If you’re a fan of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” there’s a good chance you’ve caught yourself dreaming about how you might customize an outdated house bought at a rock-bottom price.

You don’t have to be a home improvement TV show junkie to be intrigued by houses on the market that aren’t exactly move-in ready. Especially if it means saving on the purchase price of a house, many homebuyers are inclined to take on renovations and updates to get the keys to a new home.

In a February survey of 1,000 consumers considering purchasing a home in 2017, online brokerage Owners.com found 51 percent of the homebuyers surveyed would consider a fixer-upper.

But if you don’t have an eye for home improvement and what it costs – and Chip and Joanna Gaines aren't walking you through the process – you might find yourself lost once you’re the owner of a house with '70s wallpaper and holes in the stairs.

[See: 8 Easy Renovation Projects Every Homeowner Can Do Now.]

Here are nine things to do once you’ve purchased your fixer-upper.

Close first, then go in-depth with contractors. Home improvement shows like “Fixer Upper” and “Property Brothers” often depict homebuyers touring potential buys with the real estate agent-contractor team, but that’s not usually the case in real life.

Most design-and-build firms or construction companies work separately from real estate agents and will want to put in the work with existing homeowners, rather than those who haven’t yet bought a property.

Take other guesses at face value. You probably don’t know how much every update you want to make is going to cost as you close, but don’t take guesses during the homebuying process as accurate.

Zak Fleming, owner of Fleming Construction in the Des Moines, Iowa, area, says real estate agents typically quote home improvement costs far below what the buyer will actually pay for renovations.

“They get paid on selling the house, not renovating it. So usually, the real estate agent’s estimated numbers will be very, very low in my experience,” Fleming says.

Find the right contractor for your project. Once you’ve bought the home, it’s a matter of finding the right contractor – or contractors, depending on how you want to do the repairs and renovation. As with hiring any professional, you should do your research.

“You want to check referrals,” says Dina Dwyer-Owens, co-chairwoman of Dwyer Group, a family of companies that includes Neighborly, which works with home service franchises throughout the U.S. and Canada, including Molly Maid, Mr. Rooter and Rainbow International Restoration. Neighborly provides local reviews and contact information for businesses, but it also vets each of the franchises it associates with.

Call in advance. Whether you’re doing a couple rooms or the entire house, a renovation is a big project, so get in touch with contractors well in advance of when you’d like to begin work.

“Planning is the biggest key. … The sooner you get ahold of that service provider to begin that process, the better,” Dwyer-Owens says.

[See: 8 Ways to Transform Unused Space in Your Home.]

Don’t ask for estimates – you set the budget. There are a lot of logistical differences between a water heater replacement and a kitchen upgrade, but a key difference is the way costs are determined. You’ll get quotes from a company to replace a water heater. With a kitchen overhaul, you tell the contractor what you want to spend.

Outline the desired budget and what you’d like updated, and the company will provide you with a plan for the project time frame, hardware that can be incorporated within the budget and expected subcontractor involvement, plus the expected overall cost depending on your preferences.

For companies with a good reputation, Fleming says you won’t see much of a difference: “The pricing should all be right around the same for the same scope of work.”

Decide if you want to do it all at once or in parts. A big factor in determining the budget – and what you may have to spend on the side – is how much work you want done at once. Some homeowners can afford to remain in their previous home or rent elsewhere while the entire house undergoes a remodel, while for many, a gradual renovation makes it possible to stay put while work is done.

“They can kind of move from room to room and try to live in their house the best they can,” Fleming says. “It’s a very invasive process either way, but it’s a little more manageable.”

Consider how you use the home before you picking out features. Many construction firms that specialize in renovations – from demolition to interior design – ultimately want to meet your needs living in the home. So before you tell your contractor you’re dreaming of a tempered-glass, floating vessel sink in your master bathroom, first describe if you use the sink simply to wash your hands or if it’s an integral part of your morning routine with needed counter space for toothbrushes, facewash or makeup.

“We’ll definitely make it pretty, but we’re more interested in, ‘I want to have seating for 12 for Thanksgiving dinner,’ ‘I like to cook for my kid’s track team,’ stuff like that,” Fleming says.

