When my husband and I purchased our first home, we had dreams of refinishing the hardwood floors, painting rooms, and installing granite countertops.
In reality, we replaced the HVAC, removed asbestos and mold, and became experts at tweaking water pressure.
It wasn’t the renovation experience we imagined.
If you asked us, “Is a fixer-upper worth it?” we would still say yes.
But there are some truths you should know before you start looking for a diamond-in-the-rough.
What's in this Article?
If you plan to do some, or all, of the renovations yourself, good for you! This is a great way to save money and to feel more invested in your house. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to track your progress and know that you made it happen.
There are tons of great resources on YouTube and Reddit, so there’s a lot you can learn about making repairs and upgrades on your own. However, most repairs will take longer than you expect, especially if you’re new to these kinds of projects.
You should always budget more time than you think you’ll need to allow for the inevitable learning curve. Plus, once you start on a project, you may discover you need additional tools or parts, or that it’s taking longer to dismantle old pipes or frameworks than you thought it would.
Giving yourself a buffer can alleviate stress, especially if you’re working on something that will affect your day-to-day routine in the house.
For instance, replacing an old faucet or installing a new water filter in the sink are entirely doable DIY projects. But they can take a few hours, so you’ll want to block off time during the day when no one will need the sink to wash dishes or prepare a meal.
If you’re working on a multi-day project, such as installing a new sink or new cabinets, definitely give yourself a longer timeline. It’s frustrating when repairs take longer than you think they will. But it’s even more aggravating if you were counting on the project being done so you could finish unpacking or setting up a room.
Old houses come with a lot of quirks that can slow down your progress or demand more time or resources. Expect the unexpected and give yourself some breathing room for getting repairs done.
Hiring pros – which is a good idea for the bigger, more complicated repairs and installations – doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, either. Your contractor can do a great job, and there still may be issues that have to be worked out after installation.
Now back to the HVAC story.
When my husband and I moved in, the first thing we did was hire a company to install an HVAC system.
We live in the South. Air conditioning in the summer is a must.
The team did a great job, but the house is 60 years old and doesn’t always behave the way we expect.
The company had to come back out several times to make adjustments, and we discovered that installing a new system was only half the picture. Although the HVAC system is modern and energy-efficient, the original windows and insulation in the home are not – something that became all too apparent during an extended cold snap this winter.
In order to get the most out of the HVAC system, we need to replace the windows and shore up the insulation, which means other projects are getting pushed down the priority list.
Which brings me to the next item you need to know…
You don’t know what your house really needs until you live in it. When we first saw our house, I thought we’d paint all the rooms, have the hardwood floors refinished, and tear out the remnants of the old baseboard heating right away. If not right away, certainly within the first six months.
Then reality set in. Not only did the HVAC system take precedence, we discovered that the downstairs carpet had traces of mold and that it was sitting on several layers of old tile – some of which were held together with asbestos-containing materials.
We had to hire a team of specialists to tear out the carpet and safely remove the asbestos and old tile, to the tune of several thousand dollars. Having the carpet and flooring removed were non-negotiable; we couldn’t safely use the area until that was done.
But that meant there wasn’t money left over for the cosmetic fixes we had planned to make.
The more we discovered about the house’s functionality needs, it became clear that things like painting or refinishing aren’t happening anytime soon. Instead, we’ve had the chimney repaired, figured out how to mold-proof old cabinets, and learned more than we ever thought we’d need to know about adjusting the water pressure so it doesn’t cause our washing machine to leak.
Each of these cost us money, but they also taught us a great deal about home maintenance – and about adjusting our expectations.
More than likely, your renovation timeline will be altered as you learn about your house and what it needs. And things you thought were urgent when you moved into the home get moved to the “nice to have someday” column pretty quickly.
You can – and should – estimate the costs of repairs before you buy your house. That’s what the due diligence period is for, to get inspections done and gauge how much you’ll need to put into the home over time.
But no matter how thorough you are, unanticipated costs will come up. Things break even in new houses, and older houses will surprise you with sudden issues or failures that need to be dealt with immediately.
In our house, an ancient shut-off valve got stuck in place when we shut the water off to install a new faucet. The valve wouldn’t budge when it came time to turn the water back on, and we had to call a plumber at an emergency rate to come out and get it flowing again. That was $300 we weren’t planning to spend on an average Saturday.
So, again, expect the unexpected.
Also, quotes may change. You might get estimates for several big projects when you first move in, only to realize some will have to be put on the back-burner. By the time you’re ready to move forward, the contractor’s rates may have increased, along with the costs of materials.
At that point, you have to figure out how you’re going to accommodate the expense. Or, you decide to live with things as they are a little longer.
