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Five Tips for Buying a Fixer-Upper


Calvin and I have always loved a fixer upper. It's hard for us to walk through a distressed property without wanting to buy it so we can tear up the carpet and see if there are hardwoods underneath. Plus, there's always the hope that we'll find an old box of money under a floorboard or behind a bit of lath. So far, we've found hardwoods in about half of our purchases and zero boxes of treasure.

Renovation and rehabilitation are awesome options for the homebuyer who wants to put their own stylistic stamp on the character of an older home. However, hope for hardwoods and the promise of potential piracy should not be your guide when deciding whether to buy a fixer upper. We've made lots of mistakes and learned lots of lessons purchasing property over the years and I am happy to share a few of those this week with any of our fixer upper fixated readers.


Lesson 1: Choose a market knowledgeable realtor

Everyone has a friend who is a realtor - maybe from college, maybe from your adult frisbee football league. Friendship doesn't qualify someone to help you buy your home. It is important to select a realtor with a knowledge and experience base that best matches your needs. When we decided to purchase a fixer upper in Downtown Greenville, we interviewed several candidates to act as our realtor. Robby Brady with Allen Tate was likable, clearly smart, and good at communicating but he also had recently completed a personal residential construction project in a distressed area of Downtown Greenville. He knew the market. He lived the market.

When all is said and done with your renovation project, you don't want to be upside down in your house. You may be planning your forever home but, if 2020 has taught us anything, plans change. A market knowledgeable realtor can help to ensure that you buy right and can provide valuable neighborhood and comparable property information that will allow you to form an accurate estimate of the home's ARV (After Renovation Value).

Image Above: Our Downtown Greenville house, the day we closed


Lesson 2: Trust but verify

This is a life lesson my mother taught me growing up. If I said I was going to the skating rink with my friends, my parents would make a sneaky stop to confirm my presence. If I said I was going to the movies, they would buzz the parking lot to look for my car. Once, my mother surprised me with a call from atop a stadium during a concert to warn me that there was an aggressive mosh pit forming to my left. On the rare occasions that I busted my parents, my mom always told me the same thing, "Trust but verify." (Of note - they never busted me doing anything bad. I was a major nerd.)

Sellers will tell you a lot of things. The seller told us our house in Downtown Greenville was the first to have electricity in the city. Not true. She told us the house had been completely rewired. Also not true. Most sellers aren't out to trick you but a good inspector can help you sort fact from fiction. For a fixer upper, you want to use an inspector versed in assessing older homes and their common peculiarities - knob and tube wiring; asbestos containing materials; etc. Missing one of these during your due diligence could easily result in a $10,000 mid-renovation surprise or present challenges when trying to secure insurance or financing.

Image Above: Day 2 of renovation at our Downtown Greenville house


Lesson 3: Choose a renovation experienced contractor

Not all contractors are made alike. Many contractors prefer to focus on new builds and have little to no renovation experience. At our Downtown Greenville renovation, we waited on a contractor all day to have him walk in, take one look around, and tell us he was,"Too old and fat to deal with a project like this." (In his defense, our existing attic access was 2ft x 2ft.) When buying a fixer upper, it is important to find a renovation knowledgeable contractor and involve them during your due diligence period. They will be able to provide an accurate estimate of renovation costs so you can return to the negotiation table armed with good information.

Image Above: Calvin, plumbing our Downtown Greenville House


Lesson 4: Involve a designer early

I can't pick a lamp for the house without an in-depth analysis from my more difficult half. It's the reality of living with a designer and it certainly makes decorating our own home a tad more cumbersome. For example, we spent a year searching for dining chairs that weren't too "fat, skinny, ornate, simple, masculine, or feminine." Finally, with a dinner party rapidly approaching, I bought some cheap hand-me-downs off of Craigslist and picked them up outside Asheville at 9 PM on a Tuesday. We're still using them. I figure I will get my chair shopping energy back by 2025 or so and commence the search again.

Despite these small inconveniences, I'm extremely grateful to have an in-house residential designer because it ensures we never forget this step when buying a fixer upper. A lot of clients approach our team after the purchase of a house with ideas for a renovation only to discover zoning restrictions, neighborhood architectural guidelines, or existing structural limitations make those ideas an impossibility. The time to involve a designer is prior to purchase so you know whether a house is able to fulfill your dreams for a home. We've seen this so many times, we even started offering free resources and a consult service to home buyers and renovators in the hopes that we can help avoid costly mistakes.

Image Above: Calvin, assessing a client's West Village renovation project


Lesson 5: Don't fall in love

By the time we make an offer on a house, I have mentally painted the walls, arranged my family heirlooms in the space, and chosen a spot for the Christmas tree. This is my biggest flaw as a homebuyer - I fall in love. In stead of critically analyzing numbers, I'll find myself saying unrealistic things like, "I'm sure we could shave that construction estimate by $100,000 or so." As soon as you're emotionally invested, it becomes very difficult to walk away from a bad deal. Gather all of the pertinent information before daydreaming about the kids playing in the backyard. It might save you a lot of money and even more heartache.

Image Above: Progress on a client's renovation project (estimated completion Fall 2020)


Bringing new life to an old house is one of the most rewarding ways to craft your perfect home. We learn something every time we take on a new project. I hope sharing these lessons helps to make the process a little smoother for some of our readers wanting to take the renovation path.

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