Fix 'er up?
April 30, 2005 8:46 PM   Subscribe

While out house-hunting, my wife and I encountered a very charming fixer-upper in the mid- to high portion of our price range. How do we determine how much it would actually cost to, you know, fix 'er up?

To inform the discussion a little: the (big, not huge) kitchen needs gutting and complete replacement of everything (yes, everything), the second floor will need to be at least re-drywalled and re-subfloored and floored, one wall (fairly small, but centrally located) downstairs is visibly not plumb, the whole place needs new carpet/flooring, and there are no light fixtures in the bedrooms (and they don't appear to be wired for such). How thoroughly could that all be tackled with, say, a $15,000-$20,000 fix-'er-upping budget?
Also potentially of interest: it's on a nice lot with at least 10 gorgeous trees, on a nice street, very near the Delaware Bay (which is inflating property nearby values as we speak), in an up-and-coming town.
posted by willpie to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
kitchen needs gutting and complete replacement of everything (yes, everything)

Kitchen renovation costs are known to spiral out of control - you could very easily spend 10K or more on the kitchen alone.
posted by mlis at 9:10 PM on April 30, 2005

$15-20K? Not even close. New wiring - probably looking at ripping out/replacing drywall. All-new kitchen would probably eat your budget right off. A central wall out of plumb is quite possibly an indication of something very wrong structurally (and it'll cost money just to find out what, never mind fixing it). New floors always cost more than you think.

Sorry to be a downer, but I certainly doubt it could be done on that budget even assuming you did a chunk of the work yourself.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 9:20 PM on April 30, 2005

If you like it, buy it. Read first, and you might email JM and ask her how much they've spent, ballpark, because it sounds like about the same scale of project you've got ahead of you.

But only $15-20k? That's WAY too low.
posted by SpecialK at 9:21 PM on April 30, 2005

... that being said, If you like the house and feel like camping indoors for the next 2-3 years, bite the bullet and get a certified inspector and appraiser that YOU select AND pay for (don't allow the seller, seller's agent, or your realtor to pay for or select the person, even if they offer) to tell you how much it's going to take and then make your decision based on that.
posted by SpecialK at 9:30 PM on April 30, 2005

How old is the house? A quick way for projects to spiral out of control is when they hit lead paint or asbestos, which are quite common in many older homes. You may also find out that the plumbing (if galvanized) all needs to be replaced, that joists are cracking and need to be sistered or replaced, that the 'new' roof was not installed by anyone who knew anything about roofing, and you may wind up needing to bring all kinds of things up to modern codes in the process if you want reputable contractors to touch anything.

Just based on gut and similar experience, you won't make it under $20,000 even if you only use cheap flooring, cabinets, and appliances, do a fair amount of work yourself, and if you uncover no surprises. If you do this, you should be prepared to spend twice that $20,000, because it will happen before you know it.

That said, everybody who has this itch to fix-er-up has should do it at least once in their life to find out if they actually love it or hate it.

Oh, and... location location location.

On preview, an excellent inspector will give you your list of problems up front. If there are exclusive buyer's agents in your area, they may be able to recommend a good inspector.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:38 PM on April 30, 2005

It will be hard for you to get an accurate estimate from a general contractor until you know in some detail what work you are going to do. Even then, there is a lot that you won't know until you open up the walls and see what is underneath.

If you just want to ballpark the cost, you could get in there with some contractors, price out all the pieces that you can think of, and then double the number.

I have a friend who just went through a renovation of a 1,450 square foot flat (one floor of a house) in the Boston area. The work involved gutting the kitchen and dining room and putting up new walls there; new cabinets (cheap ones from Ikea); new appliances; gutted and refixtured the one small (5x8) bathroom; stripped the carpet off all the floors and refinished the oak underneath; replaced about 15 windows with nice wood (not vinyl) replacement windows; scraped and painted all the walls; replaced all the interior molding (lead paint). None of this was particularly structural. Cost was about $80,000.

Now, this guy did not do it himself. He hired a general contractor, and he wanted everything done before he moved in. When he bought the place, he didn't expect it would cost nearly that much. He had the money to do it, but just barely. Now he's tapped out and hoping nothing else comes up that he has to take care of.
posted by alms at 9:48 PM on April 30, 2005

I just bought a house. I gutted the kitchen and had it rewired among many many other repairs. It still needs work in a few places (new garage door, etc.), but I'm happy with the results. What I would recommend you do is have the home inspected. Some sellers will even let you do it without putting in an offer. An inspector will give you a good idea of what is wrong with the house and what could be unsafe and what could be delayed until you have more money.