As we discovered more pressing issues with our house, we’ve accepted that our hardwood floors, which were scuffed and stained before we moved in, are going to stay scuffed and stained a while longer (thank goodness for area rugs, right?). And we’ll probably be living with our laminate kitchen countertops for the next several years at least.
In other words, our fixer-upper will continue to look like a fixer-upper for longer than we might have liked.
Unless you have significant savings, you will probably end up having to make similar concessions. So if you’re considering a fixer-upper, ask yourself whether you can live with it in its current condition. Are you willing to deal with old wallpaper or an outdated kitchen for a few years while you renovate key rooms? Are you OK with the home showing its age until you can afford to tackle your full list of repairs?
The biggest advantage of buying a fixer-upper is that you can find a home for a lower sale price than you might otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the house will be a steal, especially if the last owners didn’t maintain it or it’s been vacant for a while.
Is a fixer-upper worth it? Pros and cons:
When you tell people you just bought a house, they inevitably want to see pictures, especially if it’s a fixer-upper. And they’ll likely have plenty of ideas for how you should decorate, what colors you should paint the rooms, which walls and features you should take out immediately, and all the repairs you should make before you can consider it a livable home.
Well-intentioned though friends and family may be, the onslaught of advice can be overwhelming – maybe even a little hurtful if they’re criticizing quirky features you actually like. (After all, a home you own weirdly becomes an extension of you. It’s almost as if friends are pointing out your personal flaws!)
Fixing up a house takes a lot of thought and planning, and you want to make sure you’re making decisions based on your preferences and budget, not someone else’s design sensibility.
If you’re starting to feel like your head is full of other people’s commentary, thank them for being excited for you but ask them to reserve suggestions until you’re ready to hear them. Or, tell them you appreciate that they want to help but that you’re still figuring out your budget and plans for now.
You can also tell them straight up that you don’t want decorating or renovation advice because you already have a vision for what you want to do.
It’s important to take the renovations at your own pace and tune into what you want to do with the house, rather than what other people think would be best.
As you’ve probably gathered, a fixer-upper is a lot of work. But it’s absolutely worth it if you’re committed to the home. And you will love the house long before the renovations are complete.
Owning a home inspires a particular sense of accomplishment and pride, regardless of whether it looks outdated. Plus, buying a fixer-upper means you get to make the house your own in every way. Each upgrade, each replacement, each renovation is based on what you want your home to look and feel like.
And there are many small victories along the way. Swapping out minor fixtures such as doorknobs or light switch plates might not seem like they’d do much, but they make a surprising difference. And installing bigger fixtures on your own feels huge because not only does the house look more attractive, but you did the work to make it that way.
And honestly, there really is no place like home, especially one you own. The longer you live there, the more you might come to enjoy certain quirky features and see them as assets you want to preserve rather than one more thing to tear out.
Is a Fixer-Upper Worth It? FAQs
Buying a fixer-upper can be a great way to purchase a home for less than you’d spend on a newer or recently renovated property. Whether it’s worth it depends on how much time and money you’re willing to put into the repairs.
Some people see fixer-uppers as a bargain or an interesting challenge, while others prefer move-in-ready homes that already have modern upgrades.
That depends on you. Some people are excited about gutting a house and essentially starting over, but that requires a lot of time and money. And, you likely won’t be able to live in the house until the major renovations are done.
Other homebuyers are more comfortable with buying an older house with solid bones but that needs some cosmetic upgrades, such as fresh paint, new wallpaper, more modern-looking flooring, and some new countertops. These types of houses are often livable right away, and you can make repairs over time.
It really comes down to how much money and time you have to invest in renovations and repairs, and whether you want to live in the house right away.
There are a couple of ways to renovate a house on a budget. You can save up and pay for the renovations in cash over time, saving money by doing some of the work yourself and using discounted, reclaimed, or upcycled materials. But you can also finance the purchase of the home plus renovation costs into a low down payment mortgage, such as a 0% down USDA renovation loan, 0% down VA renovation loan*, 3.5% down FHA 203k loan, or a 3% down conventional renovation loan.
If you’re wondering, is a fixer-upper worth it? The answer is a resounding yes – if you’re committed for the long haul. A fixer-upper can help you buy a home at a lower price, which is no small thing right now, as home prices continue to rise.
But it’s also a great way to put down roots in a very tangible way that will make you take deep pride in the property and the work you’ve put into making it a home.
*A down payment is required if the borrower does not have full VA entitlement or when the loan amount exceeds the VA county limits. VA loans subject to individual VA Entitlement amounts and eligibility, qualifying factors such as income and credit guidelines, and property limits. Fairway is not affiliated with any government agencies. These materials are not from VA, HUD or FHA, and were not approved by VA, HUD or FHA, or any other government agency.