what would be the dealbreaker of a fixer-upper?

happymary45November 10, 2008

I have always wanted to live in an older home. A home with wide molding, high ceilings, quirky rooms, preferably two story.

I'm in a position now to pursue my dream of an old house, if I'm willing to buy a pretty run down fixer upper. My question is this: what would be the things that you all would NOT consider dealing with in a fixer upper? would it be a rotten foundation? Bad windows? My criteria is that the PO didn't totally replace all the great old character with new crap that cannot be reversed. I know much of this depends on how much money would be available to rehab, and that is a consideration.The house I have my eye on is two story, needs paint, exterior wood repair, a roof, and window work DESPERATELY. The foundation seems solid, but of course this needs to be confirmed. I'm not super worried about the interior because it needs a scrub but they didn't get rid of the molding or floors. It needs a kitchen, but because it's so small, I don't think that would be a big deal and it has the original upper cabinets.

So, what would be the factor that would keep all y'all from buying an old house and what would you NOT put up with moving into the house until it was fixed? Is there something I should know about that would be dangerous? and not lived with? I'm clumsy with words here, so I hope you all get my drift.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The only things that would stop me from buying an older home are a horrible foundation, not much money/income source for repairs and an unwillingness to buckle down for the ride (aka work). Before buying any old house, I would have an inspector go over everything with a very fine tooth comb. I would find that special inspector who knows old homes. An inspector that only works in new subdivisions would never be allowed near my potential purchase. If structural was a consideration, I'd get a structural engineer in there for his/her inspection ahead of making an offer.

We're on our 4th old house and we have done alot of work on all of them. Most of the work we've done ourselves and some we've hired out. We've lived in all our homes while the work was going on. We've tackled 1 room at a time so that the entire place isn't in total disarray all the time. To me, just about anything can be fixed/spruced up. I would not assume I had to buy everything new (especially windows). I'd get to know where the local salvage places are and use them. Old homes take time, money and effort. But the rewards are wonderful with each task you can check off as done.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 3:29PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Anything that it cannot be determined with reasonable certainty what it would cost to fix/replace.

About the only thing that is likely to be in this category is foundation problems, although there are perhaps others (perhaps evidence of extensive termite damage or rot as well)

Things like windows you can see--if you like the old ones, they're fine, and you can estimate what it would cost to replace them. For anything with known cost, it's easy to determine whether you can afford to do the work or not.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 4:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

While not necessarily deal breakers, check out the electrical and plumbing. If rural check out the water situation and sewage too. Chimney issues if you plan on using them. Really anything structural needs to pass. Even these things can be fixed with lots of work and money, see Leasa's old house. Old windows to me are a plus if they aren't rotten. A little repair isn't bad and will be cheaper and look much better than new windows.

Here is a link that might be useful: Leasa's Old house

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 5:16PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

That blog is downright inspirational. The windows are a mess. Broken, rotted around them, the whole nine yards. It will need to be rewired. the plumbing is probably ok. it's in an urban area, so no sewer problems. I would get it inspected and an engineer out to inspect it AND, I would find a carpenter and see how much he/she thinks it will cost to repair the wood and work on the windows. Is it ok to have contractors look and inspect and get an idea of the work invovled when you haven't made a bid on the property yet?
I so love this forum. so many people who are encouraging and have the same thing about old houses... thanks.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 5:52PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Extensive foundation work.

It can get so expensive you might as well knock the house down.

I have dealt with other heavily damaged structures (fallen trees, fires, an auto through a wall and into the basement, flooding, plumbing leaks, etc.).

You can get bitten with foundation work since in some places if you make major repairs you can be required to bring the whole foundation up to the present code.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2008 at 7:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I will deal with anything but structural issues.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 11:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

If we are talking about structural issues as in foundation work, when is it dangerous? I've read that an unlevel foundation has to be pretty darn bad for it to be dangerous and its more a matter of what you can tolerate.In other words, that type of structural problem could maybe wait awhile to be fixed? Or not?

