thinking of buying an old house

yellowfinch87June 8, 2013


I've always loved old houses, but I know they are a lot of work. My husband and I rent an ok ish 1br apartment (so tired of it after 5 years) and it seems that, in our city, because of extensive copper theft, etc unless you want to use an FHA loan and make the house cost 5x what it should, you can't buy a house.

Unless you can snag one of the (frequently listed) super cheap houses for $10k for cash. Any house in this category is old, and bereft of most / all plumbing and electrical and usually at least some windows are busted out. But they are beautiful, many with intact original hardwood floors and some with unpainted trim. Frequently the third floor is basically untouched and usable as temporary "camp."

My husband thinks its a terrible idea. I'm trying to reason with him without guilt or manipulation that its at least worth thinking about. We both have full time jobs and a 9 month old. We do not make a ton of money which is why I think this would be better than getting a big mortgage.

So.... thoughts? (Obviously I'm not trying to use the internet to settle a fight between us. I just want advice from btdt old home owners on what they would do in my shoes).

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I was right with you, up until you got to the 9 month old.....

Many people would hesitate to take on a lived-in, gut overhaul of an old house with an infant or toddler in the mix because of the lead paint issue.

The other thing is what you are proposing is pretty a full-time occupation of every waking second you're not at your other working-for-actual-money job.

Where does your kid (and his/her sib) fit in?

Don't get me wrong, I live in a very old house that we have been working on, off and on, for more than two decades. Sometimes we stop for several years at a time, when we've had enough, or other projects or Life intervenes. I love old houses. I love working on them. I also love it when we're not working on it!

Occasionally someone posts here and recounts how negative they feel about their childhood because they lived in a family that was absorbed for most of it with a long, DIY reno of an old house. Their sad memories are quite poignant.

I think it might be wiser to stay in a rental for a few more years, and aggressively save some cash and try to buy a less-challenging house as your first one.

A mostly-trashed house, on a tight budget, with the steep learning curve of a first-time DIY-er can often be a recipe for personal, family and even marital misery.

Two adventurous adults, by themselves, can camp out in a non-functional house as they teach themsleves the necessary skills to get it back to basics. Showering at the Y, eating take-out, no money for anything except the house (and not the fun, decorating stuff, either, I'm talking furnace repairs, PEX tubes, dry-wall mud and shower pans) gets disheartening. And you can't just quit, you have to go on to get your conditional CO lifted, eet your lender's time tables, etc. Oh, yeah, and then there's winter breathing down your neck. You haven't experienced the awful reality of old house poverty until you've lived through one without reliable heat.

Sorry to be less than encouraging.

I would keep looking for house that hasn't been trashed. One that is livable from the start, even if not entirely your style or taste. You can always learn your DIY skills just fixing-up or redecorating an OK house. Once you;ve got one under your belt, then you'll know if you can hack a gut-reno while you're living in it.

Good luck!


    Bookmark   June 8, 2013 at 10:48PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I love old houses. The only 'new' house I have ever lived in flooded with the first big rain. Luckily it was a rental and I just moved quickly, back to an old house.

The thing is, I have always picked old houses that are solid ( Read: Maintained.)

The old house we purchased in 1989 is a 1912 era Craftsman. Huge by most accounts. Solid as a rock, still we have given up vacations and other such extravaganzas, to put money toward the house. We stand back and throw money at it. let me repeat. This house is solid. Great foundations and bones. Still, it takes our money. Without guilt or consideration of the appraiser.

My BIL, on the other hand, purchased loser homes with structural issues and he lost the fight every-time. He is now a basement dweller.

Save your money and buy something you can afford to maintain while sending your child through school, allowing said child to participate in extra curricular activities.

Pick your priorities. Choose a house than can be good enough for now and wait for a few years. Don't borrow trouble.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 1:13AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

We both have full time jobs and a 9 month old. We do not make a ton of money which is why I think this would be better than getting a big mortgage.

