Q: I have a house-hunting question for you. What do you look for? What do you look past? Help! My main complaint of all the older homes that we’re looking at in our price range is that they all feel dated, but that seems to be what you guys look for. How do you know which dated houses are worth buying and which ones are lost causes? I keep worrying we’ll end up in a money pit! – Aviva (not the one from Housewives of NY).
A: First of all, I’m glad you clarified that you’re not NYC Aviva. Haha. And second of all, we actually get this question a lot. So when it comes to what we “look past” in a house (and what we pay attention to) my general answer is to never be deterred by the following things:
- baaaad paint on the walls or the trim
- nasty wallpaper (borders, or entire walls)
- dated or not-your-style furniture
- ugly curtains
- dark brick or paneling
- not-your-cup-of-tea light fixtures
- green/blue/pink toilets
For example, here are a few before photos of our first house to further demonstrate how off-putting those dated features can be… but we all know they can be remedied with a little elbow grease if you’re a willing DIYer:
As for what we always try to pay attention to or look for, it’s mainly:
- the neighborhood (can’t move a house after you buy it)
- the overall layout (you can adjust some things, but repositioning every room gets pricey)
- the size of rooms and number of bathrooms, which is another hard-to-change factor (ex: if it has too-small bedrooms or one bathroom when you need two, you probably want to keep looking)
- things like ceiling height and window placement (which aren’t always easy to change)
- interesting architecture, like a fireplace, ceiling beams, etc
- the terrain of your lot (a steep drop off in the back isn’t exactly simple to fill in, etc)
Here are some photos of our first house that demonstrated some of those great “diamonds” that we saw in the rough. For example, the same room that showed dated brick and paneling also sports a nice cozy centered fireplace along with architectural beams overhead:
Which meant that once we painted all the dark wood and brick, it completely changed the feel of the room:
Another great selling feature for us was the lot itself. It was nearly an acre (something you can’t change once you buy a house) with a nice flat and wooded backyard:
All that landscaping was a more than a little rough to stay on top of, but since we had a nice level lot that was private and wooded in the back, we knew it had tons of potential. And thanks to craigslist we got folks to dig stuff up for free (by posting you-dig-it-up-and-it’s-yours ads like this, which even worked for all that pea gravel) and we ended up with a nice easy-to-maintain yard that made us (and especially Burger) endlessly happy:
So although we’re hardly pro house-hunters (we’ve only done it two times), I think we’ve learned that the sweet spot for us is to completely ignore things we know we can change. If the walls are a color we don’t like, we don’t even pay attention since we know it can easily and affordably be updated. Same for the color of cabinets that we can potentially paint, or wallpaper that we can remove. Things that we can’t change as easily are what we pay the most attention to (ex: the floor plan of a house, the location of the kitchen and all the windows, the size of the bedrooms) – you know, things that would be a lot of money, and trouble, to alter.
For those who have a harder time seeing past the bad cosmetic things (like dated curtains and crusty old wallpaper) it probably helps to look at inspiration images in magazines, online, etc and save things that you love (in a binder, on Pinterest, etc). Then stare at them to see if any of those rooms could inspire something. For example, if you see a room that looks totally different than a potential home’s living room but look closer and realize it’s the same size and shape, you could totally repaint and hang curtains and otherwise decorate it to get that look in your space. Know what I mean?
Update: Oh and as for avoiding a money pit with structural issues or other expensive upgrades you didn’t see coming, we definitely value getting a thorough inspection! Of course they can’t always catch everything, but we’d never buy a house without one and you definitely have much higher odds of finding potential issues (and then being able to opt out of the purchase) than if you skipped the inspection. We hire someone super thorough who is highly recommended and in each case he spent a minimum of 3+ hours crawling under the house, on the roof, looking into vents, etc – our guy got verrry friendly with each house. It can definitely keep you from ending up with a lemon! At least for our two house purchases it has worked out well.
So what about you guys. What do you look for or look past when it comes to house hunting? Do you make must-have lists and must-not-have lists along with nice-to-have lists? It’s definitely smart because that way you won’t let something on the nice-to-have list creep into your brain and convince you buy a house that’s missing a few of the must-haves.
