Fans of HGTV and enthusiastic do-it-yourselfers would likely jump at the chance to take an outdated house and make it their own. A fixer-upper is often an economical alternative to a move-in ready home, affording you the opportunity to customize the layout, materials and overall look to match your wildest dreams.
But taking on a fixer-upper is not just about tearing down a wall or two and refinishing the hardwood floors. “You need to be very careful – there are things that could be a real health hazard as well,” says Scott McGillivray, host of the HGTV show “Income Property,” who partners with Owners.com.
Long-outdated houses are often fraught with serious structural, electrical, plumbing and air quality problems. Before you take a sledgehammer to any walls, it’s necessary to thoroughly check the property for health and safety hazards and make any needed updates the No. 1 priority.
All Systems Go
They may be some of the least fun and most expensive updates to deal with, but ensuring all your home’s systems – plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning – are to code and properly functioning is a must.
The National Fire Protection Association’s Electrical Fires report, issued in March, notes that between 2010 and 2014, municipal fire departments reported 45,210 house fires involving “electrical failure or malfunction.” And electrical fires caused an average of $1.4 billion in damage and 420 civilian deaths per year during the four-year period, according to the report.
While an outdated house may not have had any electrical problems yet, as you move in and begin plugging in your own appliances, chargers and lamps, it can lead to greater problems, explains Dylan Chalk, a certified home inspector based in Seattle and author of “The Confident House Hunter: A Home Inspector’s Tips for Finding Your Perfect Home.”
“You could have an old house that, in theory, might have worked for Grandma, who didn’t plug much stuff in,” he says. “And a family of five moves in with all their gizmos, and the same wiring systems just wouldn’t be safe.”
Even before you purchase a fixer-upper, consider those potential updates that may not be as obvious as removing the floral wallpaper in the kitchen. McGillivray recommends looking at wall outlets – if the receptacle doesn’t have the third prong, it means the outlet isn’t grounded – and checking out any visible wiring in the basement or attic to get a glimpse at the electric system without having to poke holes in the wall before you buy it.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way – you can find something to tell you what’s going on,” McGillivray says.
Old plumbing may seem like less of an immediate danger, but cracked pipes, lead leaching into water and sewage gas coming from a dry drain are a few of the problems that can bring about health problems for you and water damage for your home.
And when utilities have been off for more than a couple days, McGillivray says you may find “toilets are cracked, pipes have burst, even drains can crack.” If you’re buying a fixer-upper that’s been long vacant, plan for plumbing updates and other related repairs in your budget.
Room to Breathe
In addition to having systems updated, you should ensure that the older materials used in a home don't pose a threat to your health, as lead paint and asbestos from old popcorn ceilings, insulation or tile mastic are serious hazards to your lungs when particles become airborne.
“If you’re going to be making dust – pulling out walls, whatever – then you’d really want to test for lead and asbestos,” Chalk says.
If the house was built before 1978 and hasn’t undergone a top-to-bottom renovation since, there’s a good chance you’ll see lead paint and asbestos, Chalk says. The use of lead paint in homes was outlawed by the federal government in 1978, and the use of friable asbestos in household materials largely declined around the same time.
Narrow down your search by determining the amount of work you want to do on your home from the get-go.
If lead and asbestos are found and not encapsulated, they're often considered friable, or easy to crumble and release particles into the air, and the removal process is very detailed and can get pricey. The area needs to be sealed off to be airtight, and removal requires dampening surfaces to keep particles from hanging in the air, settling elsewhere or even working their way out to the rest of the neighborhood.
Asbestos and lead removal is not a DIY project. Many home contractors are certified for lead or asbestos removal, but you may need to find a separate company from the one you hired to complete the overall renovation to handle the safe removal of the hazardous materials from your home.
An older home that hasn’t seen many updates is also likely not equipped with a radon mitigation system, which acts as a vacuum to pull radon gas from the earth beneath the foundation of the house and expel it outside, keeping it from concentrating inside the house.
Exposure to high levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so it’s important to have your house’s radon levels tested if there is no mitigation system in place. Radon gas levels can vary by region, topography and even by street and house.
The possibility for health and safety hazards in an outdated fixer-upper shouldn’t deter you from customizing your home just as you want it, but they should be a priority in your budget. An open floor plan may be just what that 1925 house needs, but not if it means keeping electric wiring from 1945.
Keep necessary updates in mind as your tour fixer-uppers, and McGillivray recommends bringing a contractor with you to discuss the cost of renovations and help point out other possible required updates as you consider an offer price.
Once you go under contract, schedule an inspection during your due diligence period to find out likely problems. McGillivray recommends opting for a more thorough inspection, which can be $700 rather than $200, he says, to get a better diagnosis of what’s wrong with the property.
“A good inspection report is like a blueprint for maintaining a house,” Chalk says.
The results of that inspection can help you set your renovation budget and, above all, make your fixer-upper safe to live in.
Do it yourself.
Everyone has a list of little fixes and improvements they need to get done at home. And all too often, they’re the most avoided items on any to-do list. It’s tempting to just call a maintenance staffer or handyperson to cross tasks off the list. But certain jobs you can – and probably should – do on your own. “It’s more rewarding when you do it yourself,” says Alexa Garshofsky, a licensed real estate salesperson for full-service real estate firm Triplemint in New York City, who considers herself a relatively handy person when it comes to home projects.Before you fix – get tools.
Before you fix – get tools.
