13 things I wish I’d known before buying a fixer-upper house

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Chip and Joanna Gaines make it look so
easy!

A handful of house tours, one big demo day and a wall full of
shiplap later and your fixer-upper has become a dream house.
But as any homeowner can attest, turning a property from
drab to fab is filled with many more
headaches than typically shown on HGTV. Before you set out to
do a remodel, read this advice from real-life folks who have
tackled renovations firsthand so you don’t make the same
mistakes.

Teresa
Wu / Teresa Wu

Teresa Wu shared before and after photos of the bathroom
inside her fixer-upper.

1. Vet the contractor

Because we were on a tight timeline, we jumped to hire a
contractor that a neighbor was working with without taking the
time to check additional references. That contractor didn’t
finish the job and mid-way through the renovation, we struggled
to find new ones to complete his work. All good contractors
won’t necessarily have an online presence — however, in my
experience, contractors with reviews on sites like Thumbtack
and Yelp are more likely to deliver on their work to maintain
their reputation. —Teresa Wu, Indiana

Contractors can be a great referral source to find other
contractors, but make sure they’ve actually worked jobs
together and aren’t just buddies. —Jenna Meister,
California

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

If you won’t be there in person when the contractor is working,
make sure to point out the details that are important to you
beforehand — verbally and in writing. For example, I taped
notes to the wall with painters tape to show my contractor
where exactly I wanted the showerhead placed, and also on any
spots that needed drywall repairs. —Jenna Meister

Jenna
Meister / Jenna Meister

Before: The original living room in Jenna Meister’s
fixer-upper.

Jenna
Meister / Jenna Meister

After: The newly-renovated living room in Meister’s house.

3. You don’t need to be an expert … but you should do ample
research

Before we started rehabbing houses, the handiest thing I’d ever
done was change a lightbulb. My previous idea of a DIY project
was getting a curtain put up on a tension rod. However, as soon
as I dove in, I quickly learned that while there are some
things I prefer to leave to the pros (say, electric), a lot of
remodel work isn’t rocket science. By reading a couple of
home-renovation blogs, getting advice on materials from Home
Depot staff and watching several YouTube tutorials, I learned
to lay tile in just a couple of hours. —Teresa Wu

4. Know when to hire a pro

Be realistic about your abilities. Always use a licensed and
insured plumber and electrician as messing up those aspects can
ruin a project. —Meredith Borrell and Brian Ketcik, New
Jersey

Lou Manfredini shows how to handle simple repairs

Play Video –
4:07

Lou Manfredini shows how to handle simple repairs

Play Video –
4:07

5. Shop around

Spending more time looking around for fixtures prior to the
purchase will give you a good idea of what your costs will
really be like. Also, if you have an opportunity, schedule
various contractors (only serious contenders) to visit the home
prior to buying so you can get a realistic idea of whether or
not your vision is within your budget. —Meredith Borrell
and Brian Ketcik

Get multiple quotes and compare how each contractor would
address a problem — what materials they would use, etc. — to
make sure you’re comparing apples with apples. —Jenna
Meister

Major retailers like Home Depot don’t have consistent prices.
You may notice slight price differences from location to
location, which can make a difference if you’re buying in bulk.
If purchasing substantial amounts, consider wholesalers for
more savings. —Johnny Pan, New York

Meredith
Borrell and Brian Ketcik / Meredith Borrell and Brian
Ketcik

Before: The original living room in Meredith Borrell and
Brian Ketcik’s fixer-upper.

Meredith
Borrell and Brian Ketcik / Meredith Borrell and Brian
Ketcik

After: The newly renovated living room in Meredith Borrell
and Brian Ketcik’s house.

6. Some things are easier to compromise on than others

Before the renovation starts, know what your must-haves are and
where you’re prepared to compromise. Maybe you’re dead set on a
touchless kitchen faucet or a rain shower, but willing to save
by using a stock tile. Chrome finishes are usually the least
expensive and can save you hundreds of dollars versus a premium
finish like brushed nickel or the currently popular gold
finish.—Jenna Meister

Find a fixer-upper that has the number of bedrooms (and
especially bathrooms) that you’re looking for. An ugly house
can be made pretty, but if the footprint of the home doesn’t
match your needs, it will make your fixer-upper costlier in
order to build a brand-new bathroom, etc. —Meredith Borrell
and Brian Ketcik

7. Set a budget — and be prepared to go over it

Build in a 10 to 20 percent buffer. Beware of relying on the
budgets they show on HGTV shows, which may not reflect market
prices, especially in places like New York City. —Angel
Lam-Goon and Andrew Goon, New York

8. Delays are inevitable

Be prepared to go way over your allotted time. Also,
remember to include timing of any licenses and permits you may
need in your plan because sometimes these take a lot longer
than you would expect. If you are changing anything structural,
you will likely need approval from both an architect and the
city. Permits are also pretty expensive, so take that into
account in the budget. —Angel Lam-Goon and Andrew Goon

Johnny
Pan / Johnny Pan

Before: The original kitchen in Johnny Pan’s fixer-upper
apartment.

Johnny
Pan / Johnny Pan

After: The newly renovated kitchen of Johnny Pan’s apartment.

9. Don’t skimp on materials (and order more than you need)

Avoid cutting corners on second-rate materials. Saving a little
here may help your budget initially, but it could end up being
more costly if hardware breaks in the middle of installation or
if tools aren’t sufficient enough to complete tasks. Also
remember to check all materials for defects before transporting
them home. —Johnny Pan

Pick an item as a focal point, whether it’s the fireplace,
entertainment unit or main room light fixture and make it an
extra-nice one. Then, decorate around it for less. —Tamie
and Thomas Fons, Houston

Order more material than you think you need because it’ll be
near impossible to mix another gallon of paint to the same
color or find a second piece of granite or marble that matches
your original one. —Angel Lam-Goon and Andrew Goon

10. Work simultaneously if you can

If you plan to do multiple room renovations, try to have it
completed one after the other or even better, at the same time.
Working on multiple rooms simultaneously will be the best use
of time as you can leverage the hours or days needed for
material to dry in one room while painting or installing
cabinets in another. —Johnny Pan

11. Always measure twice

Avoid eye-balling any measurements at all costs! —Johnny
Pan

One of the many big purchases for our kitchen was a
refrigerator. Aside from cubic feet, we thought most
refrigerators were basically the same size. Wrong. Our new
refrigerator, located catty-corner to the dishwasher, prevented
the dishwasher door from opening fully. We discovered
counter-depth refrigerators, a slimmer option to the
regular-sized ones, and returned our first choice with a $200
penalty fee. —Darlene Horn, California

Darlene
Horn / Darlene Horn

Darlene Horn’s husband picking out flooring for their home.

12. Small comforts make a big difference

If you plan on doing flooring installation (tile, wood, etc.)
by yourself, buy really good knee pads. —Tamie and Thomas
Fons

13. There’ll always be more work to do (and that’s totally
normal!)

We bought our house five years ago and there are still lots of
projects to be done. Prioritize the big stuff before moving in
(painting, removing acoustic ceiling popcorn, upgrading
flooring and carpet) and make your way through the master to-do
list. We recently upgraded both bathrooms and are planning to
add more storage to the garage. —Darlene Horn

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