I think flooring is a definitely thing to look at intently before buying a house. Not just the flooring itself, but what is UNDER the floor, IE, the underlayment and subfloor. I love my house, but the underlayment is all particleboard, which means I have to replace all of it before I can lay anything besides carpet – and for someone who intends to have all tile and hardwood, it’s an expensive and not-fun-at-all fix.
I haven’t seen this mentioned, but you can easily look up permits that have been pulled on the house in the past. Many cities and towns allow you to do this online. If the MLS listing says new wiring or hot water heater, but there is no permit for that, it’s kind of a red flag.
Also, google, google, google. Search the home address, street name, police reports for a neighborhood, etc. Also check the sex offender registry.
So smart to google for permits pulled prior to the sale!
Crystal @ 29 Rue House says
I like an established lot with privacy and an older, sturdy home with some character/history. Because all our money would just go into the purchase of the home, we’d steer clear of things that would cost a lot (new furnace, new roof, new plumbing, new electrical, too small or bad layout that would require serious renovation etc…).
I’m always dreaming of living somewhere cheaper than CT (although I do love it here) so I’m always looking!
Sherry, you are spot on again! That’s exactly what we did looking for our first home: Look past the peeling paint, the broken light fixtures, the dark panelling and the bipolar colours through out (yellow trim, navy ceilings and blue and burgundy walls…beware that’s all in one room). Check out what we just did to our wood panelled basement! http://royamak.blogspot.ca/
We wouldn’t have been able to afford a house in such an awesome neighbourhood otherwise…If its structurally sound I say go for it!
Wow it looks great down there!
Needle little Balance says
We also look for the type of heating. Living “in between the alps” in Austria, central Europe, this is probably a bigger deal here for us than for you? I think I haven´t read what kind of heating you have. e.g. we prefer geothermal heat / heat pumps that use terrestrial heat over oil-fired heating and changing the whole heating system costs a lot.
Katie G says
Visit A LOT of houses before making a final decision. We knew we were looking for an old house in a historic neighbourhood, but that didn’t stop us from looking at new developments and those beauties from the 70s! The more you see, the more you’ll know what you REALLY want.
Also, if you think you’ve found “the one”, make sure you do a check on the heating in the summer, or the AC in the winter… that was a nasty surprise for my parents when they bought their current house!
Remember that no matter how good a house looks, you’re going to find surprises, it’s just part of the fun!
Great stuff Sherry. On the flip side of looking past easily fixed cosmetic stuff, I would caution to not be blinded by “pretty” stuff either. Yeah, it may have freshly painted wall, in a great color, with lovely white trim, and newly finished hardwood floors; but get a thorough inspection. You never know what may be lurking under that facade. I would also suggest, especially if purchasing an older home, to have a plumber come out and do a thorough inspection of the plumbing, including running a camera down the major lines out of the house. It’s worth the couple hundred bucks to make sure all of that is good (no branches creeping in, old clay pipes buckling, or improper repair jobs) rather than spending the potentially thousands of dollars later to get it all fixed. (We had to learn that one the hard way, boo.)
Ooh, great tip! Love all the suggestions everyone! So helpful!
Amen to this too! I bought a house in 2006…height of the flipping. I had to tell my agent to stop showing me flipped houses with new granite countertops. Most of these had only addressed the cosmetics, not the high dollar items like plumbing, electrical, etc.
Nora Rose says
I wish the point of this post was more on inspections and finding the “real” money pit. A kitchen is a nice splurge but improper plumbing or electrical are the real killers. I am so glad I trusted your radon test advice and I can sleep in peace. My new neighbors were discussing radon and telling me to be careful but I shut them down with our test results.
My advice is test, test, test. We tested for radon but wish we did lead paint and asbestos rather than trusting the old homeowner. Older homes have stood the test of time but the amount of upkeep and maintenance make a huge difference. Our 1930 home is much worse than my parent’s 1903 because our’s was neglected in the 1970s and not brought entirely up to code. However, their heating is much worse because they have less venting area and we can have forced hot water. Our first home offer was on a newer home where the homeowner basically did everything to make it unsafe which made for a cringeworthy (but very worth it) inspection. We didn’t know to look for notched beams or water dripping onto an outdoor electrical box but after the first inspection, we were much more alert in our home search.