Prioritize the things that need to be fixed. I had four categories: must be fixed before move-in (wiring, kitchen floor, new bathroom sink, painting painting painting), must be fixed soon after move-in (kitchen cabinets & appliances, dryer vent, more painting), must be fixed before next winter (new windows, drainage, painting), to be fixed when money gets better (landscaping, new driveway, painting the basement).

I was able to save a lot of money because my family is full of handy, helpful people (~$5000 for a completely new kitchen including plumbing). If you are good with tools then make your own supply estimates for the things you can do for yourself. For everything else get a professional estimate. Don't bother with anyone who won't give you one for free.

If you don't have the cash to cover all of the necessary repairs you can do two things. Firstly, you can make some repairs as part of your sales agreement. I was able to make the sellers agree to fix the chimney lining and a few other things. Sometimes the bank won't give a mortgage for a home that is in need of major repairs and is uninsurable. That was the case with my house and the bank pressured the sellers into making an extra $5000 in repairs that I didn't even ask for.

If the seller won't pay for repairs, then some banks will include extra money for home improvements in your original loan, or give you an additional, smaller loan. You'll need the estimates to negotiate the size of this loan.

Good luck!
posted by Alison at 10:01 PM on April 30, 2005

Also, I remodeled my kitchen for about $5000. I started from nothing but an empty room with the gas line in the wrong place. Costs were low because there was a beautiful oak hardwood floor underneath four layers of vinyl and my parents are very skilled and generous with their time. I bought Ikea cabinets and they were cheap, but they took forever to assemble and the metric measurements meant that everything from the countertops to the sink had to be purchased at Ikea. Very annoying.
posted by Alison at 10:09 PM on April 30, 2005

Oh wow. Um. I don't mean to discourage you...I don't. Obviously I'm a fan of renovating houses or else I wouldn't be living where I'm living.

I don't know what kind of kitchen you want or what your skills are. Here are some average costs from Remodeling's Cost vs. Value Report. In our case, the numbers in the report have been running about 20%-40% higher than our costs but we have the skills to do a lot of work ourselves. And we are willing to live in chaos while working on the house a little bit at a time. Plus, we don't need the best of everything (we are old hands at "reclaiming" old stuff.)

I'm sure by the time we're done that we will have spent between 75k-90k. And that is probably with a kitchen from IKEA, no walls out of plumbm and 10-12 years to complete the work. (We have a few structural issues re: joists, have had to completely rebuild 2 bathrooms, will have to redo a kitchen, rebuild a fireplace, pour a new footing for a sunroom and we installed a Unico A/C system. At the end of this, we will have had to replace all plumbing and wiring and redo all 27 windows.) It is VERY easy to get over your head with this stuff. We both come from families who have done this when we were growing up and we've worked on previous places before this one. I currently work out of the house and can be here during the day for contractors, I do a lot of repairs/work myself, and both of us work all weekend long--every weekend--to stay on top of the work.

I know it's disappointing when you find a place that you think has potential and your budget may not be up for the challenge. But it is infinitely worse in mid-winter with no kitchen, a broken furnace, and AWOL contractors. I just don't want to ever see anyone in that situation.

Someone sent us a good article from TOH last week for HouseBlogs readers about purchasing a fixer-upper. I think there is some decent advice in there. I would recommend waiting for the right house for your budget and skills if you can. Personally, I would rather live in a smaller condo that didn't feel overwhelming than feel trapped in a larger house on a beautiful lot that was running me ragged. Once you start demolition, you cannot sell and hope to be made whole financially until you finish.

I don't want to scare you, or exaggerate. I just want to be very, very honest about the emotional side of renovation. Best of luck with whatever decision you make.
posted by jeanmari at 10:19 PM on April 30, 2005

I recently moved into a house that required a completely new kitchen (cabinets, appliances, floor, paint, plumbing), floor tiling or refinishing in the whole house, painting in the whole house, extermination, some wall replacement due to mold, a new bathroom and two new windows so far and we're at about $50k. This was done with a contractor.

So, yeah. Good luck.
posted by amandaudoff at 12:17 AM on May 1, 2005

Our experience - 1700 sq. ft - new subfloors and hardwoods, rebuilt porch, new windows, dug up paved over back yard and put in yard, new kitchen (new appliances, cabinets, counter, tiling) all done in phases over five years and have spent around 70k, mostly with contractors. I did a lot of the landscaping myself, and minor repairs along the way. My sister just spent 40k on a *small* kitchen, but her renovation included replastering and moving a door.
posted by drobot at 5:46 AM on May 1, 2005

Some of the answers have alluded to a reality - in many cases, you should only go this route if you yourselves do the fixing-up.
posted by yclipse at 5:51 AM on May 1, 2005

Thanks very much for the input.
The house is not huge; I'm estimating 1400 square feet. Nor is it super old; I reckon 1960s or 70s.
Sadly, neither of us is especially handy. We could probably lure my dad--who used to build houses for a living--out for a few weeks to help and to teach me some things.
Sigh. It really is a lovely location.
posted by willpie at 6:20 AM on May 1, 2005

Side question: how does one determine what it costs to build on an empty lot so that, given a total house budget, one can determine how much to spend on a lot? Assuming one can't do much of anything oneself, I mean.
posted by willpie at 6:29 AM on May 1, 2005

If you like it, buy it.