I've upgraded, renovated and repaired several old houses ... it was tough, even if I had a lot of knowledge and a substantial money cushion.

If you think a mortgage is expensive, try renovating an old house. Contractors require CASH, and usually insist on 50% up front. So you either qualify for a rehab loan or grant or have substantial savings.

Rehabbing require that one person be there to let them in, let them out, and keep track of the details. And unless you work nights, you have to have a really understanding boss.

Cut your expenses to the minimum and start saving up to get either a down payment or a war chest for rehabbing ... you can't do it on a shoestring.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 11:21AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Every single thing in an old house opens up a can of worms. In order to put a shower upstairs, we had to reinforce the beams in the attic and shir up the walls and floors so the shower wouldn't end up in the formal living room downstairs. Of course, there is always the plumbing, electrical and insulation that goes along with it. A simple bathroom update ran us into thousands in upgrades over and above what one sees when walking into it. Leveling the ceiling took an artist in the trade.

For years, we threw big money into things that weren't seen. Roofing, plumbing, electrical, heating, air. (I'm not mentioning the well and water treatment system because you live within city water limits.) And this house was solid.

We lived with an early seventies era kitchen for twenty two years, grateful for all the harvest gold everything that functioned well.

Each time we replace a bit of siding, we purchase it from the 'Historical' section. $$$$

We have cared for three elders during our tenure here. Like Liriodendron, we start and stop. After 24 years, we have yet to go on a big vacation because our house takes the money. We make a very decent living but having an old house is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. When you get to the end, it is time to start over. We are DIY'ers but can't do everything.

But, we are glutens for punishment. We are signing escrow papers on a very cute and well maintained 1910 era duplex in town Tuesday. We can't wait.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 12:55PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

yellowfinch87, I am just writing to say that I nodded non-stop while reading every word of every response so far.

I have experienced both growing up in an old house and rehabbing one (our current home) myself. Against all odds, I might add, because I swore I wouldn't ever take it on, despite loviing the character and having something of the rescuer in me. I spent lots of my childhood sanding, priming, painting and waiting for my parents to stop working on the house so we could do something together. That house was structurally sound and my father earned a good income and was a talented self-taught DIY'er who also found money to pay someone else to do what he couldn't. However, we spent more time shovelling off roofs (!), re-setting patio stones, etc than any of my friends and it cut into family life. My parents saved for years to take us to Europe for a family vacation. Then the house across the street burned down and the trip was replaced with re-wiring. We understood, but the trip never happened and the house was eventually sold and all that work was embedded in the house and in our memories.

Don't get me wrong... I am NOT saying I didn't love living there. It's just that it was a lot of house-commitment. I would add that it was also a beauty in only slightly dishevelled condition in a highly desirable neighbourhood with lots of parks and safe streets and kids who spent much of their time outside safely creating their own entertainment. It was still a very expensive proposition. We also benefitted from the surroundings. Maybe different than a place with lots of lovely old ruins with busted out windows? Might not be so kid friendly when your 9 month is 9 years old and wants to bike or walk to see friends?

We will mark the 6 year anniversary this July, of our purchase of the old farmhouse (1870) we call home. It is in liveable condition and safe and has had some of its true character restored over the past 6 years. It too was 'structurally sound' when we bought it, passed two building inspections, one by a certified inspector and one by a very close friend with a blunt honesty, who renovates heritage homes for a living. The inspector missed most of the important deficits, because as other posters have commented, they were hidden behind other past owners' 'remuddling' jobs. These hidden flaws have accounted for at least half of the estimated 100K which has been poured into this house in the past 6 years. Serious stuff: rotted and CUT OFF structural beams; illegal and dangerous wiring; utterly incompetent welding of plumbing pipes; enough stupid stuff to give you a headache just reading it. Now imagine living through this together, over and over, and consider the impact on your life as a couple and family...

