Real Estate

Considering a fixer-upper? Here’s what you need to know


What you need to know before taking the plunge

Homebuyers often start their search looking to score a deal on a fixer-upper, hoping to transform it into their dream home. Though it sounds like fun, the reality is that the overhaul process—fraught with decision-making, unexpected headaches, and constant price considerations—can quickly overwhelm. To really make a renovation work, it’s essential to plan ahead, secure a good architect and contracting team, and get realistic about your budget and timeline. Curbed spoke to Paul Skema, president of architecture and construction firm Roth Design + Build, and Jean Brownhill, founder of online contracting service Sweeten, about what you need to know before taking the plunge on a fixer-upper.

Be realistic about the scope of project you’re willing to take on

“Before you even look for an apartment or home, you want to understand what type of project you’re comfortable with,” says Skema. It’s one thing to buy a minor fixer-upper that can be tackled with DIY projects—like pulling up carpet or laying down tile—but it’s something else entirely to buy a home that has serious structural issues. Not all fixer-uppers are alike, and the scope of the project you’re willing to take on will set the tone for your renovation. If you can’t commit the money, time, effort, and risk that goes into buying a place that needs a gut renovation, skip the open house altogether, even if the price tag looks appealing.

Set a budget

If you’re interested in tackling a fixer-upper, be realistic about how much money you can set aside for renovations after the down payment, including unexpected costs like finding an alternative living situation while it’s happening. An architect or contractor can offer an expert opinion on the scope of the project after accompanying you on a walk-through of the property.

As for the homebuyer, “Set a realistic range for your budget, and then communicate that range,” says Brownhill. “By setting the price, you’re setting the approximate level of craft, finishes and customer service that you’re looking for.” Sweeten, which pairs general contractors with renovation projects, offers an online tool to help parse out your budget.

An illustration of a wall being painted.
Sunny Eckerle

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is key when it comes to a successful renovation. Larger projects require an architect, who then hires a general contractor, who then hires subcontractors for specialty work, like plumbing. You’ll need to establish a constant flow of conversation among everyone on the team to avoid delays and budget overruns. “The momentum of construction is dependent on many small details,” Skema says.

Homeowners also need to embrace being the decision maker at the top of that chain. “One small bathroom renovation is hundreds of decisions you’re going to need to make,” says Brownhill. “You have to understand who you are as a person, and how easily you make decisions.” If you labor over every decision, be open about it with your architect and ask him or her to take the reigns, or set a longer time frame for the reno so you don’t become overwhelmed. If you’re a control freak, communicate that, too, so that your team knows to keep you in the loop at every turn.

Secure the right team

As tempting as it sounds to buy a cheap fixer-upper and hand over the renovation job to the lowest-bidding architect or contractor, don’t, as it’s a huge risk, especially with older homes that may have structural problems. “Higher-quality firms limit the risk of the project,” Skema says. “Cheaper firms, many with less knowledge and less experience, will require more involvement from the homeowner and ultimately bring more risk.” Choose a team with relevant experience, solid references, and a complimentary communication style to your own. This step may require extra research but will result in a reliable team that won’t make avoidable mistakes that will cost you more time and money in the end.

Get to know the building association and neighbors

As personal as your renovation might feel, you have to prepare for the occasional outsider calling the shots. Significant apartment renovations require the approval of the building’s owners association, some of which set strict rules on the scope of construction and when it’s allowed to happen. And an intensive house renovation runs the risk of aggravating your neighbors. Check local databases to see if neighbors have filed complaints about the fixer-upper you’re considering, which can reveal whether the home has serious issues.

Get comfortable with the permitting process

The process of obtaining permits for construction depends on where you live, but in New York City, for example, it can be time-consuming and unpredictable. Upgrading plumbing and electrical systems, moving walls, or changing other structural elements will require a licensed and insured firm to take on the work, which may require additional permits or a more involved approvals process.

Prepare for the worst

In apartment buildings, contracts are typically required between the owner and the owners association confirming that renovations will be undertaken to code and without damage to the building. If a reno goes horribly awry, the building holds the homeowner responsible, so you want to make sure that your contractor has both liability insurance and workman’s compensation. Finally, make sure your homeowner’s policy will protect you in the event of a contractor-caused issue.

Preparing for the emotional labor

Homeowners don’t always recognize the emotional labor that goes into transforming a fixer-upper. “When [the moment for your renovation] finally comes, after you’ve saved money and bought a house and you get to make it look how you want it to look … a lot of stuff comes up,” Brownhill says. To plan for the smoothest process possible, be honest about your goals and your budget before finding an experienced and communicative team that can make make all your fixer-upper dreams come true.
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