Regret and home renovations: is it worth it?
June 12, 2014 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I am considering two properties for purchase. One of them is straightforward and the other is complicated (multiple parcels, over 20 acres of land, has tenants living in the cottage, needs to be significantly renovated). I am looking for those with experience to offer advice on whether purchasing a property with major issues like this is worth it.

A tale of two properties:

One of them is a very straightforward, beautiful house which needs very little work done to it, on 1.6 acres of land. It's a bigger house than we need and the yard is lovely but is just a yard, not a piece of land that could be used for any sort of farming purpose (and zoning rules wouldn't allow it anyway).

The second property is a 1900s homestead on a 20 acre farm, that was gut-renovated and rebuilt with an addition in 1986. It therefore has central air and heat and is in acceptable condition, but to be updated to the condition that we'd want it in, it needs: another significant addition to enlarge the kitchen, family room and master bedroom, complete redo of all the bathrooms (2 upstairs, 1 downstairs) and the kitchen, replace 1980s wooden trim, all the light fixtures, etc. Also, there are two parcels taken out of the land - one has a cottage on it that's ramshackle and essentially needs to be torn down, but has tenants living in it who have been there for 10 years and don't want to leave (and yes, we do know what's involved in an eviction process, although hopefully it wouldn't come to that). The other is just land, but both of these parcels are essential pieces of what is valuable about this land and we would not want the property if we could not get all 3 pieces. The good sides: this is a gorgeous property in a convenient location with streams, ponds, forest, old growth trees. The current owners hardly have to do anything with the 20 acres - the farmer who owns the surrounding land mows it for them and plants corn in the back fields. To be very clear, the home is in very acceptable condition and could be lived in for years the way it is right now, the major renovation we would want would be to make it very fancy and elegant (i.e. crown moldings, hardwoods, etc)

I would love to have the larger piece of land - it makes me very happy to go walking through the woods and through the fields there, to see the wildlife and to sit by the pond. I have a dream of someday doing some limited farming-type activities (nothing intense, on the level of having a hen house and a little flock of chickens, maybe a goat) and I could never achieve this dream on the 1.6 acre property because livestock wouldn't be allowed there. I'm having trouble making the decision because it would be so much easier to buy the property that doesn't have all the complications attached to it. I have no idea how I'm going to feel about those home renovations during the process or afterwards. What do others who have been in similar situations advise doing with a decision like this? I feel like you only hear the horror stories about major renovation type projects and never hear anyone say "it was a challenge but it happened approximately on schedule and for approximately what we budgeted on it, and we're so glad we did it because now we have our dream home." It is hard to put a value on my dream of a very small hobby farm and what it means to give that up, but I feel like I have a better handle on that than the renovation/property wrangling angle of things.

Money isn't "no object", but it's not a problem for us, either. We don't have an option of waiting for a similar but better property with farm potential to come on the market, we've been looking as long as we could and now we need to move ASAP. Any advice?
posted by treehorn+bunny to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I dunno, but I'd take the 20 acre property in about 30 seconds if the money is right. I mean, this is a hard question to answer, because whether the problems you are buying into are worth it for you is highly personal - but I don't see any "run run away" reason from what you have described.

But, you know, I really enjoy fixing up a house and really making it my own. Not everyone can deal with plaster dust and a garage full of sawdust and faucets waiting to be installed.

It seems like you have a good handle on the potential and the possible problems and that the price is right. It doesn't sound like a crazy off the wall purchase to me. You're the only one who can decide if it is really worth it to you.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:38 PM on June 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

The thing is that you are seeing both properties on their best day. You will always find (and develop) more problems once you buy and move into a place. That's part of why people are always cash-poor after they buy - there's the changes you planned to make, which cost more time and money than you expect, and then there's the unexpected stuff, which also cost more time and money than you expected. And some of the planned changes will take a backseat to the unplanned stuff, and might never get done.

