A Guide to Buying a Fixer-Upper

Buying a fixer-upper home can be a great way to get into the housing market, build equity, and even make a profit down the road. However, renovating an older home comes with its own unique set of challenges. Here is a comprehensive guide to buying a fixer-upper to help you make the most informed decision.

Assessing Your Budget and Skills

The first step is to take an honest assessment of your financial situation and DIY skills. Fixer-uppers often sell for below market value, but you’ll need sufficient funds for repairs and renovations. Create a renovation budget and contingency fund for unexpected expenses. Also evaluate if you can tackle repairs like plumbing, electric, flooring etc. or will need to hire contractors.

Finding the Right Property

Location and structure are key when choosing a fixer-upper. Look for homes in a desirable neighborhood that will allow you to recoup renovation costs. Drive around target areas and look for signs of neglect like peeling paint, overgrown landscaping etc. Check zoning laws to ensure your renovation plans are permitted. Inspect the structure for water damage, pest infestation, sagging floors etc. Cosmetic fixes like flooring and paint are easy but structural damage can balloon costs.

Doing Your Due Diligence

Once you’ve identified a property, verify all permits were legally obtained and there are no liens or claims against the property. Hire an inspector to thoroughly evaluate roofing, foundation, electric, plumbing and HVAC systems. Get quotes from contractors on the likely repair costs. Check comparable sales to determine ARV (after-repair value). Calculate your profit potential based on total acquisition and renovation costs.

Securing Financing

Most lenders shy away from financing fixer-uppers unless you plan to live in the property. Look into FHA 203(k) loans that allow you to roll purchase price and renovation costs into a single mortgage. Alternatively, take out a traditional mortgage for the purchase and separate renovation loan. Shop around with local banks and credit unions as they may offer renovation programs. Consider using funds from your 401(k) or taking out a home equity loan.

Finding a Good Contractor

Vet several contractors before selecting one. Look for licensed professionals experienced in renovation work with good online reviews. Get at least three quotes for every major project. Draw up contracts clearly defining scope of work, materials, timeline and payments. Include contingencies for delays and overages. Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder as it could signal problems.

Setting a Realistic Timeline

Create a detailed project timeline from purchase to completion. Consult contractors for input on realistic timeframes, ordering delays etc. Build in buffer time for surprises like permit approvals, weather delays and subcontractor scheduling issues. Get all agreements in writing and review timelines regularly as delays will increase costs. Be prepared to get hands dirty with smaller projects to keep things on track.

Protecting Your Investment

Take precautions to safeguard your investment and prevent liability issues. Secure the property and restrict access to avoid injuries and theft. Obtain necessary insurances like builders risk and general liability. Hire subcontractors rather than informal laborers. Follow all OSHA safety regulations. Document the renovation diligently in case of disputes.

Adding Value Through Upgrades

Look for ways to add value by upgrading systems, creating flexible spaces, improving functionality etc. Kitchen and bath remodels offer highest ROI but consider flow, storage solutions and energy efficient upgrades. Boost curb appeal with exterior facelifts like fresh paint, new roof, landscaping etc. Smart upgrades can boost a home’s value beyond your renovation budget.

Being Ready for Problems

Renovations often uncover expensive surprises so prepare for common issues like mold, faulty wiring, rotting framing etc. Research typical problems with homes from the era and inspect thoroughly for telltale signs. Interview contractors about potential red flags. Plan ahead by testing for asbestos and lead, surveying for termites and checking insulation levels.

Choosing the Right Team

Success hinges on having the right team in place. Ask around for referrals to find the most qualified professionals. Check reviews and verify licensing. Examine their portfolios looking for projects similar to yours. Meet in person and evaluate responsiveness and communication style. Make sure expectations align on budget, quality and timelines.

Living in the Home During Renovation

If planning to live in the home during renovations, prepare for significant disruptions. Map out a logical sequence doing the noisiest, dustiest projects first. Set up a temporary kitchen and bathroom if needed. Be prepared to seal off work zones from living areas. Establish clear rules with contractors like work hours and site access. Expect the project to take significantly longer.

