Buying a home is a wonderful experience. The sky itself seems like it’s yours when it’s framed by your own living room window. But, depending on your tastes and the area of the country that you live in, you may find that your perfect home costs more than you expected. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in your price range.
Buying a fixer-upper is a good way to get more house for your money. A property that doesn’t ‘show well’ will command a lower price than a model home. Even in a tight real estate market, the careful buyer can find bargains. If you’re willing to put your own time and effort into the house, you’ll be rewarded for years with a home that perfectly matches your tastes. It won’t be easy and you can expect plenty of frustration along the way, but you’ll build ‘sweat equity’ and a sense of great satisfaction with every project.
Once you’ve found a home that you’re interested in, getting a professional inspection is probably the most important preliminary step you can take. A good inspector will recognize potential problems with major systems such as plumbing, electrical and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning). He or she should also spot any trouble with the foundation, insects, the roof, and other structural elements. (If work needs to be done in any of these areas, it’s best left to professionals.) These inspections aren’t free, but they’re worth every penny. (See Selecting a Home Inspector sidebar.)
Where to Begin
Resist the temptation to jump in as soon as you move into your new home. It’s a good idea to live in the house for at least 3 months before you begin any major projects. You’ll get a feel for the place and ideas about improving it. You may find that adding a doorway to a certain wall would make the rooms more accessible. Or a particular kitchen counter takes up too much space to be useful. Make a list of projects as they occur to you and keep a scrapbook with clippings of magazine articles that describe similar projects.
You should also take this time to get familiar with basic home improvement techniques. Many trade schools and colleges offer adult education home-repair classes. Build a library of how-to manuals and read as much as you can. Talk to friends and family who have tackled projects of their own. If you have Internet access, you will find a vast array of information there. The more you learn before you begin, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle the jobs ahead.
Living in the house for a while also gives you time to adjust to your new mortgage payment. Budgeting enough money to finance a project can be tricky and it helps if you know how much disposable income you have every month. Unless you can draw from a large pool of cash, you must carefully plan your project’s expenditures. Having to stop work because you’ve run out of money is disheartening and breaks your momentum.
Before you lift a hammer, set short and long-term goals. Decide what you’d like to have done in 3-5 years and what you can reasonably expect to finish in one year. Sort your list of projects by order of importance and choose which you will tackle first. (Don’t plan on more than 2 or 3 big undertakings in a given year.)
At first, it can be difficult to estimate how much time to allocate for a particular project. You should factor in how much help you’ll have, the amount of expertise either you or someone you know will lend, the extent of the work to be performed, and how many hours each week you can realistically commit to the project. Make your best guess at the length of the job – and then double it. Without fail, you will run into obstacles that you hadn’t planned on.
Don’t underestimate the importance of good prep work. Allow time for stripping wallpaper, patching holes, priming painted surfaces, and performing any of the mundane tasks that go along with remodeling. Pay close attention to the details in your home improvement manual in this regard. The groundwork that you perform up-front will pay big dividends as the work progresses.
Once you’ve begun a project, set a completion date and try to meet it. Stay focused and don’t get sidetracked. It’s not unusual, as you work on one project, to uncover other jobs that need to be done. Unless there’s a compelling reason to attack one of these, add them to your list and concentrate on the task at hand. You won’t become overwhelmed if you manage the job and keep it from expanding.
The debris from some remodeling projects tends to expand to fill all available space. To keep your house from becoming unlivable, try to limit the scope of the project to a single room. Hang tarp in the doorways to seal off the workspace and don’t let tools and supplies overflow into the rest of the house. Remember that the longer the job takes, the longer you will have to do without the comfort of that portion of your home. (Especially troublesome when you’re working on a bathroom.)
Your local home-center or hardware store can be a great source of information, tools and materials. Their people are trained to help you plan your projects and solve problems along the way. Once you’ve decided on a job, talk to their experts and let them know how you plan to attack it. Chances are, they can give you pointers and help you avoid problems that you might otherwise encounter. It’s also a good idea to open a charge account at one or two of these places. A credit card offers a convenient method of paying for supplies and tools, and makes it easy to track the expenses for a given project.
Finally, know when to call in a professional. While you should be able to do most jobs yourself, some projects may simply be too big or unmanageable. Consider using a contractor for projects that:
Require expensive materials. Laying vinyl flooring, for instance, requires exact planning and cutting of the material. If you make a mistake, it could cost you more than a contractor would have in the first place.
Entail major systems. Certain work requires the know-how and ability that can only come from years of experience. Unless you have expertise in a given area, don’t try to tackle any of the home’s major systems (electrical, plumbing, HVAC, etc.)
Must adhere to code specifications. Make sure you comply with local building codes which dictate what type of work must be performed by licensed professionals. Also, if your home is in an historic district, you must follow strict guidelines and get approval for virtually any project.
Get out of hand. If you begin a project that turns out to be more than you bargained for, don’t hesitate to call in a contractor for help. You’re better off getting the job done than living with ever-present unfinished construction rubble.
Remodeling work is challenging, but immensely rewarding. Any project can seem intimidating at first, but with careful preparation and planning, you should be able to make vast improvements to all but the worst of homes. Hopefully, you won’t rule out that fixer-upper when shopping for your dream house.