Experts Reveal the Top 10 Things to Consider Before Investing in a Fixer-Upper

Itching to take a crack at fixing up an old, run-down property? Read these renovation tips first.
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Very few things are as rewarding as transforming a fixer-upper into the home of your dreams. Yet, anyone who has traveled down the path of renovation knows how windy that road can be. To help combat unforeseen challenges, we asked expert renovators what all they would consider before investing in a fixer-upper. Scroll ahead to read their top 10 tips.

1. Assess Planning and Permits 

Here is a look at the cabin's interiors at the time of the purchase.

"Before you begin, you’re looking at a lot of forward planning, so be prepared to spend a lot of time with your local building department," says Kathrin Smirke who bought a collapsing cabin in Joshua Tree, California. She explains you should never rush into a project without proper planning, and this should start with a consultation with your local building authorities. 

"Depending on where your project is located, you need to fully understand what’s permitted and what’s not. Never assume that just because you renovated your home in City A, City B will follow the same steps. Building codes can vary wildly from state to state and city to city." 

As you can see above, the cabin's open kitchen is now a bright and airy space.

Smirke continues, "Here are a few questions to ask: When is a permit required? Will you need to submit plans for your renovation project? Were there un-permitted improvements made to the property? If so, what will be required upon inspection? Are there new fire, energy, and safety requirements that will need to be met to meet current building codes?"

2. Take an Extremely Close Look at the Site 

This property was originally built in 1957 by northwest architect Arnold Gordon Gangnes. Here is a peek at the kitchen/dining area before the revamp by SHED Architecture and Design.

The site of a property can have a major impact on remodel projects, especially if it involves significant alterations or additions, so it is imperative to assess this carefully. 

"A steep or unstable site can make it difficult and costly to seismically retrofit a structure, or stabilize the site. On a steep slope, shoreline, or wetland site, there also may be land-use code provisions that limit or prevent development on the lot," says design principal Thomas Schaer at SHED Architecture and Design, a Seattle–based firm with extensive experience in adaptive reuse, as well as midcentury remodels. 

For this renovation, the team kept the entryway intact, but opened the living and dining spaces up to the kitchen by removing a section of the wall at the deck door. They also inserted custom-crafted shelving to enclose the modern couch and create a cozy atmosphere.

3. Inspect Foundations and Examine Performance 

Another "before" image. 

Schaer also states that when purchasing a house, you should ensure that it has a strong, stable foundation, and shows minimal signs of settling, free of cracks. "A structurally sound foundation is essential if you want to make any major structural changes like adding a second floor. It also keeps water out, which is crucial if you’re in the Pacific Northwest."

If your foundation is made of cylinder blocks or bricks, that's a red flag, and will require a costly retrofitting, especially if you want to add another floor," he says. 

After a strategic remodel, this kitchen is now filled with natural light.

"Also consider performance when purchasing an older house, as these properties use a ton of energy. Many midcentury homes are minimally insulated and can be costly and challenging to remedy. For example, if you want to add insulation to a roof, you have to add it above the roof because there is no cavity for insulation."

"Windows are also typically single-pane, which isn't good for thermal and acoustic performance. Windows in midcentury homes are often fixed so it’s difficult to ventilate as well. If you are concerned about your carbon footprint, be prepared for the added cost of improving performance—new insulation, windows, systems, etc.," Schaer adds.

4. Think About Furniture Ahead of Time

In this renovation, the biggest architectural maneuver was moving the staircase to allow for a more spacious kitchen. 

Interior designer Penelope August who worked on a number of fixer-uppers, including an 1828 townhouse in New York City, suggests thinking about furniture choices early on, and also considering access for furniture while planning the construction. 

"For example, if you are building an entry vestibule with a turn, you may want to plan your renovation so that large furniture is brought in before the vestibule is built out. Otherwise, you may not get it around the turn. This happened to a client who brought me in at the end of the process, and we had to cut a hole in the vestibule to get the dining table in," she notes.

The entire parlor floor now serves as an open-plan kitchen, dining, and living area.

5. Budget For Unforeseen Repairs

This second-floor bedroom would soon become a sitting room post-renovation.

August also suggests to build in a generous contingency to your budget for unforeseen repairs. "You will not be able to see everything at the inspection. Once you start demolition, you may discover hidden damage—from age, insects, moisture, etc.—that should be addressed while you are renovating, as it will only be more expensive and disruptive to remedy later." 

