The People You Need When Buying a Fixer-Upper

Buying a move-in ready house sounds like an ideal situation for buyers, although the reality is many of these homes come with a steep price tag.

Sometimes investing in a fixer-upper is your best shot at getting your dream house and neighborhood. If you’re able to look past the flaws and envision the home’s potential, you’ve passed the first challenge. But vision can only get you so far. If you’re looking to make significant renovations, it’s always helpful to have back up from the professionals.

I’m currently in the middle of a major gut-remodel of a San Francisco Victorian that was built in the 1800s. As you start demoing and gutting, my advice would be to have your mobile contacts updated with these important experts.

  • The problem: The house may not be worth the investment.

    Who to call: a real estate investor

    Buying any home is an investment, and you should never put more money into a house than it’s worth. With a fixer-upper, you need to factor in the cost renovations as well as the purchase price.

    Real estate investors, who buy fixer-uppers to fix and flip or to rent out, know the correct calculations. “First, it’s critical to get a home inspection so you fully understand the extent of the problems and how much it will likely cost to fix them,” says Alex Biyevetskiy, a remodeling contractor with Once you have the results of the inspection, a real estate investor can help you determine whether the cost of rehabbing makes sense.

    Sometimes a home that looks like a great fixer-upper may have structural damage and need costly fixes. Doing a cost-benefit analysis can help you make an informed financial decision about the home.

  • The problem: There are signs of pest infestation.

    Who to call: an exterminator

    If a home has declined into fixer-upper status from years of abandonment and poor care, it’s likely that the owners didn’t keep up with pest control. Just because you don’t see critters running around during the open house doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Put on your inspector hat and look around the house for cracks. “It only takes a crack 1/32 of an inch wide to invite termites and other wood-destroying insects inside,” says Leslie Wyman, president of Ohio’s Epcon Lane pest control services.

    If you see anything that makes you worry about pests, contact a local exterminator, who can detect any previous damage that’s been repaired, point out any existing damage, and note areas that are at risk of infestation.

  • The problem: The kitchen and bath are outdated.

    Who to call: a general contractor

    Back in the day, kitchens didn’t exactly have stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and an open layout. And bathrooms were hardly the spa-like retreat many have come to expect. So, when buying a fixer-upper home, an update of one or both is often a given.

    The first step is to talk to a general contractor to determine the scope of a project. “A great fixer-upper is a home where you can easily update the kitchen or bathroom without changing the sink and tub locations,” says Danny Ruby of Refine Construction Inc. in Boston, MA. “If you can update the cabinets, floor, walls, and fixtures without touching the plumbing itself, you’ll save a lot of money.”

  • The problem: The wiring looks “antique.”

    Who to call: an electrician

    The older the home you’re considering, the older the wiring is likely to be. That to-die-for historic home you’ve fallen for could have knob-and-tube wiring—state-of-the-art in the early 1900s but very dangerous to have in your home today, says Mark Farmer, owner of Mr. Electric of Kansas City South in Kansas.

    Knob-and-tube wiring would mean rewiring the entire house, but some problems require just a simple fix, adds Farmer. If you want to install new light fixtures and the wiring was done before 1987, you may simply need to install a splice box and 3 feet of new wire to connect to the new fixtures.

    Overcrowded wires is another common problem to watch out for. “During the rough wiring stage, it can be tempting to cram four or five wires through a 7/8-inch hole,” says Farmer. “But this overcrowding leads to ‘burning,’ damage to a wire when its insulation is torn off by another wire dragging across it. And burning increases the risk of fire.” An electrician can cut away the damaged wire, install a junction box, and replace the bad wire.

  • The problem: A weird smell may mean a sewage problem.

    Who to call: a plumber

    Bad smells in a house tend to make potential buyers run away, and for good reason. “Sewage problems may be the worst plumbing problem you can encounter,” says Glenn Gallas, vice president of operations for Mr. Rooter Plumbing. “The potential cost to fix things up can be even worse than the smell.”

    But some plumbing issues are easily fixed. Try flushing the toilets a few times, sometimes the problem is just sitting water. If the home has a septic tank, find out when it was last serviced. A plumber can also inspect the home to check for leaky pipes, determine whether you’ll need to replace the water heater, and assess whether the pipes are the right size to deliver the proper water pressure.