your remodeled home’s resale value. Realtors are fond of the adage, “buy the worst house in the best neighborhood”. Don’t actually buy the worst house, but don’t overimprove either, as resale value is based on surrounding properties. If you’re taking out a construction loan, this will be relevant too.

Make sure your project can be built. If you’re buying a house with the intent to build an addition either up or out, you’ll want to make sure your municipality’s zoning codes permit it. Either check with your zoning department or find an architect who offers a zoning analysis for a small fee. They’ll let you know of limitations like setbacks and the maximum percentage of your lot the addition can cover. Alternatively, if you’re looking into converting an unfinished attic or basement into living space, consult with an architect to determine whether the ceiling is high enough, whether the floor joists can support it, and whether additional egress is needed.

Look for good-sized rooms with tall-enough ceilings, a good layout/flow, and plenty of natural light. Even if you’re planning a substantial remodel, the less you have to change, the better for your wallet. Be selective about which walls to move/remove, as the costs to relocating mechanical systems within, and adding structural support, can add up. On the other hand, if you know that all the mechanicals and the wall and floor/ceiling structure will need to be replaced, this is your chance to start with a blank slate.

Consider searching for a type of home with a project and budget already in mind. Many Chicagoans are on the market for bungalows with unfinished attics, to which they plan to dormer out and add bedrooms. This is a great plan because of the abundance, affordability, and similarity of bungalows, which means they can get a good idea of the scope and cost of the project before feeling rushed to put an offer on a house. If this sounds like your type of project, check out the Chicago Bungalow Association’s free sample dormer plans and cost estimate. We’re proud to be one of their trusted referrals, so you can also reach out to us if you’re considering a bungalow attic conversion.

Search for a home whose existing architectural style complements your vision. Sometimes mixing and matching styles can work really well—we’ve seen some cool Victorians that kept the intricate finishes intact but ditched the antique furniture in favor of contemporary minimalism. Othertimes, styles clash and it’s an uphill battle to achieve the look you want—if industrial style is what you’re aiming for, you’re much better off buying a loft than that bungalow.

Be cautious when buying a house just for its character. Two examples come to mind that we see time and time again: exposed brick and original woodwork. Everyone loves the look of exposed brick walls, but they don’t always meet cities’ insulation requirements and you may be required to cover them up. Keeping and refinishing original woodwork sounds like an economical decision, but the time and labor involved adds up to much more than the cost of installing new woodwork. Don’t get us wrong—we love working with clients who want to preserve their home’s character, but we also know it’s not for everyone. Not to mention, the best character is usually found in older homes which need more work. Consider whether authentic character is worth these risks, or whether you might be able to add character to a newer build.

Last but not least, befriend your new neighbors. We can’t overstate how important it is to establish good relationships with your new neighbors—and seriously reconsider purchasing if that seems unlikely. No matter how considerate your contractors are, your neighbors’ patience will undoubtedly be tested living next to a construction project. Uncooperative neighbors may throw a wrench into your project even getting approved—if it requires a zoning variance, affected neighbors will be notified and asked to weigh in. On the other hand, a cooperative neighbor can be a huge asset during construction—if your contractors need to borrow water or electricity while yours is temporarily shut off, your neighbor may be willing to share.

If you’re just getting started on your house hunt, feel free to give us a call to discuss project ideas and rough numbers. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a house, ask us about scheduling a site visit!