It doesn’t take natural skill or professional training with tools to complete the tasks on this list. You should, however, invest in a basic toolkit. Stores such as Ikea, Home Depot and Target sell home kits with a hammer, wrenches, screwdrivers with multiple heads and sizes and other useful items that allow you to tackle the most basic of home improvement projects for less than $30 – and even as low as $7.99 at Ikea.Before you fix – always consider safety.
Before you fix – always consider safety.
Pushing yourself to embrace your handy side does not mean you should put yourself or others in danger. Never rig up an unstable apparatus to stand on, stick your finger in a light socket without first turning off the power or stand directly under something that could fall on you. Even after watching a YouTube tutorial or reading a product's instructions, “If you’re still nervous, don’t do it,” says J.B. Sassano, president of Mr. Handyman, a national home improvement company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a part of the network of home service providers Neighborly. Read on for tips on tackling simple home maintenance tasks on your own and how to identify when you’re in over your head.Changing a lightbulb.
Changing a lightbulb.
You shouldn’t need instructions beyond “righty tighty, lefty loosey,” to change out a bulb on a lamp or simple light fixture. Wait a few minutes to let the bulb cool and unplug the lamp or turn off the power to that outlet before you start unscrewing the bulb.
When to call a pro? If you don’t have the right light-changing equipment, fixtures beyond your reach increase the possibility of a fall or broken glass. Sassano says he recently called for a handyman after a high-up bulb broke in his house while his wife was trying to change it: “It’s 20 feet in the air, I’m not playing with anything.”Weatherstripping
Weatherstripping around your window and door frames to reduce drafts coming into your home is an even simpler task – no electric involved. Buy weatherstripping, which is sticky on one side, from any hardware store in a roll and simply cut the appropriate length for your doors and windows. This is key to cutting down on energy loss and heating costs in winter.
When to call a pro? When your draft problems are bigger than the crack under the door.Installing a light fixture.
Installing a light fixture.
Garshofsky installed hanging lights in her home for an industrial look, and all she had to do was use screw-in hooks. “You just screw them into the ceiling, and then you pull the wire through – it’s so simple,” she says. You can also change out a light fixture by attaching the wire connectors and securing the fixture to the ceiling – after cutting off the power, of course.
When to call a pro? Get some help if you don’t have a sturdy ladder to reach the ceiling, or if you’re looking to create a new ceiling hookup where there wasn’t one before, which should require the assistance of a licensed electrician.Hanging shelves or frames.
Hanging shelves or frames.
The 3M Command strips are the go-to for the notoriously unhandy, but sometimes your art or wall storage needs a bit more support. For maximum strength, use a stud finder (multiple apps can help find studs or buy an inexpensive device at any hardware store) to find the best placement for the screw or nail.
When to call a pro? If you live in an apartment or condo, you may find the walls have harder layers below the surface. “Once you hit concrete – extremely hard and you can’t get through it – you need to call a [handyperson] or super to do that kind of stuff,” Garshofsky recommends.Paint prep
A new wall color is an effective way to transform a space, and it’s often a simple enough project you can at least get started with. “A lot of homeowners have hand tools, sanders, brushes, rollers, dropcloths,” says Dan Schaeffer, owner of Five Star Painting in Austin, Texas, also a part of the Neighborly family of companies. Clean the surface you’re going to paint thoroughly to avoid chipping or peeling in the future.
When to call a pro? Exterior painting often requires a lot of power washing, and not everyone has the right tools.Patching holes
Whether you’re still in the paint prep process or you’re hoping to get your security deposit back on your apartment, patching holes is a simple enough task to complete in little time. Scrape peeling paint from the hole and even it out, then scoop a small amount of spackling paste or other patching compound into the hole. “You just smooth it down and it blends into the wall,” Garshofsky says. After it dries, sand and paint over the patch job so it blends in with the wall.
When to call a pro? If a doorknob, fist, foot or any other sizeable object went through the wall, the spackling will have a hard time drying. The project will require a patch kit or piece of drywall to cover the hole, and may even need a support added into the wall to keep the patch stable.Interior paint
Now that you’re ready to repaint the room completely, tape off baseboards, outlets and anything else you don’t want paint on and paint away. “You’re going to want to have a roller and a brush – you’re going to need both. … You can’t usually get a roller all the way up to the corners,” Schaeffer says. Try to apply an even coat for consistency by working from one end of the wall to the other and rolling out any drips or lines of excess paint as you go, and then recoat as needed.
When to call a pro? More complicated paint jobs where you don’t have the sprayers, tall ladders or time to get the job done, whether it's the exterior of your home or your kitchen cabinets.Fixing a leaky faucet.
Fixing a leaky faucet.
The drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet can drive anyone a little crazy, and in many cases you can take care of it yourself. “If it’s just a washer change, it’s going to be something that any homeowner can fix,” Sassano says. The only tricky part is finding the right size washer for your faucet, which can be difficult. Before you make a move on the faucet, turn off the water.
When to call a pro? If the washer doesn’t fix it, call a pro. Any plumbing problem that can’t be fixed with a toilet plunger should get the help of a licensed plumber.Assembling furniture.
If you haven’t spent an afternoon building flat-pack furniture from Ikea, Wayfair, Joss & Main or another home goods company, you’ve lived a blessed life. While the instructions may not be entirely obvious – and may lack words entirely – they’ll get you to the end result eventually. “It’s more frustrating than it is hard,” Garshofsky says. Many large pieces of furniture call for more than one person to complete the project, so don’t be afraid to call a friend.
When to call a pro? Only when you’re ordering a custom piece of furniture from a specialty carpenter. You can handle the Ikea stuff.Read More
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.