Consider your return on investment. When it comes to a fixer-upper, some buyers hope to make it the home they’ll live in for the next 40 years. For others, it’s a house to transform and, in a few years, sell for a sizable profit.

But you want to keep your home in line with others in the neighborhood. If you transform it into the best house on the block by a mile, when you put the For Sale sign out front, you may not see as much money come back as you spent on the home plus updates.

“If you’re completely doing an overhaul and updating absolutely everything, you’re still only capturing half the market because now you’re probably out of the affordable price range of people who might have bought it for what it was,” says Scott McGillivray, host of the HGTV show “Income Property,” who partners with Owners.com.

[See: 11 Popular Home Updates That Are Worth the Cost.]

When work starts, take a step back. You might think you’re keeping a sharp eye on your investment by hanging around the worksite daily, but no one likes a micromanager.

Especially when you’re working with a contractor who manages the project from start to finish – subcontractors included – don’t waste your time inquiring about construction details you don’t need to be concerned with. If there’s a problem or an update, a good contractor will notify you immediately.

“Let them take the wheel – you hired them to do that,” Fleming says.

Tags: real estate, housing, home improvements, existing home sales, pending home sales


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

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 dthorsby@usnews.com.

Recommended Articles

Is there a Better Time to Sell a House?

Dima Williams | Feb. 18, 2020

Winter isn't keeping homebuyers at bay anymore. You may want to consider putting your property on the market before spring hits.

How to Find a Reliable Contractor

Teresa Mears, Devon Thorsby | Feb. 14, 2020

This expert advice will help you find a contractor to get your renovation done right.

Homebuyer Programs for Marylanders

Devon Thorsby | Feb. 12, 2020

These loan, payment assistance and education programs may help you buy a home this year.

6 Tile Trends for Your Home

Lisa Larson | Feb. 12, 2020

These popular tile options can introduce new colors, patterns and textures to your home.

8 DIY Bathroom Remodel Projects

Devon Thorsby | Feb. 7, 2020

These projects can be simple updates or combined for a full DIY bathroom transformation.

The Guide to Living in a Van

Devon Thorsby | Feb. 5, 2020

What you need to know when comparing costs and plans for your dream of living full time in a van.

Are Your HOA Fees Too High?

Wendy Arriz | Feb. 4, 2020

Here's how you should evaluate the monthly fees or carrying costs for a building or neighborhood.

The Best Virtual Room Design Tools

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 31, 2020

Use these tools to create floor plans, 3D models and other details to boost your room design.

What's That Smell in My House?

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 29, 2020

Figure out the likely causes of unpleasant smells in your home.

Why Move to Lower Your Property Taxes?

Steven Gottlieb | Jan. 29, 2020

A rising property tax bill may have you considering moving somewhere new. Consider these three things before making the change.

The Best Free Interior Design Apps

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 27, 2020

These apps help you brainstorm, budget and plan your next renovation or room design.

6 Simple Ideas for Your Home Office

Deanna Haas | Jan. 24, 2020

Here's a list of tips for designing your home office, maximizing productivity and getting more work done while you're working from home.

What You Should Know About Tenant Rights

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 23, 2020

Know what protections you have when you and your landlord get into a dispute.

How to Save on Hardwood Flooring Costs

Geoff Williams | Jan. 22, 2020

Consider these tips and tools to save on expensive hardwood costs.

9 Basement Renovations on a Budget

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 21, 2020

Make your underground space a little more welcoming without going beyond your budget.

What to Know About Moving to California

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 15, 2020

No other state offers such a variety of places to live and job opportunities, but expect to pay more.

Which Home Is the Best Layout for You?

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 10, 2020

Before you buy or build a home, consider how the footprint and floor plan fit with your lifestyle.

Why You Should Sell Your Home in 2020

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 8, 2020

The housing market may not be as hot as in previous years, but selling now could be your best bet.

What to Know Before Renovating a Garage

Deanna Haas | Jan. 6, 2020

A garage renovation can add value to your home – here's what you should keep in mind before starting the project.

Best Interior Design Instagram Accounts

Devon Thorsby | Jan. 3, 2020

These interior design Instagram accounts offer advice, inspiration and resources to elevate your home design.