We took this house on at the respective ages of 47 and 56, with two resilient teens (who helped and removed themselves as needed when they'd had enough). We have a good income and had no major financial crises during this time. We have an absolutely wonderful relationship, which I give thanks for every day and had already been together a decade when we embarked on this. It still tested us frequently and at one point, we agreed that we had to declare only specific times when the house could be the topic of discussion, because it was starting to take over. We are climbing out of debt and in our area, housing values have climbed enough and the trend is positive enough, that I think we'll come out even in the end financially. There's still lots to be done, but we agree nothing more til we have the cash in hand.

I've been really specific here, because I get the lure (after all, I was fished back in!!!)... but I would agree with the others... enjoy your relative financial freedom, in the annoying one bedroom (or maybe find another?) with your precious nine month old, who's about to become 10x more fascinating than he/she already is (said as a paediatrician who can't get enough of kids under 5)... maybe consider slaking some of your 'oldness' thirst on buying old furniture and learning to refinish it, or helping someone else out with some of their old house DIY or volunteering for Habitat, or, you get it...

I'm afraid this sounds very 'advicy', but hope it's helpful...

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 3:06PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Fori is not pleased

If you have enough money to stay in the apartment WHILE you have the trashed house fixed up to at least be livable, then it might not be so bad. But are these trashed homes in good enough neighborhoods to raise a kid in?

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 6:50PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The cheapest thing about an old house is the purchase price. Repeat that until you "get" it. Then embroider it on a pillow for your head so you completely internalize that in your sleep.

It's a very false economy to think that purchasing a 10K heap with cash will leave you with "no mortgage". Maybe it won't be an official through the bank mortgage unless you are approved for a renovation loan, but a 10K house will easily need 100K worth of work that you have to pay for. That at least monthly payment that's probably higher than a mortgage for "regular" home in half decent condition. While you are still paying rent to live somewhere else.

It cost more to live in an old house than it does to keep renting and having someone else handle the problems. For many, it's worth it, because that's their hobby, and their life's avocation. It's fun for them to be kicked around and abused by the old gals. Or, at least they lie to themselves that the end product will be worth all of the pain and suffering. Sometimes, it actually is. Most of the time though, it's about the process and not the result. If all of the tales above doesn't sound like a life that you would like to live on a permanent basis, then an old home probably isn't for you.

If this does sound like something you want, you should develop a healthy cash cushion before even thinking about purchasing. That way, you can take care of the most critical needs of the home right away in order to get it into a habitable state and camp in it while you work on the rest of the never ending list.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2013 at 10:45PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Hello yellowfinch87,

I read through all of these responses and it sounds like I'm going to be the minority here but please note that I am only speaking from my very limited experience. I apologize in advance for the length.

I was 40 before I even started looking to buy a house and the first one that I looked at and fell in love with was a 2600 sq. ft. shell. It was very near where I grew up but, while I remember the family that lived there, I had never been inside. It had been built somewhere around 1890 and was for sale for $7,000. The inside looked like someone started to gut it and gave up. All of the walls downstairs had been torn out and were on the floor. The entire staircase had also been removed. There was a narrow back staircase that had no railing but you could use it to very carefully navigate to the second floor. From there, you could see where the big staircase used to be. The walls had been removed from the bathroom and two of the bedrooms and the floor to the attic was torn out so you could see the roof lines from the second floor. It had a fairly large yard for a city lot and part of it contained a two story carriage house in as much disrepair as the main house. I was mesmerized by the possibilities. Fortunately for me, someone else bought it before I even figured out where to start.

Some months later, I saw a listing for another house. It was listed for around $45,000, was built in 1881, a little over 2700 sq. ft. and it also had a dilapidated two-story carriage house on the property. I went to see it and instantly fell in love. It was nowhere near the wreck that the first one was but it still needed some work. The owner had done a lot of work himself and it was being used as a double at the time but hadn't been chopped up beyond repair. While it was completely clean and move in ready, I immediately saw where things needed to be fixed and where things needed to be dialed back to as close to their original state as I could get it. So I bought it.