Before we made our next offer, we took a contractor friend through to point out potential problems and help gauge our offer (and if it was worth the $500+ inspection to even make an offer). The contractor gave us total ballpark $10-20k bathroom, $20k+ kitchen, but it was more helpful when he said “Geez, look at this waterline and damp spots in the basement, that’s probably got the potential for mold.” Then we skipped that house for a house that needed more TLC than major reno.
We did get a lower price on our current house and redid the heating system as a result of the inspection. But we could always do more. We also moved to a new area and I wish we rented there to get a feel for the town before we bought a house. I like it but I would have liked to be 2-3 towns closer to certain areas and might have made a different decision. I liked hearing that point from you guys. I wish we could just teleport it to our hometown!
Oh yes, testing is a great reminder! Always test for radon during the inspection! We’re two for two on that (both houses had it, and since the inspection caught it for this house the sellers paid for the entire mitigation system!).
I bought my house BECAUSE it had a pink toilet (and a pink sink and a pink bathtub). The toilet eventually cracked and had to be replaced with a boring white one, but I will probably request to be buried in my pink tub. ;)
Hahahha! I love it!
I loved my pink bathtub in my parent’s house when I was growing up! Most comfortable tub EVER.
Joules (from Pocketful of Joules) says
When we were looking we totally stalked neighborhoods — we wanted one that was good for a family, but not too “on top of one another” so as to HAVE to interact with neighbors every single day. Also, seems silly — but KNOW your price range and only buy something you can actually afford. We bypassed some super nice houses that were just a *bit* too expensive for one we can afford and fix up on our own. =)
When we were house-hunting, there were a few must-haves: Mature trees, three bedrooms, and not a money pit. While our house has it’s problems (hello aluminum wiring) and will need a new roof in the next few years, we loved the location, the corner lot, and the trees. Plus, after all the houses we looked at, it just felt like home to us.
A few more things to check for:
– how old / how many layers does the roof have? In addition, check the A/C unit(s), hot water heater, and the windows. Our windows needed a lot of work, as the wood around them were rotting. Wish we had examined those more closely. Most of this is done at inspection, but they ALWAYS miss things.
– make sure to get a copy of the last six months of utility bills on the house. That ended up being a huge red flag on a house we were seriously considering. It’s always helpful to know how much you need to factor in per month on utilities. Ask and you shall receive!
– Look past dated appliances in the kitchen. We’ve found that the appliances from 1960 have held up better than the ones from the 90s!
– If you are truly nervous about things going wrong / breaking, you can always add a home warranty.
All awesome tips! Thanks for sharing everyone! The comments of this post are awesome. Y’all are smart. Haha!
No joke about the appliances! Our 60 year old wall oven just crapped out — the cooktop and the dishwasher each lasted about 50 years we estimate. It’s nice having a modern dishwasher and replacing the old electric cooktop with gas, but we’re sad about the oven. Decent new wall ovens are mostly $1K and up and am not ready to spring for this until we do a total kitchen remodel — so we are going to try to repair the old oven. Truly, they don’t make ’em like that anymore!
Make a list of “must haves” before you go looking.
I wanted something old (pre 1960), a fixer-upper to keep costs down, fireplace, in the city, small yard, the right neighborhood, the right layout (private areas upstairs, public areas down), something someone hadn’t done horrible things to already, and right price.
I found and fell in love with our house. It was a train wreck when we bought it. We called it our dream dump. Horrible cosmetics, bad systems (we replaced electrical, plumbing, heat and air), rotting stucco, leaking roof, and horrific nic stains. That said, it had the greatest layout, plenty of room, the most amazing neighborhood in the city with the park and lake as our front yard. It was at the top of our price range but we bit the bullet and did it anyway. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. We have worked on it for three years. We tore out walls, pulled out carpeting, removed decades of paneling and wallpaper, and fixed the leaks. Today, it’s a gorgeous, gracious house in the city that gives me joy and satisfaction every time I walk up. It’s hardly finished. We still have several big jobs to do but they will come in time.
