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Reality television has added some glitz and glam to the idea of buying a fixer-upper, turning it into your dream home, and living happily ever after. However, the truth is that it’s never as easy as it looks on TV. It takes time, money, and a whole lot of hard work to turn a fixer-upper into a dream home. But it can also be extremely rewarding, if you buy a home that’s a good candidate for being fixed up—here’s what to look for.

Sound Structure

If the home you’re looking at isn’t structurally sound, you’re most likely looking at larger, necessary repairs. Often, these repairs have to be made before the home is livable.

Here are the main things you should look at. If these elements are all sound, this is probably a good fixer-upper for you. The home still may be a good buy even if you do have to repair several of these things, but it’s smart to know how much they may cost beforehand.

  1. Roof: The roof is what protects the home from the elements, mainly water. A poorly maintained roof can cause some real structural issues down the road.
  2. Foundation: Ideally, foundations are free of cracks. Cracking in the walls and around windows are tell-tale signs of a foundation problem.
  3. Plumbing: Old steel pipes are more likely to have issues than copper pipes. Pipe leaks, corroded pipes, and low water pressure are common plumbing problems in older homes. These are all issues that can lead to extensive water damage in a home.
  4. Electrical System: Old electrical panels aren’t built for modern usage. They will have to be replaced, and old wiring may have to be replaced entirely. Check for frayed wires and buzzing or flickering lights.
  5. HVAC System: Make sure the system heats and cools all the rooms, and check the age of the furnace and the air conditioning.

If your fixer-upper has a leaking roof, a crumbling foundation, or a completely outdated electrical system, thoroughly investigate the problem before you put in an offer on the home (including bringing in some experts). You should also make sure you get several quotes of what it costs to fix the problem and take that into account when putting in an offer. This will help you prioritize the work you have done to the home.

The quick rule is that the house should stand straight and look solid. It shouldn’t be leaning or bulging out in places. Floors should be level and flat, and all the doors should fit properly in their jambs. Make sure you have good bones; the ugliest house around can be a really smart buy if it’s structurally sound.


A good layout is so important when you’re buying a home. You might think that moving a wall or adding a closet is no big deal, but structural changes aren’t always easy or inexpensive.

Old homes often had very different floor plans than newer homes have, so you need to make sure that you can make the layout work for your needs (or the needs of today’s modern buyer). Kitchens were often separated from the living areas of the home, master bathrooms were very small or non-existent, and closet and storage space was very minimal. And don’t even think about a master bathroom.

If you’re going to want to knock down walls, expand living areas, or make any other major structural changes (including plumbing changes), make sure you know that those changes are possible and approximately how much they are going to cost before you buy the home.


Whether its mice, termites, asbestos, or mold, you don’t want to find a costly infestation in your fixer-upper. Minor infestations might not be that hard to take care of, but large ones can be extremely expensive and can require major repairs to the structure of the home.

Water Damage

All gutters and downspouts need to carry water away from the house, and the lot should be graded to take runoff away from the foundation. Otherwise, it could have damage from drainage. If it’s had such problems in the past, it will likely have them again in the future unless these problems have been taken care of. Look for signs of moisture or flooding on the walls.

You should also look for water damage from kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Check the floors and walls for signs of water, and watch for leaky fixtures.


The basement is often a dead giveaway when it comes to spotting neglect or poor construction because it’s where you can really see the bones of the home. You can see all of the wiring and plumbing down there. See if it looks like it has been done professionally. You can also see any modifications or repairs to the HVAC system.

Cheap and Expensive Home Fixes

This is not an exhaustive list of all cheap and expensive home fixes, but it gives you an idea of what can be tackled easily and what is going to require more resources. Also, no repair is a deal-breaker, but you should know how much big repairs will cost and take that into account before putting in an offer on the home.

Cheap Home Fixes

  1. Refinishing hardwood floors, or laying carpet and tile
  2. Fixing broken windows
  3. Patching walls, removing wallpaper, and painting
  4. Replacing light fixtures
  5. Installing new or rehabbing kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities
  6. Replacing baseboards and trim
  7. Replacing doors
  8. Changing out light switches
  9. Replacing a toilet

Expensive Home Fixes

  1. Fixing a foundation
  2. Re-roofing
  3. Replacing the home’s HVAC system
  4. Replacing all plumbing
  5. Replacing all the electrical wiring
  6. Complete kitchen remodel
  7. Complete bathroom remodel
  8. Pouring new concrete for the driveway, sidewalk, or steps
  9. Installing new windows for the entire home


Ask the city if the work you’re doing needs a permit (you usually will). Don’t forget to factor that into your budget.

Also, keep in mind that there may be special conditions for your fixer-upper. Historical homes often have specialized guidelines that newer homes don’t have. (You might have to buy historically accurate materials, for instance, which will require a larger budget.)

Need Help Finding a Fixer-Upper of Your Own?

Need help finding your own fixer-upper? We’re here to help you to find just the right one to turn into your dream home.

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