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 1:46PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I guess one of the main things for us is it sitting on an actual foundation that you can reasonably get under to fix a problem foundation and/or be able to get to thru the floors (had to do that once). I really want my g-parents old house built in the last part of the 1800's. The people that purchased it when my Nan passed away did get an estimate & where going to have the foundation fixed 30k (off the asking price for this repair). The main beam had cracked & the house was sitting on dirt so the entire thing had to be jacked, fixed & then put down on a new foundation per code. This was 3 years ago, they did nothing to the house other then pull out all the old maple kitchen cabinets....no really, that's all they did, go figure. Fast forward the entire house has twisted & is caving in toward the middle. Basically what could have been saved is now a tear down. It's in foreclosure, I still have the keys but heck even I was afraid to venture tooo far inside. Seriously, it looks like a carnival fun house. Everything has been compromised. I just cried...wishing we had the money sooner & that it wasn't 100 miles away from real employment.

I would certainly get a structural engineering report, I feel this is a must. Also make sure you are there, you want to SEE what the engineer's report is about & do ask questions. Bring a notebook, take good notes! As you stated, sometimes old houses have settled or been built on to in a ways that make it seem unsteady but it's really nothing to worry about.

How big is the house you are looking at? We usually live in the ones we are working on, it's rough but what in life isn't? Oh yeah, it can get addictive. You might not notice this change in yourself while you are working on it, likely not until after you are finished...that's when you find yourself scanning the long roads & searching the MLS for another project with a gleam in your eye.

Best wishes!


    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 4:11PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Don't ever assume an urban home has no sewerage problems. My niece just bought a house in town and the first time it rained, it was a swimming pool..........and it was backed up sewer, from the street lines, not leaky foundation. Our nearby town (I am rural) has a code where sewerage back-flow devices are mandatory, but nobody ever seems to check to see if their homes have one, and nobody much builds inside the corporation limits anymore, so my guess is most of the homes were built before this ordinance. IOW, a lot of potential urban sewerage issues.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 5:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The dealbreaker for me would be awful neighbors! LOL

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   November 11, 2008 at 6:39PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 8:02AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Ditto location, foundation, and serious structural issues as being the "run away screaming" things for us. We didn't find out until we'd moved in that our floors are like trampolines - walking and even stomping around in an empty house didn't put enough weight on the floors for them to go boing-boing, so that was a nice (not!) surprise, but we've been assured that the house isn't going to fall down so we're putting that off. For financial reasons we eliminated any houses that required complete overhauls of the major systems - electrical, plumbing, heating - and completely nonfunctioning kitchen or bath even though that meant we had to bypass some really could-have-been-amazing houses.

We had an inspector who supposedly was good with old houses, came highly recommended, and still got screwed on a lot of stupid little things he should have caught, so be pessimistic even if you get a "passed with flying colors" inspection.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 10:28AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I really appreciate all the advice. This house is in pretty poor shape. the downstairs hasn't been lived in but there is a couple upstairs who have painted and have a nice little set up for themselves. Kind of funky, though, not House Beautiful or anything like that. I don't mind funky. I do mind dirty or buggy.
I was thinking about this on the way to work. I think if the roof and windows were repaired/replaced it would be ok for the time being. But I'm starting to think it's just too much of a project. and a long shot. They want $95,5000 for the house and it needs at least $50K worth of work, I suspect. The neighborhood is one that used to be fancy, went downhill (houses divided into apartments, etc) and now is coming back up. this house was built in 1940 (from what I can find out) and has been neglected for a long, LONG time. I know $95,5000 might seem cheap to people who live in other areas, but in San Antonio, where the median price for a house is $140,000, it's a lot for the shape its in. Whatever I end up doing, I'm going to get a fixer-upper. I just can't afford anything in a decent neighborhood that doesn't need a bit of work. I'll include a link with the place I'm looking at here.

Here is a link that might be useful: house

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 11:19AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

That looks like it could be a very nice house! I love the front door and the double porch, though it looks like the porch may need additional support, and the built-ins are great. To me the house looks older than 1940's, looks early 1900's, could be even late (very late) 1800's. IMHO your going to need more than $50k especially with it neglected for so long, needing a new roof, window repair. Dirty and buggy can be fixed cheaply with a bucket of soapy water and bit of elbow grease. If you really like it (which I definately see why), get an inspection done with an inspector or GC who specializes in old houses, and then estimate how much it would take to get the house in order. Then you could make an offer that you feel represents the final value of the house minus the estimated repairs. There's nothing that says you MUST offer what they ask.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 12:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