Unfortunately, she learned this the hard way. When she worked on her own Brooklyn fixer-upper during the winter, the water lines under the street and sidewalk had froze, so she had to dig them up and replace them, as well as repair the sidewalk that the plumbers had jackhammered. 

This sitting room is an updated homage to the past that references the home’s history while keeping a distinctly contemporary vibe. 

"Also check the basement for radon in the winter. Radon levels tend to be higher when it’s cold, and if you have to trench the floor, it is better to do it before you fill your basement with stuff," she adds.

6. Check For Water Problems

The kitchen before the renovation.

Owen Burkholder, co-owner of His Builders—an Oregon–based company that specializes in custom remodels—says it is wise to check for any water problems under the house. 

"It’s not uncommon for sellers to throw some new black plastic under the house to conceal any potential water problems. Old leaky pipes are one problem, but a high water level that leaves the crawlspace musty can be an expensive fix as well. And you’ll certainly have a hard time installing new hardwood floors over a wet crawlspace," he explains.

After a thoughtful remodel, this kitchen now radiates a bright, airy feel and encompasses much more functionality.

7. Vet Ceiling Heights and Walls

Another look at an outdated kitchen before any sort of renovation.

Before buying a fixer-upper, Elena Eskandari—a designer at Case Architects & Remodelers—says to look first at the elements that will be difficult to alter, such as ceiling heights. 

"If you like the look of higher ceilings, choose a home that already has your preferred ceiling height. Raising the height of ceilings is possible, but extremely labor intensive and costly. Taking down walls to create an open concept space is one of the most common requests from homeowners. Make sure you know which walls are load-bearing, as those are a lot more expensive to take down," she explains. 

In this remodel, the team used two tone Eclipse Cabinets with Thermally Fused Laminate (TFL) doors in Arizona Cypress and White Zebrine, as well as a colorful backsplash from Fireclay Tile in the Bora-Bora color.  The space also has a Kohler Vault sink and Hansgrohe faucet.

8. Look at the Utility Set-Up

The rundown warehouse was left abandoned, and was in desperate need of a new owner, constructive repair, and a new life.

"Make sure you understand the condition of the existing services in a structure—such as gas, water, and electricity—and whether or not these will need to be upgraded in order to meet current building regulations as part of any refurbishment works," says James Davies of London–based architect and design studio Paper House Project, who did a dramatic conversion of a rundown London warehouse.

"Dealing with service providers can be tricky, and time-consuming. Make sure you get your building control, gas safety, and NICEIC certificates for any work that you undertake. You'll be asked for these if you decide to sell the property further down the line, or need to refinance." 

For this revamp, gridded steel frame windows were added throughout to provide natural daylight. This was unique for a London Residence of this type.

9. Hire the Right Construction Crew 

When they first got the keys, Goldman felt that the house "was smelly and crumbling." Here, we see a view of the living room before the renovation.

When they first purchased their 1915 Craftsman-style bungalow in San Diego, Ashley Goldman and her husband, Ross, felt the house "was smelly, crumbling, and in desperate need of love and care." The couple conducted a dramatic DIY makeover, turning the old property into an airy abode, which Ashley writes about on The Gold Hive

Goldman believes a key element for success is hiring the right contractor and crew. "Make sure they love old houses as much as you do, or else you'll be fighting them when they want to do something that sacrifices the architecture that you love," she explains.

"After restoring the interiors, I layered the spaces with art and unique paint colors or decor elements to make it uniquely ours," she says. The living room got new floors, drywall, refinished bookcases, and furniture.

10. Hire an Architect and Roll With the Flow 

A peek at the Chicago bodega before moss Design transformed it into a chic live/work space.

Matt Nardella—founder of Moss Design, a Chicago–based architecture and design studio—turned a rundown Chicago bodega into a stylish live/work space. He thoroughly believes hiring an architect is a smart move, and suggests learning to roll with the flow. 

"When adapting older buildings, there’ll be unexpected surprises that’ll show up during construction. This is why it’s important to have an architect on your side," he explains. 

As you can see above, the transformation is unrecognizable.

"Architects that have experience with old structures have a thorough understanding of how to deal with—and take advantage of—archaic materials and express them in the design. Allowing the existing building structure and integral elements to be revealed lets the building tell its story, and is what makes timeless and intriguing architecture," he adds.

Related Reading:

10 Critical Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Home

Dwell How-To: Buy and Sell Your Dream Home