Looking is a fun process. It’s always interesting to compare the ad to the reality, and get the reality check on your checklist.
Great advice all! For me, must haves are a good neighborhood, a garage and central air. And most importantly, I want that “it” factor when you first see it, you know that feeling you get when you walk in like, “yes, this is it”. I’ve purchased too many homes without that feeling so now I have to be completely in love with it before I buy.
My husband and I fell in love with the charm of our 1923 brick Cape Cod and still love it but if you are looking at older homes, consider that your walls might be plaster-and-lathe. They can definitely be tricky for painting, installing new lights, and even hanging frames. All the wiring was knob-and-tube but lucky for us the sellers agreed to replace it as a condition of the FHA loan. Still, we have older plumbing and all the “quirks” of an old house. Expect that, for awhile at least, your money might be sunk into necessary upgrades and simple maintenance instead of all the fun stuff of decorating and finishes. Of course, we still think all the originally wood trim, enamel sink, and nook and crannies totally make up for the headaches!
When we bought our horribly outdated ranch 13 years ago, our goal was to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood. It enabled us to buy in an area that was otherwise out of reach for us at that time. We didnt want to go into debt to renovate so we bought a house that we could live with for a while until we saved for a near gut reno. We took care of the things that I knew would drive me crazy like lighting and fixtures but otherwise we lived with green and gold linoleum, green and white faux marble counters and green appliances for 7 years! Paint, nice furnishings and accessories went a long way towards hiding the ugly until we could do it up right. I would never let cosmetic stuff deter me from an otherwise solid house. Ugly can be fixed but a bad location is forever!
Christina @ Homemade Ocean says
CHECK THE FOUNDATION!!!!!!
Please….everyone….check the foundation….
It costs a lot when you “overlook” foundation problems. Trust me :)
True Story – a friend just bought a “great” house in Phoenix, but it turned out that the house was infested with scorpions!
It appears that it was actually disclosed, but they didn’t think anything about it, figuring that a good pest control would take care of it. But turned out that part of the city has a real problem, and there’s not really any method of preventing it. People just live with it! After I picked up my jaw, they said that it’s apparently just like a neighborhood with bees, or wildlife (or even the roof rats, ewwww)…you just learn to live with it. Can you believe that?! But they have 3 very young children, so it became a deal breaker.
I think hiring your own inspector, NOT using the sellers inspector is important. I’m not sure that’s what happened here, but I think that’s something the inspection should have turned up.
Whaaaaat?! That. Is. My. Nightmare.
I would die. Period.
I agree with everything you listed. One thing that drives me crazy when watching the various property shows on HGTV is that buyers are turned off by easily fixed things.
When I bought this house, my main concern was that it be one floor, since hubby was in a wheelchair. I fell in love with this one immediately, but hubby & agent insisted we look at two more. Second had an EXTREMELY high foundation — requiring a mid-four-figure switchbacking ramp — plus it was located on a gravel road, and I didn’t want to deal with the damage it would do to my car’s finish. The second was a cute 60s house, but it had a sunken living room and narrow halls around the kitchen, plus it was on a heavily traveled main road. So back to this one we came.
We did a lot of reno — added a handicapped-accessible bathroom for hubby, which we had plenty of room for on 4.5 acres, new roof, painted walls, sanded floors. Still a lot of reno left. But I love this house and have no regrets about making it home nearly six years ago.
Sounds like you guys totally made it yours! Love that.
DIYnot Kelly says
I would also say a knowledgeable and trustworthy real estate agent is worth it if you lack expertise of your own. You are not going to have a home inspector go house perusing with you; generally you have the inspection once you’ve already put in an offer or are seriously considering it. I feel confident that if we were to look at houses now, we would be able to identify most issues, but back when we were newbies and had no clue, our agent was so helpful. We’d go look at a house for the first time, and she would take a peek into the crawl space and say “oh it’s knob and tube wiring,” or point out that “the furnace is 30 years old,” or “this retaining wall is leaning into the carport and could become a very expensive problem” or “the roof looks like it needs some work.” Not a full-on inspection of course, but helped us weed out some bad seeds. And if you’re buying, the real estate agent’s fee is usually covered by the seller, so it’s really no extra expense for you to have one. But you need to find a good one. Some just don’t have the experience and expertise. Others want to make the sale more than they want their client to be happy. Be choosy.
