Less Can Be More in a Fixer-Upper
When it comes to fixing up a fixer-upper, remember the maxim “less is more.”
All too often I see a perfectly good old house being renovated to death by over-zealous owners who were brainwashed into the mindset that brand new sheetrock is better than hand-mixed horsehair plaster and that wall-to-wall carpet is better than tongue-and-groove maple flooring.
As a rule of thumb, the quality of materials and workmanship in years past was far superior to what you’ll pay an arm and a leg for today, so why not use that as the starting point, rather than tearing it all out and starting from scratch?
So if you’re thinking of buying a fixer-upper, try to surround yourself with people who understand the “less is more” concept.
You don’t want a buyer’s agent, for instance, who specializes in new construction. They’ll look at the fixer-upper and just tell you to “gut it”, which isn’t always right.
“This needs a lot of work!”
You don’t want to seek advice from friends or relatives whose knee-jerk advice is going to be “Ooh, this needs a lot of work!” Fixer-uppers are daunting enough without adding a chorus of discouragement from this crowd.
And you certainly don’t want a building inspector who doesn’t grasp that a 12-inch beam with an inch of rot still has 11 inches of good wood left. Especially in situations where new construction would only call for a 10-inch beam, which, after you allow for planning, is only 9-1/4” anyway.
Divide and Conquer
When you evaluate your dream home fixer-upper, you can streamline your process of elimination by dividing things into these three compartments:
Health and safety concerns:
If the wiring is all knob-and-tube and the plumbing is all lead pipe, these are areas where “less is more” does not apply. These kinds of things will need to be fixed, so you have to either ask the seller to fix them or bring in the appropriate professionals to tell you what it will cost.
These issues may also affect your ability to obtain a mortgage and/or homeowners’ insurance, so take them seriously and realize that they could be deal-killers.
Signs of structural problems are often readily visible, even to the untrained eye – a sagging roofline, cracks in the foundation wall, uneven floors, and those rotten beams we already talked about. More important than identifying structural issues is determining how to resolve them. On the team of professionals in my electronic Rolodex are a couple of guys who specialize in jacking and sill replacement and the like.
Where your typical contractor will give you a $25,000 estimate to jack up the whole house and pour an entirely new foundation, these guys will be quoting you $3,000 or $4,000 to dig a hole in the ground, tear out the broken section of the foundation wall, and then rebuild that section from the bottom up. Why replace the whole foundation, if only an 8-foot section is suspect? Less is more, remember?
This is where you can make out like a bandit. Do you need to strip every room back to the studs, or does the unevenness of the plaster walls already give the house more character? Do you need to get the floors sanded and re-varnished to look all new and shiny, or is that pattern of wear just a “patina” that makes the house look more lived in and inviting?
If you’re buying an old house, it’s probably because you’re attracted to the character of it, so don’t destroy that character by trying to create a new house inside an old shell. And when the time comes to re-sell, make sure you pick a realtor who understands what a gem you have. If a realtor comes to a listing appointment and says “Ooh, this needs a lot of work,” end of interview, find someone else.
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