• September 17, 2007

Buying A Fixer

If I only knew then what I know now, I’d still do it all over again

Restoration Diary, ,

We just celebrated our 5th year of home ownership last week. We are a little over halfway done with the house. What a journey this restoration project has been! We often receive questions about buying and restoring an old house. So, on the occasion of our anniversary with homeownership, here goes…

Would we do it again? Hmmmm. Halfway through our restoration I started to have fantasies about building a completely Modern house, something that you would see on the pages of “Dwell” magazine, where everything would be brand spanking new and streamlined. A few months ago I would have said NEVER. EVER. AGAIN. But, you know what they say about never saying never. 

What have we learned from our experiences? If you are going to restore a house with someone, have a conversation or two about how you actually plan to accomplish this before buying the house. When we talked about fixing up the house, I imagined us lovingly working on it together. I had no idea the images floating around David’s head were of us interviewing general contractors…lovingly together. What can I say? We were young, in love and not so focused on the details. It never occurred to me that David wouldn’t “like” working on the house. 

Things will cost so much more than you expect and take much, much longer than you imagine.

Know your limitations. Sometimes it is much cheaper and safer to hire someone than to attempt to do a project for which you have no skill or aptitude. Hire a licensed electrician, plumber, roofer, or foundation contractor.

It is just a house, just a paint color, just a piece of furniture, just a light fixture, or just a kitchen design. Try to keep things in perspective. If only I could have back all those hours spent pouring through magazines, books, and on eBay. I spent way too much time, and probably too much money, on things that seemed important at the time, but really didn’t matter all that much in the bigger picture.

If I could do it all over again.
1. I would spend more money upfront and purchase a house in the best condition that I could afford. We thought we would save ourselves money by purchasing a fixer and we were worried about house payments. We ended up spending MORE money fixing our house up than if we had bought the nicer, more expensive house.

2. You will save yourself so much money and frustration if you find a house with unpainted woodwork, if that is important to you. Stripping paint is a horrible, horrible process. It is not fun, it is not exciting…it is hard and expensive work.

3. Get to know your potential neighbors. We were lucky that we ended up with great neighbors. If I had been smart, I would have knocked on some doors and met my future neighbors before we bought our house. In my neighborhood, there is not much that happens that my neighbors don’t know about. Your potential neighbors can probably give you the lowdown on the owner of the house, the other neighbors, who or what you should watch out for, and probably some history about your future house.

4. I will not live next door to an apartment complex. We saw some really great houses but didn’t make an offer because they were next to 2-3 story apartments. I like to live next to people who own their houses and have more invested in their upkeep. Plus, I don’t want people to be able to look out their windows and have a bird’s eye view of my backyard.

5. Look for homes that still have intact original features such as moldings, beamed ceilings, hardware, original wood doors, light fixtures, wood framed windows with wavy glass, etc. The more original features the better. Yes, all these things can be added back if they are missing but it is costly – especially to put back wood framed windows.

6. Make sure you get a thorough home inspection, but be prepared for surprises. The home inspection won’t turn up all the problems in your house. Until you take a room apart and put it back together again, there are things you just won’t find.

7. Spend time in the area. Drive around and get out and walk. Is this somewhere where you want to live? Do you feel safe? Make sure you like the block before you buy a house on it.

8. Be patient. It takes a long time to fix up an old house and a good amount of money. Try to be realistic, although, if you have never fixed up a house before it is hard to even know what is realistic. Here is a hint, most of what you have seen on tv about fixing up a house is not reality. It occured to me the other day that it took our house almost 100 years to get so run down, so why did I think it would be completely restored in a few months or even a few years?

9. After you buy the house, invest in an alarm system and take the burglar bars off the windows. Alarm window screens are completely worth the money.

10. Nothing will change the look of your house like a good paint job!

Comments { 3 }
  1. nate

    What a great idea for a post. I wish I could have read it before I purchased my house. I think I’m going to be realizing more and more of your advice to be true the further I plunge into my house’s renovation.

    You have a great blog here, keep it up!

  2. Ann

    My husband & I just moved from a Victorian cottage to a 2000 sq. ft. 1921 bungalow in rural Oregon. Thankfully its woodwork is unstained and most everything is intact, because I am not as energetic as you all! Your site is an inspiration to me. I noticed while looking at the Craftsman garage photos you have up that the photo host, Yahoo, is closing Sept 20. Hope you can save them and archive them elsewhere. Thanks for all the info you have here!

  3. Jessica

    I moved into a 1910 bungalow in South Central Los Angeles last June and I have to say I really like my neighborhood. (We also moved from the Westside.) I wanted to move into West Adams, but we couldn’t afford it so we had to look a little farther south for our bungalow. “Chesterfield Square” is the susposed name of the neighborhood. It’s awesome. All you need to do is turn off of the main streets and all of a sudden you’re in a neighborhood. My neighbors are all really nice and came over slowly but surely to introduce themselves. It’s a lot of older people and some families. One of the major pluses of living in my neighborhood is also living very close to a home depot!

    For people out there who are looking for a bungalow but can’t afford West Adams, there are other options. I was a little worried before I moved in but I am really happy that I made this decision. South Central gets has a bad reputation, but so far it’s been great for me. Yay for Chesterfield Square.

    And thank you for your blog. I’ve used quite a few of your references and seeing your house progress gives me hope when I get bummed out about the long process of owning a fixer-upper. When I finally get to the outside of the house, (which won’t be for awhile) I really want to get alarm window screens like you did. Those look really neat.

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