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a fan of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” there’s a good chance you’ve caught yourself dreaming about how you might customize an outdated house bought at a rock-bottom price.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

The Guide to Living in a Co-Op

Devon Thorsby | July 9, 2020

Here's what you need to know about how a co-op works differently from traditional homeownership.

What to Do if You Get Evicted

Maryalene LaPonsie | July 8, 2020

With government protections being lifted, many people could face eviction notices in the months to come.

How to Find a Real Estate Agent

Devon Thorsby | June 30, 2020

Here's how to find a real estate agent to help you confidently navigate a home sale or purchase.

Should You Buy a Condo?

Geoff Williams | June 26, 2020

Before you commit to owning a home, consider factors like maintenance fees and proximity to neighbors.

What to Know About Moving to Canada

Devon Thorsby | June 25, 2020

Planning and preparation can make your move to Canada a success.

The Guide to Buying a Home Sight Unseen

Dima Williams | June 24, 2020

While feasible, purchasing a home sight unseen requires more work and attention.

How to Look Up the History of Your House

Devon Thorsby | June 23, 2020

Find out anything from previous owners and environmental records to who died on a property.

Is My Agent Selling My Home Right?

Steven Gottlieb | June 19, 2020

A few questions can help you know if your real estate agent has the skills to sell your home at the right price.

Prepare Your Home for a Hurricane

Kimberly Lankford | June 19, 2020

Hurricane season runs from June through November, and even some small steps can make a big difference in protecting your home.

What to Know About Moving to Austin

Devon Thorsby | June 18, 2020

Find out if you should be one of the many people putting down roots in Austin, Texas.

How to Renovate a House

Devon Thorsby | June 17, 2020

Plan your home remodeling project carefully, and consider your skill level combined with your budget.

How Much Does a Tiny Home Cost?

Devon Thorsby | June 16, 2020

Living in a tiny house may sound like a great way to save, but some details require a hefty investment.

How to Prepare for a Long-Distance Move

Lisa Larson | June 12, 2020

Follow these 10 tips for getting your family and home ready to relocate to a new city or state.

Neighbor Rights Regarding Construction

Devon Thorsby | June 11, 2020

Construction noise can be a nuisance for homeowners and apartment dwellers, so it's important to know your options.

Do's and Don'ts of Buying Vacant Land

Devon Thorsby | June 9, 2020

Buying a home can be complicated, but purchasing land to build on is a whole new ball game.

15 Affordable DIY Backyard Games

Devon Thorsby | June 4, 2020

These at-home projects will get you and your crew outdoors this summer to make the most of your backyard space.

25 Affordable Home Organization Ideas

Devon Thorsby | June 2, 2020

These tips will bring order to your home – and keep it that way.

Outlook for the Housing Market in the Recession

Devon Thorsby | May 28, 2020

Are we in a recession? Here's a look at how the pandemic will affect the housing market.

What to Know Before Moving to Miami

Devon Thorsby | May 26, 2020

Beyond the sunny weather and beaches, Miami offers residents global business opportunities and multicultural attractions.

Should You Move to Florida?

Devon Thorsby | May 21, 2020

Whether you're aiming for South Beach or the Panhandle, there are a few things you should know before making Florida your new home.