Buying a House That Needs Repairs? Ask These 12 Questions First

Jacqueline Zenn
Written by Jacqueline Zenn
Updated September 15, 2021
Large classic house
irina88w / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Before you sign on the dotted line, ask these questions

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Buying a property that needs a little love doesn’t have to be a scary prospect. In fact, a house needing repairs can be a fun opportunity to add a personal touch to the (literal) nuts and bolts. 

But before you put down an offer, there are questions you’ll need to ask yourself—and a team of contractors—that’ll help you make a decision and turn a fixer-upper into your dream house.

1. Why Are You Buying a Fixer-Upper?

First, a question to ask yourself: Why are you choosing a fixer-upper in the first place? Is the home you are interested in located in an ideal location? Is it a historic property? Does it have great bones or other desirable characteristics that newer or updated homes don’t? Or is it simply a great deal? Answer these questions first before you take on the project.

2. Is the Work Required Cosmetic or Structural?

Sometimes a house might appear to be in a dire state of disrepair, but most of the damage is actually surface-level and the underlying structure is in good condition.

Repainting and making other cosmetic enhancements can be inexpensive and might not take much time. And with cosmetic upgrades, you can probably live happily on-site while the work is being done.

On the other hand, if the property requires serious structural work such as foundation repair, a new electrical or plumbing system, or any other major renovation, then you need to consider the time involved. In addition, factor in anything else that may affect the pace, the financial investment, and anything else that might affect your ability to live in the home while construction is underway.

3. Does the House Need Major Upgrades to Be Move-In Ready?

Speaking of living in your fixer-upper, if the home is not move-in ready at purchase, that’s something to consider before even making an offer. Are you able to live somewhere else while renovations are made? Certain repairs make it difficult or even impossible to live in a property during the job (after all, nobody wants to live in a construction zone). 

In addition to reviewing the home inspection reports, you should always get your own local home inspector and contractors you trust. They can check out key structural elements like the foundation and roof to determine the work that needs to be done and approximately how much it will cost.

4. What Can You DIY?

Historic kitchen with industrial design elements
Jon Lovette / Photographer's Choice RF via Getty Images

While many home repairs require a professional skill set, there are some home reno tasks you might be able to DIY. Make a game plan (don’t forget to consider the necessary time and tools!) and you can save some cash on your overall renovation costs.

That said, hiring a pro is the way to go for jobs like electrical work, plumbing, foundation repair, and anything else that requires substantial expertise and heavy-lifting. All of this should be considered before you commit to buying any property.

5. Are There Any Major Safety Hazards to Contend With?

Asbestos, lead-based paint, and outdated electrical wiring can all add to the cost of renovating an older house. Make sure you’re aware of any potential safety issues and get quotes for the associated costs involved with removing these hazards.

6. Are the Current Owners Willing to Make Concessions or Repairs?

If the house you’re looking at requires extensive work—or even just minor repairs—consider what you can ask the current owners to do or pay for before signing off on the purchase. If they are motivated sellers, they might just be willing to reduce the price or have the work done themselves. It never hurts to ask!

7. Is the Home a Registered Historic Property?

You may need to ensure that any repairs done maintain the home’s unique appearance and design features. For instance, if you buy a property that’s a registered historic property or one that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you might have to follow guidelines on preserving the historic architecture.

Along with living in a literal piece of history, buying a registered historic home can come with financial perks including tax incentives, better interest rates on loans, or even access to federal, state, or municipal grants.

8. Can You Incorporate Existing Features or Materials Into the Renovations?

Interior of older home
John Keeble / Moment via Getty Images

One of the main draws of buying an older or historic home: the beautiful design elements you won’t find in modern spaces. So when you’re remodeling, don’t let that charm be lost. 

While the kitchen and bathrooms may need some modern upgrades and new appliances, the home’s original tile, stonework, or metal fixtures can be salvaged and reused to keep the home’s personality alive. Plus, you’ll save on material costs!

9. What Are the Potential Costs of Hiring Contractors?

While you may have an idea of what it might cost to replace a roof or fix the cracks in a damaged foundation, it’s important to get a clear picture of what, exactly, is required and what you’ll pay.

Get estimates from local contractors and bring in your own inspector. Ask for detailed estimates and get the contractor’s credentials—they should be licensed, bonded, and insured. If you buy a registered historic home, your pros may need special licenses.  

Before you sign on the dotted line, get quotes from a few different contractors, ask to see examples of their previous work, and ask for references to reach out to.

10. Is the Weather or Landscaping a Significant Concern?

If there are gorgeous old-growth trees or shrubbery around the property, take steps to maintain those valuable plants during renovations. Not only do they add beauty and shade to your outdoor space, but these types of trees can also add value to the property. 

Weather issues can also affect the timing of home improvements or renovations, so that is something to consider if you are replacing the roof or taking on other big projects that are necessary to make the home liveable.

11. Will Making Renovations to This Home Affect Homeowners’ Insurance Costs?

While insurance costs are probably not the first thing you think of when pricing out home improvements, know that some renovations (like a new roof or upgraded kitchen) can increase your homeowners’ insurance premiums by causing the value of the home to go up. Adding some features, like a below-ground pool, can also require more insurance coverage.

12. Does the Property’s Price Reflect the Amount of Work that Needs to be Done?

If you love a home that needs repairs and the price is both within your budget and accurately reflects the value of the property as-is plus the cost of necessary fixes, then purchasing that particular fixer-upper might be a great choice. However, if you feel like the home is a potential money pit or any of the above questions haven’t been satisfactorily answered, then it could be better to move on to a home that better matches up with your needs and goals.

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