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Fixer-Uppers: A Labor Of Love

By Lisa Scontras

Shopping for a home in one of the most expensive markets in the country can be downright depressing – especially if what you can afford looks more like a college dorm room.

If finding your dream home is an issue of wanting more space or being closer to town, there is still hope. Consider looking for a house that’s a dog – but structurally sound – and then making the necessary improvements over time.

“A fixer-upper is a more realistic option for some buyers who would like to buy in a particular neighborhood, building or location, when the ‘fixed-up’ properties there are way over their budget,” says Karen Robertshaw, Realtor and partner at Prudential Locations LLC. “It’s also a way for a buyer to customize a home by adding features that are important to them.”

Bizarre colors on the walls, outdated cabinets, cracked tiles and cosmetic problems can all be remedied. You can remodel the kitchen, add on a bedroom, knock down a wall and change almost anything about a house with some tools and a paint brush – everything, that is, but the location.

“The best fixer-uppers are the properties that ‘show awful,’ but upon closer inspection just need to be refreshed – new paint, new flooring, new appliances,” she says.

These homes, which might be listed as a “handyman special” or “as is,” should be discounted to compensate for the rundown condition. Be aware, however, that these terms are defined differently by different people and are sometimes used to indicate something is wrong with the property. Compare the price against other homes in the neighborhood and then get some estimates to see what needs repair and how much money the repairs will cost.

Robertshaw recommends the average Joe buyer stay away from major structural defects such as cracking foundations, settlement problems or sloping floors. A leaking roof – particularly if it has been leaking for a while – may have caused rotting or mold inside the walls. In some cases, outdated electrical and plumbing systems may be too extensive to fix.

Cosmetic improvements, on the other hand, are relatively easy to handle.

“The place presents itself as a fixer-upper and a mess, but closer inspection reveals a place that really only needs major de-cluttering and cleaning,” says Robertshaw. “Or, the next level would be de-clutter, clean, paint and replace the carpet.”

Projects such as kitchen and bathroom cabinetry and counter-tops, lighting and landscaping are considered realistic, as long as the costs are reasonable. Before you commit to the project, ask a contractor to get you an estimate of costs for both materials and labor.

“The cost of labor can be a lot higher than the cost of materials,” Robertshaw emphasizes. “There is a TV program where the materials for the fix-up are always ‘just under $2,000,’ but there is no labor cost in that calculation. In the real world, the cost of labor for those episodes would easily increase the total job costs to $6,000 to $8,000.” Advantages of remodeling a fixer-upper, if done properly, include being able to customize everything yourself, especially colors and finishes. Additionally, you don’t have to compromise or live with someone else’s choices and you can do the work in phases, thus spreading the cost over a longer period of time.

Ask your Realtor to find you a house that has good bones but is in need of some TLC. With the right mix of expertise and imagination, you can turn that diamond in the rough into your dream home.

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