None of this should stop you if you want that 20-acre property. Just remember the thing, and stay flexible. (I can't contribute a full-on non-horror reno story, but the electrical renovations we wanted to do when we moved in and didn't do until we decided to move out and rent the place to tenants cost about what we expected and took only a few days longer than the original plan.)
posted by gingerest at 7:42 PM on June 12, 2014

Are you able to do renovations yourself? If not, are you financially able to have them done by others, and pay for that work? Either way, the larger property has many future costs you need to consider.
posted by yclipse at 7:47 PM on June 12, 2014

I've lived in homes that were under renovation, and have also lived in homes that I thought were pretty great except for [inability to support my dreams, basically], and I think that part of the trick of this is expectation management.

If you buy the 1.6 acre property, you're going to, at various points over the length of your ownership, find yourself thinking god, I really wish that I'd bought that other house.

If you buy the 20 acre property, you're going to, at various points during the renovation, think god, I really wish that I'd bought that other house.

Which of these is more acceptable to you? Would you rather a short term pain in the ass, or long-term occasional regret? For me, renovation is a total drag and makes me miserable, but it has an end date, even if that date is several years out. Looking around a house that's great but that is fundamentally unable to support something you want is a big depressing thing that makes me miserable. I can put up with the pain in the ass parts if it means that I have the possibility to do [dream thing]--even if I never do the thing, knowing that I could is a huge mental health boost for me.

If you're the kind of person who finds open-endedness stressful, buy the smaller property. If you prefer having options, even if that means things aren't settled, buy the larger one.
posted by MeghanC at 7:49 PM on June 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you can swing it, I'd buy them both and live on the 1.6 acre property while you ready the other for your eventual occupancy; then sell or lease the smaller place as per whatever market conditions dictate then. And I didn't understand whether all three parcels are under the same ownership or not. If so, then make the offer for all three. If not, then offer options in order to get all three under your control if you can't just flat out buy them.
posted by carmicha at 8:09 PM on June 12, 2014

- We can pay for other people to do the renovations. Money not an issue for us.
- We can't buy both properties (the 1.6 ac property has a very large, mansion-like house on it and is quite expensive), but we could buy the combo of 3 properties and live in the ramshackle cottage while renovations were being done, possibly.
- The 3 properties are under the same ownership currently and we can make an offer on all of them at once. It would only be acceptable to us if we could purchase all 3, as the property with the ramshackle cottage comes up to about 100 yards away from the homestead (and shares a driveway and septic tank with it) and the property that's just land has the scenic pond on it and is also about 100 yards away from the homestead on another side.

Thank you for the helpful advice so far.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:29 PM on June 12, 2014

You don't mention taxes - I imagine the 20 acre property has significantly higher carrying costs?
posted by Dragonness at 8:31 PM on June 12, 2014

- Not tax wise. It has an 'open space easement' of some sort. Property taxes are only half of what the other property costs, although certainly they'd be likely to increase with the improvements we'd be planning. The 1.6 acre (mansion) has propane for heat, with a rented buried tank on the property. The farmhouse has oil heat with an updated 'high efficiency' furnace of some sort installed in the past 10 years. Both are private well and septic tanks, unfortunately…. country living.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:35 PM on June 12, 2014

I love the idea of the 20 acre property. But at this point, it's just an idea. Will you really have time to utilize it, or will it become "oh, we go walking on the property once a month or so"?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, buy the property that suits your purposes and lifestyle now. Any property is going to require upkeep. Don't spend your resources trying to do upkeep on a place so that you can have a hobby farm 15 or 20 years from now when you retire - you can buy land 15 or 20 years from now. Nor would I buy a house that's too big, if it meant I would have to go to extra lengths to maintain something I wasn't even using.