Amen! We call our agent a ball buster and we mean it in the most flattering way! She knows everything and is such a great advocate! You want them to tell you everything bad along with the good stuff so you don’t feel like they’re just trying to make you buy anything!
I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet. SCHOOLS! We are in Seattle and it’s a huge issue. My kids’ school is very popular and the property boundaries for it are extremely narrow. It has a Great Schools score of 10. The next school over is a 5 and no one wants to go to it, but if your house is in that attendance area, that’s where your kid will go unless you send them to private school.
I do agree with everything else that has been mentioned. Our first house had high gloss yellow paint and flowered vinyl floors from a 70s remodel. It was truly heinous, but we got the house cheaply.
Oh yes! To me schools are grouped into great neighborhood (safe, good schools, private lots, etc). So important!
I agree with your advice! As for my own experience, my husband & I looked only in a specific neighorhood school “catchment area,” where many houses are 100+ years old. [The house that we bought is 130 years old.] We looked for a house that was move-in-ready-fully-functional, but which HAD a dated kitchen and bathrooms. That is, we did NOT want a recently rehabbed house. Luckily, we found exactly the right house–it was redone in the 1950s and then . . . no further updates were made (although it was very well taken care of). 2.75 years after moving in (and living with a kitchen that.did.not.have.insulation), we started a full kitchen redo (which we’re in the middle of now). I found your blog a couple months ago while researching. I love reading all your posts and looking at the pretty pretty pictures. Thanks!
I’m also looking for an older home that is well maintained but has not been recently updated. I don’t want to pay a higher price for a new kitchen or bath that is not my style.
we are big on checking out the neighborhood and surrounding areas — not just the day you look at the property, but in the evening and on the weekends too. That way you get a feel for your neighbors. Sometimes you can get lucky and actually talk to some of them, to see if you “mesh.”
Emily E says
Yep. We skipped some houses because there were people lounging in their yards in the middle of the day on a weekday. I wanted to live in a place where people go to work during the day. :)
I also look for people outside working in their yards, walking dogs, playing with kids. To me that indicates a safe friendly well maintained neighborhood
I always consider if there’s a good spot for the Christmas tree:)
I agree. While we took into consideration the layout of the home we’re in now, we really didn’t think it through as much as we should have. Now, we are with rooms that can’t be structurally changed, but are difficult to work with (prime example: our den which has [barely] 7 foot ceilings, and is 22 feet long, but only about 11 feet wide). And the things that can be changed cost/will cost us a lot of money (tearing down a brick patio, demoing out the only bathroom there is).
Also know that your inspector will probably miss some things. Ours spent about an hour & a half in the house (& went all over) but still missed that we had bats in our attic. Bats are very, very VERY expensive to get rid of. What are ya gonna do? That’s life. But I have definitely learned my lesson on what to look for the next time.
Agree with everything! It bugs me to no end when ppl (and ppl on HGTV) go on and on about cosmetic fixes. Oh shut it! Can you really not see past the paint job? Man, I feel sorry for your lack of imagination …
Make sure if you live up north there is someplace to put the snow :) It wasn’t something I thought about when I bought my house, but I wish I had. Essentially one side of my driveway bleeds into my neighbor’s driveway. The other side of my driveway has raised railroad ties and the front lawn is above those. My house is on a hill and the driveway goes slightly down into the garage. So when I shovel snow, I carry it to the end of the driveway and up the street to the front lawn and dump it there. Or I throw it over the fence into the backyard. It gets old really fast.
[email protected] says
Be willing and ready to compromise. Know your must-haves, but then know some of your must-haves will end up on the “wants” list instead. You just can’t have it all!
Second: buy your first house and stay! We stayed in our first house for 15 years, and our second now for 8.5 …. makes a huge difference to your net worth! Try to find a first house you can be happy in for a while…even if it doesn’t have it all.