Now would be a good time to point out that I'm single and, when it comes to building and home repair, don't have a single DIY bone in my body. Knowing that I would have to pay for labor for absolutely everything that I wanted done, I obtained a loan from NeighborWorks (national non-profit), I spent a long time researching contractors to find the absolute best one that I could afford and I scoured CraigsList, thrift stores and salvage stores for material. I would never have been able to do anything without those three components. After two and a half long years, the first round of work is finally wrapping up on the house.

I absolutely loved my house from the moment I stepped inside and haven't stopped loving it since. It has been tough living in a construction zone but I'm able to see past what it is to see what it will be. If I had listened to my friends and family and my realtor, I would be in a big cookie-cutter house that I would probably be looking to sell by now. I plan on leaving this house feet first.

I said all of that to say that, if I were in your situation, I would evaluate what resources I had available to me and if those resources would get me to the point where I could love my home and still enjoy a healthy quality of life. In my opinion, having the very young child would be a plus because by the time they really become aware of their surroundings, you will be at a more stable place in the house where you can enjoy it and not have to take away so much time from them. I still have a good ways to go in terms of work that I want done on the house (and I haven't even STARTED on the carriage house!) but this round of work will be enough to sustain me until I build more resources for the next large investment.

If you really love old houses, you should get one. Unless you win the lottery, the time will never be "right" for the kind of investment in time and resources that will be required so there's really no need to wait, in my opinion. Perhaps if you could align yourself with a good contractor and find a house that doesn't need SO much restoration, it could work out better for you.

Best of luck to you and I hope you find something you love!

    Bookmark   June 10, 2013 at 12:36PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yellowfinch you wrote;

" We do not make a ton of money which is why I think this would be better than getting a big mortgage.

So.... thoughts? (Obviously I'm not trying to use the internet to settle a fight between us. I just want advice from btdt old home owners on what they would do in my shoes).

Before I can give you any thoughts I would need a few answers to a few questions.

1) What is your budget and has it been secured before you plop down a meager 10K?

2) What are your skills for a renovation of this magnitude?

3) Do you have a good handle on building codes in your area?

4) What condition is the house that is selling for 10K?

Really until you can answer those questions any comment on my, or most anyone else's, part would be an exercise in typing.

You have gotten some very insightful responses from others who have had the joy and pain from taking on a labour of love concerning old houses. There are hundreds of threads here asking what you are asking. Probably some on this page. Answering my questions would help us all comment with a better degree of understanding your particular situation.

If your answers are we have zero budget, might not get a loan based on our income and credit rating, don't have a clue how to use s circular saw and don't know what a building code is and the place is a wreck. Well then my response is not everyone is in a position to own an old house.

Be prepared to pay approximately $100.00 per square foot for basic building materials, add another $50.00 to $100.00 per square for a reputable contractor to do it for you. Then add 25% at least for the worms in the can. At that price you will be able to buy an old house that is move in ready, or almost. Those that are in old houses with good bones will get the almost part. It's good to have good bones but what costs you are the weakened muscles, sagging skin and failing organs that cost to keep the patient breathing.

If I have learned anything from my short time here on this forum and being a member back in the early century here you may have already been scared off by what you have read here, if not answer my questions and we may be of some help.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2013 at 8:41PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Regarding the mortgage...........interest rates are the cheapest I have ever seen in my lifetime. It's all I can do not to start investing in property because it's still depressed but signs are showing it may well be on its way back to a recovery. Your 'big' mortgage payments may very well be cheaper than what you are paying in rent. Nobody says you must hang on to a newly purchased home until it's paid off, and if you are careful with your loan, you may very well be able to apply extra money to the principle and pay it down more rapidly with just minor extra contributions each month. You can still look at older homes but be more choosy as to how they've been maintained, and find one which isn't going to end up being a money pit but be quite comfortable as you 'grow into' minor repair and decorating expertise.