Which property fits into your current lifestyle, taking work, friends, and other things that take your time into account? That's the property to go with. If it already fits into your overall lifestyle, the other things, eviction, reno's will come and go you will forget all about them a year later.
posted by vignettist at 8:46 PM on June 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have lived through a complete house renovation, have lived on a 10 acre property and have had the large NY suburban house. I loved the large property (with the smaller house). I also was ok with the suburban large house gig when my kids were growing up. Of all three, I loved being able to roam the land. Even if I did not do it often during certain periods, just the thought that I could was worth something. If it were me and I had a high stress job in a busy environment, I would not even be asking the question. I would bid on the three parcel 20 acres.
posted by 724A at 8:54 PM on June 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Check out my comment here and others in that thread. Keep in mind not just the money of fixing a place up but the time -- constant decision making, contract negotiations, monitoring work, and so forth.
posted by slidell at 8:55 PM on June 12, 2014

It might be worth it to have a contractor come out and give you an estimate for the work you have in mind. This doesn't have to be someone you'd hire right away, but it might give you a better sense of the cost of the updates you want.

1.6 acres should be plenty of room for chickens and a goat (in my town, people have backyard chickens on smaller urban lots), but it does sound like zoning is a problem. However, isn't that enough room to try out gardening at least? Urban (suburban) chickens are pretty common nowadays. Could you try to get the town to change the zoning to allow a couple backyard chickens?

Also, if the cottage is really as ramshackle as you suggest, I really wonder how awful it might be to live in it while you renovate the other place.

And, yeah, renovations often cost twice as much and take twice as long expected. My husband built our first house (it was in process before I met him); we bought and renovated our second house; and now we are in our third house, second fixer. This house was built in the early 1900s and has had some updates, like the place you have in mind. My husband is a licensed contractor with many years of experience in home building and renovations. Yet, after four years in this fixer, which still isn't fixed, I'm really wondering why we didn't buy the smaller house in better condition. I'm not sure I'd call it full-on regret, but, yeah, we're four years in, and it really sucks to live in a cruddy old house if you don't have to. Especially with kids.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:02 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whatever you choose, just keep in mind that this is not your "forever" house.

I think you go with the 1.6, and buy 20 acres of unimproved land somewhere nearby.

As you have money, start building your ideal home on the 20 acres for your retirement. Alternatively, buy the acreage close enough so you can plow some walking paths, garden on it or let someone else garden or farm if they let you help out and share with you the produce.

Remember: no decision you make today is un-do-able.
posted by slateyness at 9:11 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm curious about the situation with the tenants on one parcel who do not want to leave. I think that situation could potentially be much more of a headache than renovations to the homestead. (And I really want you to be able to buy the homestead!)

Eviction is a nasty business. It is expensive, long, and convoluted. Is the parcel the tenants occupy owned by the same person who owns the parcel with the homestead? What sort of lease do the tenants have - is it periodic or a term of years? If the lease is for a term of years, does it automatically roll into a periodic term? How much notice of termination would you be required to provide? When is the lease up/how long would you be assuming the duties of a landlord? What do you know about the tenants and from whom?
posted by sevensnowflakes at 9:12 PM on June 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Buy the 20 acres if you can get the three parcels.
posted by Nyx at 9:13 PM on June 12, 2014

Renovations require your time, not just money. Would you be ok living in the 20 acre house if something happened (eg job gets busier or more stressful) and you never did some of the renovations?
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:23 PM on June 12, 2014

I am sure there are stories of on-time and mostly on-budget renovations, but I do not know of any. We tried to be super realistic about time and budget and we still went over on our fairly major renovation of a 1920's home. I like the advice about consulting with a contractor about a cost estimate, and then add 30% more to the cost and 50% more time and see if you can live with those numbers. I would get some legal advice about the parcel with the renters, that would be a dealbreaker for me. I would not trust the advice from a realtor, not even my own (not to say that you are). Oh, just to be clear, I do not regret renovating our home, it was a tough, long process, and I there are still things I would have done differently, but I love our home.
posted by dawg-proud at 9:40 PM on June 12, 2014