[email protected] Colonial says
Great tips! I was amazed when we were looking at how much more house you could get for the money if you were willing to make a few repairs and updates. We’re pretty sure the only reason ours stuck around long enough for us to buy it (it was a foreclosure that had been empty for 2 years and on the market for several months) was a big roof leak in the neglected sunroom. The roof itself was pretty new and in good shape; it was just this one spot that needed a $2000 repair. Next house, very similar size and layout, that went up for sale in the neighborhood sold for over $100,000 more than we paid!
We got lucky in our unexpected house search. After a lot of looking we ended up buying the house we had been renting for the past two years. Our top priority was light light light. Our living room has a funny L shape and therefore East and West facing windows.
We also got to test drive the house and knew all about the funky issues and knew we could live with them. The strangest thing was the exterior plumbing on the roof. The house is from the ’50s and was re-piped sometime along the way. Since it is on a concrete slab they put the new pipes outside on the roof. Who does that? It isn’t an issue except for the unintended solar heating that makes the cold water run very hot in the summer.
Schools were also important, but remember that school boundries can change.
We just went house hunting this past summer and the tricky thing about our price range and housing market is that if you ask for an inspection you are way lowering your odds of getting the house – a lot of the buyers bid with no conditions. We ended up doing that as well and it turned out okay, we just got an inspection after the fact to know about any potential big problems before we went and put a lot of money in to things and ended up with big scares later.
We actually looked for houses with bad paint colours and an ugly kitchen because it seemed the houses with neutral paint were getting way higher bids and it was something we could easily do ourselves – and would probably paint over anyway just for a fresher look and feel and to make it feel more like our own. The kitchen was a big one for us because I work in the kitchen biz and we knew we could get a discount on a kitchen and get the money back out of it so there wasn’t any point it getting an already remodeled kitchen that may not even be our taste.
House hunting can be really stressful, especially in bidding wars, but you’ll love your house once you buy it and start putting in your own touches!
I just wanted to agree with above posters about knowing your DIY limits. My husband and I bought our first house this year and he is not as into my “projects” as he likes to call them. It’s fine, I knew that going in, but it did affect the house we bought. I didn’t want to buy something that needed a ton of work to make it look good b/c I would have to live with it for a loooong time before we had the finances/time to get everything updated to my satisfaction. So we bought something that still could use updates, but wasn’t hideous to look at (like crazy colored carpet, etc.) while we get to all the projects.
I wonder what your first house looks like now? Would be fun to see what the new owner’s did to it.
I know! We definitely dropped very obvious hints that we’d love to come back and see it so the ball’s in their court!
Ethne @ Wom-Mom says
Really, I think the only way for me would be to bring you with and skype/face time through the house tours. (Like that guy does in the ‘face fireplace’ house-showing cellphone commercial.) I totally cannot see diamonds in the rough around the crappy wallpaper and orange toilets. Fortunately, I’m not in the market, so you’re safe in VA.
Hah, I’m totally down! And that face fireplace commercial totally cracks us up.
Amy D says
You know… I had been reading your blog for about a year before I started house hunting. Sometimes it was hard to look past cosmetic details but I tried to remember things can be changed. Turns out I bought a house that needed quite an overhaul! I unfortunately was too impatient to do everything myself (I’m unmarried and living alone and work about 3 full time jobs LOL) so I made all the design decisions and my brother helped carry them out. Floors, kitchen, and bathrooms… but I have plenty of DIY projects up my sleeves!
Something I was also on the lookout for was how I felt when I stepped inside. I saw plenty of houses that didn’t pull me in or that I couldn’t really envision myself living in. Then this house – I stepped inside for the first time and it immediately felt like home. I knew that it was the one I wanted based almost entirely on that feeling. I was looking for a house that was open, had lots of windows, a decent sized yard, and of course was structurally sound.
Andree Caron says
That list of things to look past is HILARIOUS because ALL of those things are int he house we bought. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Bwahahaha, I think I have images up on my website that show what our *new* old house looks like. We have: 2 types of wallpapers; 3 kinds of paneling; a faux-brick wall AND a stucco +brick combo; old light fixtures of all sorts, an almond toilet & bath in one bathroom and gold toilet and sink in the other; 70’s inspired check orange and gold curtains; poofy valences.