I'm a veteran of five old homes.....two purchased in a sheriff's sale, one bought with cash on the cheap, from a couple who owed little on it and needed it moved fast, and several conventional. Here's the biggie, the way I see it. I would never enter into a major rehab unless both partners are in total agreement and anxious to get ripping on it. You don't ever want to be still fixing it, running out of funds in an "I told you so" situation.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2013 at 12:07AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


First, do either of you (and preferably both) have the ability to work on this house? Carpentry, electrical, plumbing, structural, roofing, painting, drywall, etc?

If no, and since you mentioned low budget, I would say it's not a great idea.

We are living in house #2, which was infinitly easier to work on than #1, although probably in equal condition. But #1 taught us the basics we already somewhat knew (we both had family members in trades so we had absorbed how to's growing up-I was also obessed with shows like "This Old House" back when they actually did work on old houses rather than what they do now). #1 was just under 900 sq ft and #2 is just ender 700. The bigger the house, the more it will cost. And if you can't do the work...yikes. Get ready for sticker shock. Plus you'll need to find a GOOD contractor that's honest, reliable AND can actually perform the work required properly. I've seen some scary stuff done by "professionals" and it wasn't cheap work either.

Working on a wreck is difficult, dirty, hard work that can just about drive you crazy. And it's easy to get in over your head. Our neighbors just tried jacking up their newly bought wreck, and broke half the floor joists in the process. He lifted the darn thing in ONE DAY (it should ahve taken WEEKS of slow, careful inch by inch jacking and supporting) and it was settled at least 2' in one corner (we weren't home when he did it so I don't know HOW he did it). He's lucky that's all he did. Now he's in a real pickle and I'm afraid he's going to do even more damage trying to fix it. Seeing as how he didn't use any cribbing or structural ties or support on the first attempt, I can't see how this is going to go better. He's got a very good chance of completely ruining the house now. It's a real possiblity. We wanted to buy the place but couldn't scratch up the cash soon enough. It was an advanced DIY dream, all down to the studs (all the demo was done) so you could see what you had.

Both Dh and I have talked about investment property (and with prices as they are, it would be an old home), and we'd rather have one demo'd to the studs. You can see what's there, what was botched up already and figure out what needs to be done. I'd never want to buy a "renovated" house after seeing what was done at our two houses, but we can do electrical, plumbing, framing, drywall...and we know someone that can help with major structural type issues that get us flumoxed.

I don't mean to scare you away from your dream, just please consider what you're thinking of taking on. Watch some shows on DIY and HGTV (and not the fluff ones, the ones where people actually do real work).

One thing I would note, was about the kids. Personally, I would have had a BLAST helping restore a house as a kid. I was always following my grandpa around when he did stuff at their house (not an old house, but he always had some project or another). He did carpentry and some demo work and I always wished he had opened a salvage business, that would have been absolutely fasination to me. That part could really depend on the kiddo and their interests.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 1:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

If BOTH you and your husband aren't totally enamored with the idea of taking on the renovation and maintenance of an old house which from the beginning is known to need a lot of attention, money and work, I would strongly advice not to go there. After you pass the test of both being totally "in", then the other tests of how much skill, money and time need to be evaluated. These are definitely important too but the first test if you want to stay married must be that both agree and more than agree, are happy with the plan - REALLY happy with the plan, else lots of bitterness and unhappiness and possibly divorce are in your future.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 8:08PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I know this is an older post, but I thought I could add to this from personal experience.

5 years ago, dh and I went to look at a house that had just gone up for sale through bank foreclosure. No foundation under most of the house, original foundation crumbling, termite damage, some old broken windows, some newer junk windows, broken floor joists, 5 ft of water in the basement, a bad roof, and broken water lines everywhere. Not to mention the obvious aesthetic issues. The septic was a buried clay tile and the hand dug well was likely dry. It was a tear down, but it had a nice pole barn and land and several outbuildings. We were miserable in town and couldn't afford to buy a nicer home in the rural setting we desired without a hefty mortgage that we may or may not have been able to get. We knew that it would sell quick, so it was a fast decision that was not as well thought out as it could have been. We made an offer, and got the house. Did I mention we had a 21 month old and 3 month old? Luckily, we had another home to live in 20 miles away and both of us have a background in construction.