I would add that while eviction can be a long drawn our messy process, money does talk and buying them out may be cheaper and faster. If they are living in a ramshackle shack, more likely to be ok with moving expenses and then a little more.
posted by 724A at 9:42 PM on June 12, 2014

What you might do is try to put together a detailed scope of work and get three bids on it. And go on to the city / county to find out what kind of planning / permitting process you'll have to go through. Don't assume the bids tell the whole story, especially the lowest bid. But see if you like spending time on this kind of stuff, and reassure yourself that there are no dealbreakers on the local government end of things.
posted by slidell at 10:16 PM on June 12, 2014

If I were you, I would be saying that neither of those is the right property, and I would keep looking for something with the land area and zoning that you want that does NOT need such large renovations.

If you do decide to go for the one that needs renovation, I would go into it assuming that there is at least as much stuff again that will need doing that you don't know about yet. Once you start tearing down walls, you often find things you didn't expect (wiring issues, water damage, foundation problems...)
posted by lollusc at 11:28 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh man, the tenant business is such a potential headache. Do you have a lawyer to discuss pitfalls with?
posted by Omnomnom at 12:25 AM on June 13, 2014

Yeah, the most immediate problem would be the eviction: CAN you evict the tenants, and if so how long would it take and how much would it cost?

I mean, most rental agreements include something about what happens if the rental property is sold, usually saying that the new owners would be required to continue the arrangement. You need to find out if you'd be able to evict the tenants simply so you can move into that cottage, not because they failed to pay their rent or anything.
posted by easily confused at 1:46 AM on June 13, 2014

You probably remember that I am firmly on Team Farm - it's the best! I would add, in addition to what I said in that previous question:

Our current house (purchased two years ago now) has had substantial renovations, including stripping and repolishing floorboards, two wall knockdowns, repaints, replaced kitchen, replaced bathroom, retrofitting ceiling and underfloor and wall insulation, and and also knocked down old, dangerous, verandah and built new, glorious and huge verandah. If you have the money, and a tradesperson you can trust - it is not a big deal, or at least it wasn't for us.

I would say, however, make sure you get a good tradesperson - one who also has a roster of *other* tradespeople (electrician, plumber, tiler etc.) that they work with and recommend listen to their recommendations and what they say about timelines etc. Definitely get them on site before buying if you can, and also consider what things you need done straight away in a big bunch, and what can be put off for a while (eg we did kitchen and main bathroom immediately, everything else came later, we still have an ensuite we'll get to eventually).

I think renovations and the like I've seen go poorly are a result of unrealistic expectations; poor tradespeople; failure to listen to expert advice; trying to do the wrong things cheaply; trying to rush things; and plain old fashioned bad taste.

I mean, from this and your previous question, it seems to a big property is a dream of yours - and I think it's a great dream! But I get a strong sense that if you get a small block you will always be wondering and fantasising and regretting about it. Don't forget, if the big block doesn't work out, it's not like you are doomed to reside there until you pass away. Do it, I say!
posted by smoke at 1:46 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read and responded to your last question about the 10 acre property that you 'missed'. Based on your current question, here's what I think:

You want a wooded property. Really, really want one. I think there are people in your life are saying, "You're crazy! You have a demanding career! A new baby! Settle down, don't go creating a New Big Project!" But you really, really want to come home from work and be calm and walk through the woods with your kid.

Renovations are a pain in the ass, tenants are a pain in the ass, but they're not a lifetime of pain. It's a project and then it's done. Once the reno is done you're left with the same maintenance issues of any other home. It will take you less time to renovate than it did to get through med school.

You're not crazy for wanting this. But you'd be crazy to give up your desire for space if you can reasonably afford it. It may not be the lifestyle choice that people expect from a person in your field/socioeconomic position, but that's ok. You don't need the McMansion to be successful, despite what society would have you believe.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:19 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you farm it you might be able to get significant tax breaks on it, somehow. I'm not really clear on how that works.

