Before you make a real estate purchase labeled “fixer upper,” there are more than a few things you should know. Here are the ten things to look for—and avoid when searching for your dream house.

By Marni Elyse Katz
May 05, 2017
Photo: Annie Schlechter

Real estate site Zillow recently reported that the average fixer-uppers are listed at a mere eight percent less than market value, making the ideal fixer-uppers one that call for cosmetic improvements rather than expensive structural work.

1. A Solid Foundation

Be sure that your potential new home’s foundation is sound, stable, free of cracks, and that the basement is dry. Tip: Try to schedule your inspection right after it rains.

2. A Leak-proof Roof

Same goes for the roof; many require major upkeep or even replacement (every 20 to 30 years, on average). Check to see that shingles are intact and that gutters and downspouts are in place. Inside, be sure ceilings aren’t cracked, stained, or sagging.

3. Updated Plumbing

Plumbing can be the priciest fix you encounter. Peter Souhleris, co-host of Flipping Boston advises, “You want either copper, Pex, or PVC; not old cast iron and galvanized pipes, which were likely installed over 50 years ago and have already exceeded their life expectancy.”

4. Modern Wiring

Older, unrenovated homes mean older wiring that could be potential fire hazards. Homes need grounded electrical systems. House flipper Jackie Falla of Quest For the Nest warns, “You could end up ripping out the walls to re-wire.” Souhleris adds, “You also want to make sure there are enough amps into the home for your array of modern appliances.”

5. Energy-Efficient Windows

Energy-star windows are best for cutting monthly heating and cooling costs, but at the very least, your windows should be airtight. Look out for leaky windows that let in moisture (soft, rotting wood is a telltale sign), which can lead to mold.

Related: Is DIY Painting Worth It?

6. Functional Mechanical Systems

All mechanical systems should be working and updated. Souhleris reminds buyers to check the dates and serial numbers on the furnace, hot water tank, air-conditioning unit, etc., to determine life expectancies.

7. A Lack of Pests (and Pesky Problems)

Homes should always be carefully examined for pests, mold, rot, lead paint, and asbestos; don’t take the real estate brokers word for it. Some mediation requires certified crews; DIY is not an option. As for termites, “if infestation is severe,” says Falla, “the house may need to be jacked up and structural members replaced.”

8. Its Sense of History

When buying older homes, it’s important to check whether it’s in a designated historic district, since the design approval and permit processes can be lengthy. That said, historic neighborhoods often boast high property values.

9. A Floor Plan You Love

Boston area interior designer Mary Jean Keany of Anamika Design LLC counsels clients to buy homes with floor plans you can leave intact, since moving load bearing walls is expensive. Also take room count and designation into consideration. If the home is in a neighborhood of three- and four-bedrooms, don’t expect to flip a two-bedroom for profit.

10. Character and Fun Surprises

Old homes can be majestic. The scale of the rooms, old wooden floors, and elaborate millwork may be worth the investment (though sometimes more costly to repair). Interior designer Gina Baran, who has appeared on HGTV’s “House Hunters Renovation,” says, “Peek under carpets and layers of paint for hidden treasures.”