We’ve all heard of homes advertised as a “renovator’s delight” or “perfect fixer upper” that turned out to be nightmares. When it comes to buying a house that needs work, understanding the difference between cosmetic and structural elements is vital. In the best case scenario this can help you net a bargain by buying a home that needs minimal cosmetic changes to bring it up to date.
However, if you buy a home that needs unforeseen structural repairs or major work, you can kiss goodbye any savings you thought you might have made with the lower purchase price as you end up footing the bill for expensive renovation work.
What to look for when buying a fixer upper house?
It’s amazing the difference a new coat of paint can make to a property. If the previous owners didn’t have the time or inclination to spruce up the house in order to get the best sale price possible, chances are by the time you’re done with it you’ll have saved yourself thousands.
Cosmetic elements include everything that is relatively easy to change around the home. Painting interiors and exteriors, changing light fittings, polishing floorboards or laying new tiles or carpet, changing curtains and blinds, replacing handles on doors and cupboards, landscaping the gardens and resurfacing the driveway can make a major difference to the overall look and feel of your home and help increase your equity.
If all of these things have already been done to the house you’re looking at buying, it’s likely you’ll be paying top dollar. There are huge savings to be had by buying a structurally solid home with older interiors and finishes in need of a facelift. Location is also key, so make sure your shabby property is in a relatively well presented suburb.
If you have a vision, you can get to work doing most of these cosmetic changes yourself or bring in the professionals. Be sure that you’re confident with the jobs you decide to do yourself or you could end up paying more to get them fixed down the track. Laying your own floorboards, for example, could save you plenty of money in labour costs, but if they’re not laid correctly and end up looking amateurish, you’ll have to pay to get them re-laid or jeopardise the look and value of your house.
There are some jobs that you just shouldn’t do yourself. Unless you have a trade, don’t even think about doing your own electrical work (it’s illegal, by the way). Other jobs such as painting are quite simple once you’ve done your homework, purchased all the right equipment and maybe taken advantage of a free weekend workshop at your local hardware store.
Renovating a bathroom or an old kitchen is almost a must for aspiring renovators as cosmetic changes to these rooms can often deliver the biggest bang for your buck. If you can work with the existing floorplan and plumbing, you can save thousands of dollars by making upgrades that give maximum impact for minimum spend. Repaint or replace discoloured sinks or baths using specialist products, or find quality used goods on second-hand sites. Change the cabinet fronts on doors and drawers and don’t be afraid to consider vinyl when it comes to flooring and benchtops. Vinyl products have come a long way and can do an incredible job emulating the look of granite and timber.
Seeing potential in a home’s street appeal is also a great way to add value. A coat of paint, a new balustrade, a coloured front door, a re-gravelled driveway and some well-placed pots and plants can make the world of difference.
Just remember, when it comes to making cosmetic improvements to your property you don’t want to spend too little or too much. Too little will almost always look cheap and might prove to be false economy if things need constant repair and replacement. Too much will blow your budget and may result in overcapitalising on your home (spending more money on improvements than what the home would be worth).
It is absolutely vital to put your x-ray glasses on and find out what hidden or structural costs might be attached to the home you’re interested in buying.
Ideally, you want to be able to see the result of any money you end up spending on your home rather than fixing costly elements that should be a given. Big ticket items to look out for include restumping, repairs to retaining walls, replacing the roof and building new rooms.
A building inspection in an absolute must when it comes to buying a home and helping to uncover any structural issues. Mould, wood rot, pest damage and illegal building can be difficult to recognise. A licensed building inspector with full indemnity insurance should be able to assess the ground levels, paving, floors, walls and roof and discover if there is any building movement or water ingress. Bowed walls, cracks and floors that are not level are all signs there are serious structural problems with a property that will likely cost thousands of dollars to fix.
If that’s the case, and you are still interested in buying the property, this can give you huge negotiating power. Not many people would want to go ahead with purchasing a property requiring structural work, so it’s likely you could get a good price. But we warned. You will want to know exactly what needs to be repaired, whether there are any risks involved, how much time it will take you to get quotes and oversee the project, how much it will cost, how long it will take to fix and have guarantees for any work done. If you still want to buy the property after factoring all of these things in, there is no reason why buying a property that needs structural repairs can’t be as profitable, if not more so, than one that only requires cosmetic changes.
Whatever the case, as long as you understand how much the cosmetic or structural changes will cost and the amount of work involved with both, it will be easier to make that all important decision about whether the home you’re looking to buy is the right one for you.