thanks! I would hope to get it at least livable with an outlay of $20,000, but maybe I'm being naive. I know ultimately it will cost me a ton, but I don't care! It's not very big. they have it advertised at 2128 sf, but they have enclosed the back porch (double porches on the back of the house, too) and created dark little room with an aluminum window and a horrible grubby little bathroom. The roof area isn't very much, but it's high, so I have no idea how much it might cost to have the roof replaced. I'm thinking that maybe I could have the windows redone one by one as I can afford it. The porch upstairs slants quite severely down, so that would need help right away and the front porch is is sorry shape, too. Sigh.
I have the old-house disease. And the house I live in now is more than 50 years old. but I want OLDER. Oh, btw, the foundation is pier and beam with a pretty high crawl space so you can see right through the foundation to the other side. And there is no sign of that wet/dry/rotty smell. not even in the closed-up downstairs.
Oh and there is another chimney that can be seen from the outside of the house (towards the back) but only one (closed off) fireplace in the front. Anyone have any idea what that might be?? how could anyone prefer a brand new house with no mystery and no fun things to "find" over an old one full of history and mystery?

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 5:23PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Zillow.com estimates your house should list at $163,000, so there's room for improvements!

Carla in Sac

    Bookmark   November 12, 2008 at 11:24PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Stripping paint, restoring windows, refurbishing wood floors are things you can easily do by yourself for minimum costs. None of that takes much talent, only time, patience & some effort.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2008 at 1:35AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"If we are talking about structural issues as in foundation work, when is it dangerous? I've read that an unlevel foundation has to be pretty darn bad for it to be dangerous and its more a matter of what you can tolerate.In other words, that type of structural problem could maybe wait awhile to be fixed? Or not?"

I have looked at a couple houses over the years that had unstable foundations.

One turned out to be being undermined by a nearby stream.

Another one developed problems after sidewalks, curbs, gutters and storm drainage was installed by the state.
It altered the underground water flow into the creek 150 feet behind the house and a house that was built in the 1950s starting having major shifting of the crawl space piers.
At one point before demolition (house was knocked down) the exterior wall behind the kitchen counter had bowed outwards over 3 inches puling away from the kitchen counter.

Another 1930s masonry house developed a separation between the brick layers that finally collapsed into the dining room . Exterior walls from this period in masonry construction had no studs. The plaster was applied directly to special hollow bricks (the air space was about 2x2 and ran horizontally) designed to create a thermal break.
With no way to tell if the problem would occur again this one was demod also. The demo revealed that almost no ties had been installed between the outer course of bricks, the inner course, and the air gap bricks.

I have repaired houses that had a localized settling problem using both mud jacking and helical pier jacking.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2008 at 2:44PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

We moved into a house recently that is about the same age of the house you are looking at. We are in Dallas. We realized the house was "slopey" in the upstairs master bedroom. As it turns out, that is the thirty year old addition part of the house. Also, the part of the addition under the master bedroom which is on the first floor (large family room) had some structural issues so we ended up putting in 16 steel piers under the house (around $15,000). We are also redoing the kitchen and put in three huge beams since we took out a load-bearing wall. I love old houses, too, and the character they have.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2008 at 8:05PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

What did you guys do about heat and A/C? I've noticed a lot of old (especially two storey) houses in SA have window units instead of central.
I'm glad to hear from a fellow Texan!

    Bookmark   November 14, 2008 at 8:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

For me, water damage and mold is the deal breaker. Obviously, something as serious as foundation issues is terribly important, but water damage/mold sent me running!

    Bookmark   November 14, 2008 at 8:45AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I think that buying a 'fix up' old home is an issue in which the most important factor is whether you can be totally honest with yourself before making the commitment. Almost every home, regardless of its condition, is do-able, as long as you have the skills or can purchase them, and the money. The only real deal breakers are your own resources, or lack of them.

20K is a very, very small working budget in the real world. It can go far if you have had a lot of experience in rehabbing, and a lot of skills, and find a unit where there are no major issues. I 'fixed up' an investment house and sold it, having a working budget of slightly less than that. This home had decent cabinets, decent roof, full/dry basement with excellent foundation, all decent windows with storms and screens, decent exterior with newer siding, salvageable plumbing fixtures, new wiring. I had to replace the heating units, hot water heater, install gutters and spouts, clean....clean.....clean, work plaster, paint, carpet and lay vinyl, replace damaged interior doors, tile tub surround, fix leaks in plumbing, install some interior light fixtures and landscape, and bring some stuff up to code. That's about what 20K will get you, if you do most of the work youself.