Well, at least they knew how to paint and they kept most of their furniture :P
Since I studied historic preservation (architectural history) in college, the older the better in my book! Nothing freaks me out to be honest, which worries my hubby!
The oldest I have ever bought was a 1930 “Californian” Craftsman though it had been mostly updated by the time I got a hold of it. I just repainted and changed out light fixtures.
I always, always, ALWAYS suggest getting a home inspection and that should (for the most part) save you from buying a money pit. However, in the case of my Craftsman, my A/C unit went out a month after the closing. The inspection told me that it was 16 years old but I was banking that it would last a little longer. I was wrong. Similarly, a few months after closing on my last home (a 1940 cottage), the waste pipe from the house to the street became clogged. Fortunately, a visit from Roto-Rooter fixed the issue but not all things will show up in an inspection. So I think it’s best to have an “emergency” fund for home repairs when you’re buying an older home. But it’s so worth it; you just can’t get the charm and details of a old home in a new one. Plus they are built to last (for the most part)!
Oh yes, an emergency fund is a great help for those surprise issues!
I second the importance of doing an inspection! While all the cosmetic and functionality issues you mentioned are important, certain types of problems can cost a lot to fix, especially if those things need to be done before or shortly after moving in. Also, consider the cost of things that aren’t yet broken but will need to be replaced soon, because need-to-fix will need to come before want-to-fix and could eat into months of money you’ve budgeted for the fun projects.
Another thing to consider when comparing homes that have some similarities in the most important areas is the type of work to be done and whether or not you feel up to the task of doing it yourself or would need to hire it out. It’s good to price out the things that you really want to change ASAP so that you’ll know the “real” cost of one house vs. another.
Also, know whether or not you can stand to live in a construction zone for a while if you are leaning towards a house with lots of work. I love that the YHL peeps try to do big projects one at a time so that most of the house is construction-free, but even so, I don’t think I’d like to have so many big projects going on one after the other. I prefer to do big stuff before moving in (or in my early days in the house) then tweak things as I go, one project at a time. I get very stressed when in the midst of a major project involving a key area of my home (like the kitchen) but I love little projects and quick, easy, high-impact stuff (like painting or rearranging a room). Just know what works for you.
Sherry – You mentioned refinishing your hardwoods in the comments above – when do you think refinishing doesn’t make sense?
I have a 1920s rowhome with 1000 sq. ft. of original oak flooring (badly damaged). There is no subfloor and we can see the light shining up through the basement through gaps in the planks. We are leaning toward just using the original floors as a subfloor (as sad as that makes us) because we don’t think it’s practical to refinish from a heating/noise/thickness of the floors standpoint.
Yes in your case it sounds like it makes more sense not to put money into the floors since the light shines through gaps and you want a more sealed and seamless result (some folks wouldn’t even do your floors if you asked since they might not be a good “base” for sanding). Hope it helps!
We’re on our third home and you think we’d know better. But our second house sold in three days and we felt pressure into buying something fast..Looking back I would have rented until we found a house we loved as opposed to one that was empty and easy to close on. Although we’ve made tons of improvements and will probably lose money when we sell, we are moving on next spring. We are moving back to our preferred town and will take our time finding, hopefully, our last home..So for me, Location is No. 1! I only wish I could take our current neighbors with us.
I love that you mentioned cosmetic things! We are house hunting, and our realtor loves the fact that she can show me ugly homes, and as long as it has a big living room with a fireplace and a huge yard, I’ll probably fall in love. Haha!
For more rural areas, check out the septic and well. It’s always good to know the septic was recently serviced so there’s a low chance of a VERY messy problem later. The water rate of the well is important also. My parents current home has a low rate and during very dry spells in the summer not enough water can be an issue. You can’t even think about showering if the washing machine (high-efficiency) is running.
