Buying a Fixer-Upper: Is It Worth It? How to Tell

Here’s how that sad-looking house can be a wealth-builder.

Image: GreenRose Fine Homes, Glen Ridge, NJ

In 2012, Alessandra Pollina and her husband, Ondre, were looking for a property that would need no more than some cosmetic changes and upgrades. But because the price was right, they ended up with the ultimate fixer-upper: a two unit, single-family-style home that was already gutted to the studs.

They were excited about its potential, not to mention the one-half acre of land the house is sitting on. “That’s unusual for Boston,” Pollina says. “It’s the biggest backyard ever.”

Four years and many renovations later, Pollina estimates her home in the Dorchester neighborhood is worth (drum roll, please) an epic56% more than it was when she bought it. Wow, talk about a return on investment.

The moral? A fixer-upper isn’t necessarily something to eschew. If the right things are wrong with a house, you could not only turn it into your dream home, but also earn serious equity (wealth building!) in the process.

Oh, and don’t assume you need to be a DIY master to make it worthwhile, either. Time and patience may be all you need.

Here’s how to tell if that fixer-upper is a keeper — or if you should keep walking.

First, Evaluate the Price

If it’s a fixer-upper, it should come at a fixer-upper price. Duh, but that’s a reminder NOT to fall in love too quickly with a home that the listing says “just needs a little TLC.” Do your homework first, and if the price is right, then fall in love.

Find out what similar homes in the neighborhood sell for and how tricked out they are (with amenities and materials). A REALTOR® can help you figure that out. And that will tell you how much money you can invest in the home before you over-improve for the neighborhood, a mistake you want to avoid if you plan to sell in the future.

Wendell De Guzman, a Chicago real estate investor who renovates at least two houses a month, recommends treating the remodel like a business, not a hobby. Determine your budget based on the market value of homes in your neighborhood, because you’re not going to sell for more.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you can put into the house,” Guzman says. “You’re limited by the market value of what nearby houses are selling for.”

Next, Start Evaluating What Improvements Are Needed

The best fixer-uppers offer lots of opportunities for “instant equity,” which means if you sold the home tomorrow you’d pretty much get that money back, unlike other projects which you may never get your money back on. ( A swimming pool won't help you when it comes time to sell. You’ll spend any gain on insurance and upkeep. On the other hand, you can’t put a dollar value on an afternoon with family and friends. Read More In Do Swimming Pools Add Value to Homes? Swimming pool, anyone?)

Some can be as simple as painting or landscaping, which you can accomplish with sweat equity, De Guzman says. In fact, the Pollinas started their rehab with high-value, low-effort landscaping, since it’s the first thing people see. They raked, brought the grass back to life, planted fruit trees and a veggie garden, and enjoyed the reaction: “People are so surprised and impressed,” Alessandra says.

Other tasks — the Pollinas focused on the kitchen next — may require the work of professionals and cash to pay them. It’s those projects you want to carefully evaluate against the home’s price.

Which Hire-a-Pro Projects Add Instant Equity?

Fact: While most home improvements add some equity, some are consistently at the top of the heap. Another thing those equity champions have in common: They usually require the help of a pro, but the cost can be instantlyworth it.

Based on data gleaned from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ “Remodeling Impact Report” (RIR), if these four projects are on your fixer-upper’s list of must-haves, then you may have found your dream equity-builder:

1. New roof: A new roof may not be the remodeling project of your dreams — until you realize it could actually payyou. You’ll spend about $7,600 to install it (based on a national average determined by contractors responding to the RIR survey), but when you sell, it could recoup 105% of that or $8,000, according to REALTORS® surveyed.

2. Hardwood floors: It costs about $2,500 on average nationally to refinish hardwood floors. If you bought a house that already had refinished hardwood floors, you could pay about $2,500 more for the home. But if you’re looking at a fixer-upper (at the right price) that needs the floors redone, that’s like getting the floors for free! New hardwood floors are also a good choice at a cost of about $5,500 to install, and could recoup $5,000 of that at resale.

3. Insulation: A fixer-upper offers a great opportunity to replace or add insulation. New insulation costs about $2,100 on average nationally, and can recoup $2,000 at resale — as if saving 10% to 50% on your energy bill wasn’t compelling enough.

4. New siding: Droopy, old siding can be great news on a fixer-upper. Vinyl siding costs about $12,000 to install on average nationally, and recoups about $10,000 when you sell. Getting a fixer-upper for a price that more than covers the cost of siding installation is, well, priceless.

While those four are pretty safe bets — homeowners who responded to the RIR survey gave them high happiness and satisfaction marks, too — almost any project can be worth it with a fixer-upper if the price is right. For example, a complete kitchen renovation can cost $60,000 and recover only about $40,000 when you sell. But if the fixer-upper is discounted enough, think how amazing it would be to cook in a kitchen you designed yourself.

Evaluate Your Ability to Deal with Disruption

Whether you’re a DIY Jedi or content to let the pros handle the remodel, if your patience is shorter than your potential home’s to-do list, a fixer-upper may not be a good choice.

Renovating a bathroom alone can take two to three weeks. Add hardwood flooring, a new kitchen, and siding, and you’re looking at a whole summer’s worth of rehab.

When considering a fixer-upper, evaluate the limits of your emotional energy as well. Inevitable project pitfalls and delays can be wearing. Only if you have the time, patience, and emotional endurance for a fixer-upper will it be a good fit for you. And only you can determine that.

But if you can budget your time and money — and employ the right fixer-upper strategies — you might find yourself with a double reward: A home that’s worth far more than you paid, and the joy of knowing you helped get it there.


Couple enjoying their recently purchased home

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