When you do decide to make an offer on ANY older home with the intention of fixing it up, unless you can jockey up the price in cash..........your lender will be inspecting the house, and after that, if approved, your homeowner's insurance company. You may also get a visit from a code inspector, a gas inspector, an inspector from other utility companies. I can tell you it is a lot better to have those done 'before the fact' than after the purchase. In the best case scenario, you walk away unscathed, a little wiser. In the worst case scenario, you could face a break-the-bank repair before you can even move in.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2008 at 2:34PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

this house will never pass inspection. I would have to take out a 203K FHA mortgage to get it up to par. I don't want to fix it to sell it, I want to live in it because it's a dream of mine and even if I decide I can't deal with it a year from now, it will be in just that much better shape and I can sell it. I don't plan on getting in over my head with a huge mortgage to do this. Also, because I'm not in any rush to turn it over, I can make it livable and then do the work as I can, just like I've heard many folks on this forum say they've done. I'm just trying to gain knowlege at this point and see what I should be wary of.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2008 at 6:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

This is honestly said with kindness, and I'm not being a wise acre. If you have to ask that question then you're probably not ready. I suspect your mind is already made up, or you're changing your plans from post to post. One major repair, like beams or foundations or even a roof, can blow 20K. We spent that much in one whack just renovating our present kitchen. We spent almost that much just getting a new stucco job. It doesn't make any difference whether you want to live there forever, or flip it. If there is a major issue.........then you may not have a choice but to repair it before you can even move in. An authority figure like a code inspector can just hang a sign on your door, and you fix it or else. I just told you how far 20K will go realistically if you know how to to lay tile, hang gutters, carpenter and work wet plaster. Also do not ever be optimistic about bailing out of a work in progress if you get in over your head. That's the stuff sheriff's sales are made of. People who planned to sell a house after they underestimated their abilities and the price of materials. Some of those types of houses don't even sell at auction for the amount owed against them, because the majority of parties who would buy them are those who can take a walk through it and tell you immediately what it will cost to fix it. If there isn't a big margin of profit (or equity) they'll walk away.

If you really have your heart set on a certain house, alls I am saying is, be realistic about what every repair will cost before the fact, and spend the money up front to get somebody who has dealt with old homes (if you haven't) to tell you what will need fixing, and how soon. Good luck on whatever you decide. It can be a really wonderful experience, or your worst nightmare, depending on how you do your homework.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2008 at 6:25PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Your dream will become a nightmare. Working with homes in this condition is for pros or buyers with deep, deep pockets.

All the warnings in the above knowledgeable posts are chillingly accurate.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2008 at 11:53AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

We're on our fourth total rehab and I have to agree with the other posts. You want to start with one that you can do in stages and that won't drain every cent you have. You learn SOOOO much just going through it. Also, in terms of the kitchen, always look ahead to what you want in one -- can you expand the existing space easily? Would hate to go through all that and find out you're stuck with a tiny kitchen. Don't be afraid to shop around. And, in this market -- do not pay anything near the asking price for this type of home. They are very hard to sell, so you're in the driver's seat. Always ask the seller to pay for some of the repairs (after getting written estimates). Add it all up, tack on 20 to 35 percent for "surprises" and figure it out like a math equation. How will you fund the repairs. I'm totally into the emotion of old houses, but you have to be practical too.

Here is a link that might be useful: Remodeling cost estimates-- just a guideline.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2008 at 3:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

That's a great link, allison, thanks so much! Yes, I'm definitely not going to rush into anything. This house may well be too much of a project for us. But I'm not in a hurry, so I will keep looking.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2008 at 9:45AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Just closed on an older home and homeowners policy was cancelled
Six days ago, we closed on the house of our dreams,...
Strip flooring with unusual cross section
(Cross posted from Flooring forum) I'm renovating a...
Stripper for stripper-resistant paint?
I'm having a tough time removing multiple layers of...
Weird things found in old houses
So I went on a basement rampage this weekend, donning...
1940 house (colonial) need period lighting advice
Hi! I'm really trying to stick with lighting that would...
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™