I spent every evening the first week trying to make one room safe and clean enough for a place to keep the kids while we worked. We settled on the dining room. Tore out the crumbling plaster, ran new electrical, and threw up some drywall. I stuck a crib and playpen in there as well as a cheap bookshelf with some toys and books and a refrigerator for food and drinks. After a month of traveling back and forth, we set up an air mattress and dresser and moved in. We had no water and electricity in only two rooms. Luckily, dh's parents lived 5 miles away and were happy to let us fill 5 gallon buckets for our drinking and bathing water. Black buckets were left outside to heat up for baths and white buckets were kept inside for cooking and washing dishes. Within a month we were able to get a new well dug and ran a hose from the pump by the barn for cold water and a hose from the water heater for hot water. It wasn't much but it felt like luxury living after bathing with a bucket for two months with occasional trips to our other house to eat a nice meal and get a proper shower.

Anyways, we're still working on the house. All but one wall has a new footer, everything has been rewired, and I am finally getting to the point where I can decorate some rooms. We added another daughter a little over a year after we moved in and we survived the ordeal. We're even starting some drawings for an addition to replace the bad additions and expand the basement. The house also has ductwork for the first time in it's 100+ year old life. We're now replacing band-aids that were initially put in to keep the house standing and liveable with permanent fixes, but it's still 1 step forward and 2 steps back every time a new project starts.

It's been a huge stress out from start to finish. It's taken a toll on our relationship from time to time and we gave up vacations, family gatherings, and social lives. Our children have always come first though and we went to great measures to make sure they were kept safe and happy through the years.

This got longer than I intended. With all of the hard work and stress, we have plans to do this again in the future. Probably when the kids are a bit older, and we'll probably try to find something with better bones next time around. If I couldn't do it 100% DIY, there is no way that I would attempt something of this magnitude. The costs would be astronomical compared to what we have invested in this house, which, surprisingly, is very little. But we've re-used and recycled 90% of what we've put in. Salvaged building materials and job leftovers have saved tens of thousands of dollars, but involved a great deal more work.

It definitely won't be luxury living, even the most realistic timelines will be pushed back weeks or months at a time, even longer if bigger problems arise, and they will, often. You'll get tired and burnt out, there will be injuries and fights, and you will have dreams of burning the place to the ground. If you can handle that, then by all means, buy an old house and fix it up.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 3:05PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
interesting plaster job - what to do to fix it?
I'm doing some work in my dining room that includes...
Plaster stamped like tile?
My house was built in 1915. I am tearing out some 60s...
Craftsman tile question
I recently visited a friend who lives in a beautiful...
Stair striping and refinishing advice
I ve been stripping and refinishing my stairs in my...
Sanity check: Huge window & shutter repair/replace bill?
Hey folks! I am the proud new-ish owner of 1740s brick...
Sponsored Products
Eurofase Aluminum Square Trim
Euro Style Lighting
Juno 4" Line Voltage NonIC New Construction Recessed Housing
$22.99 | Lamps Plus
Progress Lighting 4 in. Antique Bronze Eyeball Trim P8046-20
$34.92 | Home Depot
Outdoor Kitty House
$69.50 | FRONTGATE
Trevie Four-Light Oil Rubbed Bronze Bath Light Oil Rubbed Bronze
$119.95 | Bellacor
Designer Chrome Flat Panel Heated Towel Radiator Rail 974mm x 450mm
Hudson Reed
Design House 522680 Kitchen Faucet Extension Kit - 522680
$28.99 | Hayneedle
Artistant House 4-piece Black Leather Sectional
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™