Nicole @ Liberty Belles says
great post – it makes me shudder to think about all the people who buy houses that are “prettier” (ie: have nice paint colors and up-to-date curtains) and pay so much more than they would had they bought a house that only needed a little sprucing up. And I’m not talking difficult stuff – ANYONE can point and hang curtains!
but then again, it makes me smile to think of all the value that’ll be added to my house when I sell it, thanks to my classy decor taste :) (said in a slightly sarcastic but very hopeful tone)
Lynn @ Our Useful Hands says
I’m glad to tell you that I feel like I went to YHLU (YHL University) before we purchased our house because of how much of this same stuff you “taught” me. This advice works like gangbusters! And you guys are single handedly bringing the housing market back from the brink… ;o)
My best, Lynn
Aw you’re so sweet Lynn.
I won’t buy for another year or two and all these comments are invaluable.
Sherry and John, I remember you once saying that from the first day you saw your current house you wanted to add the opening to the kitchen. I’m curious to know what portion of your house’s big projects (things like the kitchen, deck, french doors, carport to garage, etc..) did you invision on that first walk through? And how did you factor the cost of those projects into the price you were willing to pay for your home?
Thanks. Love all your advice and inspiration and can’t wait for you to come to Seattle in January!
On the first walk through we thought about the kitchen opening, turning the old dining room into the office, and turning the carport into the garage. Never would have thought about the deck (we thought we should add stairs down to a patio at first) or the patio on the other side (which we thought we might leave wild and not use that area) for a while! It’s fun to see what sticks and what ends up being a bad first idea that you get past! As for the cost of our house, we always always always buy houses well under what we’re approved for. Not just a few thousand, tens of thousands. That way we’re not stretching or feeling pressured and the mortgage payment is nice and low so every month we can save money towards things we want to fix. It also helped that the seller was giving us a full credit to convert the carport into a garage (it was cash at closing, so we didn’t HAVE to spend it on that or anything, so we did other more important things and can do that at any time – or not at all if we change our minds, haha!).
home inspectors forever. in my previous house, where the parade of yogurt-for-brains plumbers, construction flakes, con artist electricians and disappearing alcoholic handymen was stunning, i hired the best house inspector in the city to come in once every three years and tell me what needed to be repaired and how to do it. it really helped.
Disclaimer: I built a house because I couldn’t find one that had the details I wanted in a price range I could afford in my small rural area.
But I think it’s important to point out that most of the points made here apply just as well to buying a new home or building a home. Pay attention to the things you cannot readily change: location, numbers and sizes of windows, home’s orientation to the sun, ceiling heights, etc. And do pay attention to your budget: I ended up with more formica that I would have preferred to get the house constructed; later I replaced the Formica with the surfaces I really wanted, when I could afford that. AND . . . Don’t forget the inspection!
And be sure to do your due diligence on your builder. Google the term “performance bond.” Even if the builder has one, even if your bank is comfortable the builder has one, it’s fairly inexpensive to get your own from your insurance agent. A friend found that out the hard way.
Love all the tips everyone! So smart!
I agree that an inspection is totally necessary and you would be foolish not to get one. Looking at before and afters of homes similar helps a lot to see the potential most spaces have. Keeping a note book or pin board of inspiration is very helpful for me. Oh and whenever I’m touring a potential purchase home, I have to think…where would I put my christmas tree?! Dork. I know.
Haha, you’re the third person to say that! I love it!
One other tip when house hunting: make a list of flaws with your current house. Things like, bedrooms on the north side of the house may be nice for the lack of light coming in, but is it going to make the rooms too uncomfortably cold for sleeping in the winter?
My current place, I thought the kitchen was nice when I toured it since it had more counter space than the previous kitchen. However, I didn’t think about the fact that there were few cabinets (and I definitely didn’t open them up to notice that I can’t even adjust the shelves). I still like my place, but I hate the kitchen. In the same vein though, if I didn’t like to cook, the kitchen would be perfectly adequate otherwise.
I always say that we bought our house in spite of our house. It was a beige-upon-beige traditional colonial (lots of little boxes inside a big box) – a far cry from the nooks and crannies and architectural details that I dreamed about. But the big, private backyard, friendly neighborhood, and walking distance to charming town center hooked us. And I’m so glad – lots of wallpaper stripping, paint cans, and work later, we often get compliments on how much character our home has. If they only knew what we started with!
Aw that’s so sweet! A love story. Haha. Love those.