Deciding Whether to Hire Out or DIY

Assess your skills to decide which tasks to DIY and which to hire out. Consider complexity, time requirements, permitting needs etc. Strike a balance between cost savings and quality; pros often get better results. Handle cosmetic tasks like painting yourself but hire electricians and plumbers to avoid permitting issues. Focus DIY efforts where mistakes won’t tank your timeline or budget.

Building in Reward Milestones

Celebrate renovation milestones to stay motivated and mark progress. Have a demolition party after tearing things out. Grill dinner in the backyard when the foundation is finished. Uncork some champagne the first night you sleep in a completed bedroom. Mark major milestones with before and after photos. Keep your eyes on the prize during challenging moments.

Anticipating the Unexpected

From bad weather to flawed inspections, surprises will arise so prepare for the unpredictable. Automate payments so a missed invoice doesn’t halt work. Get agreements in writing to resolve disputes quickly. Record all contractor conversations. Research tenant and squatter rights in case someone refuses to leave. Know your permitting office’s policies to rectify issues quickly.

Deciding Whether to Live or Sell

Once the home is renovated, decide whether to sell for a profit or live there. Calculate your total investment versus the ARV to gauge potential profits. Factor in your emotions, family needs, carrying costs and market conditions. Could you rent it out temporarily? Set a timeline for reaching your goals. Remember profits are never guaranteed in real estate.

Key Takeaways on Buying a Fixer-Upper

  • Assess your budget, skills and goals realistically from the start
  • Thoroughly inspect properties and research permitting regulations
  • Get professional estimates to calculate accurate renovation costs
  • Secure proper financing and insurance for purchase and renovations
  • Vet contractors closely and use clear contracts
  • Allow plenty of time and financial buffers for unexpected issues
  • Add value through smart upgrades and quality renovations
  • Celebrate milestones but anticipate challenges along the way
  • Decide early on whether you plan to occupy or sell the finished home

With proper planning, diligence and realistic expectations, taking on a fixer-upper renovation can allow you to turn a dated property into your dream home or a profitable investment. This comprehensive guide covers key steps and considerations so you can tackle your project with confidence.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are signs a home is a good fixer-upper candidate?

Some signs to look for include outdated kitchens and bathrooms, worn carpets and flooring, peeling paint and wallpaper, outdated light fixtures, lack of closet space, and outdated styles. Cosmetic fixes like these are cheaper than structural repairs. Also look for solid underlying structure and bones, good lot size, and location in a desirable neighborhood.

How much should I budget for unexpected costs?

Industry experts recommend budgeting an extra 10-20% over your quoted renovation costs as a contingency fund for surprises. It’s better to have this buffer and not need it than to come up short partway into your project.

Should I use a contractor or do a DIY renovation?

If you have some DIY experience, you can save costs by doing minor renovations like painting, flooring, and landscaping yourself. But plumbing, electric, and structural work should be left to licensed professionals to avoid safety hazards and permitting issues. Create a list of DIY tasks vs. hired contractor jobs.

What loans work best for financing a fixer-upper?

FHA 203(k) loans allow you to fund the purchase and future renovations with a single mortgage. Fannie Mae HomeStyle loans also include renovation costs. If you can’t get a renovation-included mortgage, take out a traditional mortgage along with a home equity loan or HELOC for improvements.

Should I live in the house during renovations?

Living onsite makes overseeing renovations easier but be prepared for the mess and noise. If your budget allows, consider renting another property temporarily so you can do the work faster and minimize daily disruptions. Just make sure the house is adequately secured against theft and damage during the renovation.


Renovating a fixer-upper home is rewarding but requires extensive planning and preparation. Following this comprehensive guide will help you assess properties, calculate accurate budgets, secure financing, hire contractors, anticipate issues, and add value through renovations. With diligence and realistic expectations, your hard work can transform a rundown property into your dream home and a great real estate investment. What aspect of buying a fixer-upper are you most excited or nervous about? Let me know if you have any other questions!