Anyway, I know a couple (both busy physicians) who have done very lovely, very much appreciated renovation in a similar context (albeit without the tenants and with an additional residence). They're very happy with their beautiful home in the country, as they should be--it's really wonderful to have that much beautiful land.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:39 AM on June 13, 2014

You can write the sale contract conditional on having the tenant evicted, so that doesn't have to be YOUR headache.

As for the house, with all that land I'd plan to tear it down, after my dream home had been built. Or get a nice double-wide to live in while the renovation goes on in the main house. Or move to an apartment temporarily during renovation. So the logistics have a lot of options. I've done massive renovations and at this stage of the game, so long as some other person is doing the work, it's not that big a deal.

It sounds like you really love the 20 acre homestead, if that's the case, I'd buy that and work with the house as-is.

While it's possible that when you actually are ready to utilize the acreage, it will be 15 years down the line, that's okay. You may never find another piece of property this perfect for your needs at that time.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:19 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the one you want is the 20-acre house.

Re: renovations: It sounds like you'd also be able to rent a big-ass RV and park it on your property and live in that during the renovations (if you're on the 20-acre property -- might not work on the smaller one depending on zoning).

Have all the septic systems and wells been inspected? Drinking water from both wells run for all the usual parameters? That information might make your decision for you -- if the well on one of the properties has naturally-occurring arsenic and you can't hook up to city water, well, there you go.

Also, I'd want to inspect the oil tank. If it's above-ground you should be OK, but if it's buried, I'd suggest getting a tank inspection contractor out there to see if it's failed -- there can be some expensive costs involved in cleaning that kind of thing up.
posted by pie ninja at 5:54 AM on June 13, 2014

Try for the 20 acres, all 3 properties. If they can't / won't sell all 3 together or if it creates a headache, go for the other knowing you tried but it wasn't meant to be.
posted by skittlekicks at 6:18 AM on June 13, 2014

Any time I find myself saying "I could do this easy thing that seems like it makes a lot of sense or this other, much more complicated and harder thing that is really kind of daunting and out of my comfort zone...gosh, I just can't decide!" I now know that what I really want is the harder thing. Otherwise the choice would be much simpler.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:31 AM on June 13, 2014 [13 favorites]

I bought a shitty run down condemned house simply because of the location, a 2 minute walk from parks and a stunning beach I could walk my dogs on and zone so I could keep chickens. Unlike you I had no money and slowly did renovations over 10 years. Never regretted a second of it. Never regretted it when the hot water heater blew up flooding everything, never regretted it when renovation costs blew out, never regretted it when the kitchen looked like a bomb site for six months as I slowly did it up. When I finally sold that house it was like selling part of me. It was not the sensible decision but it was the decision that made me happy. Now if I was in the money was not really an object I am going to have other people do the renovations boat I'd be buying the property I loved so fast your head would spin. In your case though make sure you sort out if you can get all the land you want and the tenants out first, but assuming all your legal ducks are in order I say go for it.

Side note, the money pit that everyone told me I was going to loose money on, well the house cost me AUD$50K I spent around AUD$30K doing it up sold it for AUD$270K.
posted by wwax at 8:47 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was 6 years old, my parents moved from a house that sounds very similar to your 1.6 acre option to a 20 acre ramshackle, raccoons-in-the-attic-mice-in-the-walls-deer-in-the fields, beautifully rundown farmhouse. I think they sometimes had minor regrets, such as when the mice got into the breakfast cereal, or dad had to remove the wild bees from the wall of the master bedroom. We stayed there until I was almost 17.
Overall, it was our favorite home with the best memories. The renovations got done, the septic and well were redone, but besides that it was a wonderful experience for me to grow up in a place with quiet and room to just BE. I say go with the farm.
posted by notaninja at 9:14 AM on June 13, 2014

This may sound silly, but let a coin flip determine your choice. Heads you buy the 20 acre parcel and tails you buy the 1.6 acre property. Flip the coin up over your head so it falls behind you. Don't turn around. Please do that now before reading on....

