Up in Your Feelings About a Fixer-Upper? Read This First.

Imagine the scene: During a simple kitchen renovation, a contractor uncovers some super-serious damage and, the next thing you know, walls are going down and half the house is gutted. That’s completely OK if you had planned for surprises from the get-go. But if you didn’t, scope creep can lead to heartbreak and financial strain.

buying a fixer-upper

When you’re shopping for a fixer-upper, it’s important to evaluate the risk involved in various remodeling projects. Are you dealing with a few simple cosmetic fixes or something more extensive? To separate the two, start by breaking home systems down into three primary categories: core systems, entrenched systems and disposable systems.

Disposable Systems: Totally Do-able

These systems, which require regular maintenance and repair, include water heaters, appliances, kitchen and bathroom finishes, many roof coverings, paint, flooring, exposed decks and heating and cooling equipment. If the full scope of a home renovation is updating disposable systems, the house is really in the “cosmetic fixer” category. These remodel projects can be tackled by even less experienced homeowners. Consider these “spread sheet houses,” as the estimated costs for renovation can be reliably calculated in a spread sheet.

Entrenched Systems: Some Experience Required

These systems are more complicated to update than disposable systems because they are entrenched in the building. Entrenched systems include siding and trim, windows, electrical wiring, plumbing and wall insulation. The risk is REAL if you take on a house that requires extensive updates to entrenched systems; you are likely opening walls and may uncover surprises that expand the scope of the project. These fixer projects are better suited to more experienced and risk-tolerant homeowners and remodelers.

Core Systems: Proceed with Caution

These systems — difficult or even impossible to correct or update — include the foundation and frame, the site, the roofline, access and the floor plan. Renovating a house with foundation problems, drainage problems and pest damage to the wood frame is risky; determining where these projects begin and end is a beast. Changing or adding on to an existing floor plan is a big project with an even bigger cost per square foot. Throw in needed updates to entrenched and disposable systems, and you are now looking at a very cohesive and complex renovation. When considering houses in this category, compare the value of the land to the value of the house; you may not want to pay too much for the house.

Don’t Try to Go It Alone

To get a systematic look at your house, hire an experienced home inspector (possibly before you put in an offer). During a thorough home inspection, the inspector will review the house systems mentioned above. The inspector will also look for clues that could indicate hidden or concealed problems and point out designs or installations that present risk. Run the findings of your home inspection through this filter of core, entrenched and disposable systems to help you determine if you can handle ownership and renovation of the home.