...If you like the house and feel like camping indoors for the next 2-3 years, bite the bullet...

Don't a lot of otherwise healthy relationships fall apart over things like this? I personally would never dream of getting myself into this situation. I recently had a very simple two-day remodelling job stretch out over SEVEN weeks. The contractor came highly recommended.

This has made me realize that you basically never want to be involved in a remodel unless you know the contractor very well, or it's your spare house, and you don't mind it being out of commission for ages.

Oh -- I also know several families who have gotten into houses like this that just never ended up finished. My parents did a major remodel, and 20 years later they are still living in the unfinished house. Apparently the stress of a project like this just wears one down, and lots of people just give up partway through.
posted by agropyron at 7:42 AM on May 1, 2005 much it would actually cost to, you know, fix 'er up?

Every spare dime and free weekend for the next decade of your life!

That said, my wife and I enjoy working on our old house. We do the work one room at a time, but tools only as needed, and try and substitute creativity and sweat equity for actual cash whenever possible. But fixing up your fixer is not just a series of projects, it is a lifestyle.
posted by LarryC at 7:53 AM on May 1, 2005

The value of location can't be overestimated. The same can likely be said for the cost of repairs. While you are considering all this, keep in mind the value of the house when it is repaired. If the house is in really bad shape afer @40 years, was it built well enough to be worth repairing? And the asking price is just that, the asking price. If you really like it, you can always make a low offer and include the estimates for repairs. Let the numbers help you decide.
posted by theora55 at 9:23 AM on May 1, 2005

neither of us is especially handy.

Don't do it. I understand the attraction; my wife and I agonized over a house in the high part of our range that would have required (as LarryC put it) "Every spare dime and free weekend for the next decade of your life" but finally decided it didn't make sense, and we've congratulated ourselves ever since. If you were the sort who genuinely wanted to spend all your free time and money on it, fine, but it doesn't sound like you are. (Also, the one we had to tear ourselves away from was built in 1789; I can't imagine that a house built in the 1960s or 70s is worth the agony.)
posted by languagehat at 9:31 AM on May 1, 2005

That one wall in the center of the house that's not plumb would scare me more than a little. Make sure that your home inspector takes a good look at why it's crooked. You might have some expensive structural issues to fix.
posted by octothorpe at 9:34 AM on May 1, 2005

Don't a lot of otherwise healthy relationships fall apart over things like this? I personally would never dream of getting myself into this situation. I recently had a very simple two-day remodelling job stretch out over SEVEN weeks. The contractor came highly recommended.

Yes. Reference the camping indoor thing. That is -not- many people's idea of a good time, especially over a long period of time. I happen to enjoy it, though, mostly because I grew up in that environment. My rule is to -always- ALWAYS finish the bedroom first, though, and don't take the kitchen apart (assuming it's useable) until the very last thing.

neither of us is especially handy.

Yeah, you don't want a fixer-upper. Don't go there.
posted by SpecialK at 10:11 AM on May 1, 2005

On one of our house viewings, we brought in a general contractor to work up estimates. No big deal.

For you, it's going to come down to this: where are your skills because your trade-of will be time/money. You don't have a great deal of money for this, so that means your exchange your own time and labor if the work needs to be done soon. If not, you live with it until you can afford it.
posted by plinth at 11:01 AM on May 1, 2005

Excellent advice all around. Just wanted to add: get an inspector to assess the problems with the house in writing, then go to the seller with the list to use in negotiations if you're in love with the place.

That said, I can't imagine a single house built after 1920 that I could fall in love with. languagehat, I feel your pain.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:32 PM on May 1, 2005

how does one determine what it costs to build on an empty lot so that, given a total house budget, one can determine how much to spend on a lot? Assuming one can't do much of anything oneself, I mean.
Talk to a few architects and general contractors. Different parts of the country have different average costs per square foot for construction. Depending on how zooty your aspirations are, you're probably looking at a minimum of $120/sq ft with conventional plans and materials (actually, in your part of the country, $150 might be the typical minimum), although an ingenious architect could probably shave that down below $100.

Tax assessments (which may be below market rates) may list the value of the lot and improvements (structures) separately, which will show you how these things are balanced out in your area. And if you are thinking of buying a tear-down, budget something like $20,000 to have the old house removed.
posted by adamrice at 9:33 AM on May 2, 2005

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