Were you wishing the coin would fall a certain way? Do that.
posted by carmicha at 10:44 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know about the tenant eviction thing, but my first thought is: do you have a contractor you can trust for the place with the major renovations? Because I think that's a really important point.

We redid our kitchen last fall (baby on the way, original kitchen not functional) and it came in mostly on time and a little bit under budget. The timing issues were because we ran into the holidays and the various city inspectors were difficult to get hold of so we could proceed to the next phase. The contractor was great about communicating about every step and was realistic about time frames.

(We had a set budget to work with and we just ... were really careful not to go over. We didn't have the option of going over, so we didn't. Do I still want a new stove? yes, but the existing one is fine for now, and it's not a huge project to swap in another freestanding stove. Would I have liked a new floor? Yes, but the old one was in good shape and other things took priorities ... and the floor I didn't like looks so much better now that there are beautiful cabinets and counters. I'd have loved to add a sink in the pantry but moving plumbing is super expensive and would also have required tearing up the floor. None of that stuff matters - the kitchen is still SO MUCH BETTER than before, I'm in love with it, and I'm fine with all the compromises we made.)
posted by data hound at 11:56 AM on June 13, 2014

Have you considered the school district issues, unless you're planning to homeschool?

The 20 acre place sounds way better to me, and I think you should hold out for something similar if you don't decide to buy it because of the tenant and renovation hassles.
posted by mareli at 2:42 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

How far will you be from emergency medical care and the like? A 30 mile drive to reach help is one thing on a sunny day and another during a storm at night.

+1 on the schools.
posted by MichelleinMD at 4:03 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want what the 20 acres offers, then buy it. I currently own and live on a small acreage and will have to put it on the market shortly and move back into suburbia. While I won't miss the mowing and upkeep, I don't know how I'm going to manage to live that close to other people again. It sounds like the property (from the little you've said) is in a state where you can leave it alone until you're ready to 'improve' it further, so you get to choose how much upkeep you let yourself in for. A property like that is about more than just having land, it's as much about having privacy and the ability to blast loud music at any time of the day or night and somewhere for the kids to explore on weekends and build forts etc.

Even if you don't get the property into a state that matches your dream for a decade, you're still ahead - by that time, you'll be intimately familiar with the property and be in a much better position to know how best to improve it than you would be now. I'm not sure why the tenant is necessarily such a big issue anyway - extra income never goes astray and, unless you don't want to move in with them there, the issue can be dealt with in the fullness of time. Perhaps by playing Led Zeppelin at full blast every Saturday night ;-)
posted by dg at 8:27 PM on June 13, 2014

Thank you all very much for the advice, it was all very helpful and appreciated.

I made an offer on all 3 parcels for about $100K below asking. The owner just got back to me and said "we cannot entertain an offer near that at this time." No counter offer. I'm stumped now… we don't have time to wait her out. We could get the land lot and the main house lot without the cottage lot for less than what we offered - but it seems like a gamble to purchase a 20 acre square of property with a single acre cut out of the very center of it that we don't control yet, even if we can't imagine anyone else would offer to buy it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:07 PM on June 14, 2014

Well, if money isn't a problem for you, and they want more money, and you want the land, then I think you offer them more money?
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:04 PM on June 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The problem is knowing how much more to offer, without paying too much. My guess would be somewhere around halfway between the asking price and the previous offer.

Something to think about re the isolated 1 acre portion - if there is no road access to this and no legal reason that forces the owner of the surrounding property to provide access, even if you end up with all but that block, you have the ability to effectively make that block worthless and could therefore buy it at a bargain price later.
posted by dg at 9:51 PM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know what percent 100k is below ask, but I would simply increase my offer to the max I am willing to pay and give them a week before your offer expires.
posted by 724A at 9:26 PM on June 17, 2014

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