Home Buyers: Know Your Small Repairs From Your Major Repairs
Fixer-uppers: at once a possible deal and possible money-pit from hell. For new buyers, they can be at once exciting and terrifying. But a clogged sink or a pest problem doesn’t necessarily mean a house is a ‘fixer.’ Few homes for sale will emerge from a professional home inspection without problems checked off; and unless you design it yourself, only a rare home indeed will appear 100% perfect even from a casual inspection you do yourself.
As buyers, you can either ask the seller to fix those items or you can opt to fix them yourself. If you choose the latter, a lower offer is more palatable since you’re asking less of the seller overall.
But what kinds of repairs are not really that expensive, and which are? You should know this information as a buyer, because you can better estimate how much a house will really cost you long term, and you can better negotiate with the seller as a result.
We’ve divided the answer up into easy to digest chunks: A) Repairs and renovations that are no big deal (so, cheap); and B) those that might be complicated (so, in the thousands of dollars) or very complicated (so, in the tens of thousands). Depending on your budget, tolerance for stress, and knowledge of home repair, you can decide better which house will really work for you-- without getting scared off at the first sign of trouble.
A) What kinds of repairs/renovations are no big deal?
If you find a home with great bones that’s a bit dirty—which can happen particularly with foreclosures or short sales if the owners have abandoned the property, look beyond the mess. As long as structural elements are intact (your home inspector can reassure you there), clean-up isn’t overly difficult or expensive. You can probably do it yourself, bribe friends and family members with pizza and gratitude, or hire it out for a $100 or less.
2. Clutter/Unpleasant decorating
Though sellers know that clutter and overly-personalized decorating choices can turn off prospective buyers, some don’t manage to clear away the detritus of their personal lives before they list and open their homes. As a buyer, you have to learn to look past messy closets, bizarre color choices, and bulky furniture that crowds a room. All that stuff will be gone when you buy the house. Look instead at the shape and size of each room, how much light comes in, the quality of floors and windows. These latter items will stay, and become part of the canvas upon which you paint your own style.
B) What kinds of repairs can get complicated?
As we already explored in our Red Flags at Open Houses blog last week, roofs deserve your attention. But know this: Single-story houses with no dormers or additions are much less complicated because they are most often composed of one layer of shingles. A home like this, even if the roof is older, will be easier to maintain long term. But homes with two stories, additions, or that have more than one layer of shingles can be more complicated/expensive when in need of repair. Personally, I love a sprawling Victorian with all the embellishments, but I also know that multiple stories, turrets, dormers and cupolas create narrow valleys where roofing is difficult to access, much less repair.
Another red flag: leaking roofs. Water stains on walls is the least of your problems there. Think rotting wood, crumbling sheetrock, mold… and think major big deal.
2. Electrical Systems
Simply replacing a circuit breaker is really a minor repair, though you’d certainly want a professional to do it for you. Electrical wiring is not the best candidate for DIY with Youtube videos since you’re dealing with something potentially dangerous.
The more complicated procedures come into play when you need to increase your electrical output, say from 60 amps to 200. And if you’ve chosen a glorious old home (that sprawling Victorian, for instance!) that requires complete rewiring to update it to the current era, the expense grows considerably.
You can replace old toilets with low-flow, repair simple leaks, and install new sinks with some good DIY instruction and plenty of elbow grease. Plumbing can’t kill you like electricity can, so these repairs present reasonable projects for home buyers.
However, plumbing issues aren’t always so easy. If you need to install a sump pump in a basement, for instance, you’ll likely need professional help.
And if your sewer system has a crack or worse, a hole, your troubles just got worse, because you may need to replace the whole thing. Cautious buyers insist on a sewer scope as part of the home inspection process: this procedure, done by professionals, creates a video of the sewer’s condition which cannot otherwise be seen, much less inspected. Usually around $100, sewer scopes pay off in peace of mind.
Last week we explained about real estate open-houses that "only a professional can evaluate the foundation, but cracked walls, sloping floors, jammed doors are all signs of what may be a very costly issue," but if you are in love with that old Victorian, you should know that most older homes, particualry those that are a hundred years old or more, settle in less than perfectly straight angles. If you roll a quarter across the floor in an old home, you may notice the coin picking up speed when it descends a slight slope. This doesn't mean that house isn't solid: it has, after all, been standing on that property for over a hundred years! But it does encourage you to have the foundation checked out, again, for peace of mind.
The Inspection Period is Your Friend
After you make your offer, you begin the home inspection period. Anything you discover then is grounds to re-negotiate with the seller. You can ask for the seller to repair the items or give money back at closing toward the repairs. You can also walk away, and get all your earnest money back, if a repair issue with the house can’t be resolved.
So the lesson is: If you love a house, but it isn’t perfect, don’t give up on it too quickly. Houses, like people, really don’t come in “perfect” versions. They take work. You just have to decide if you’re capable of that work, or if it’s too much work all together.