You’ve Bought a Fixer-Upper. Where Do You Start?

Congratulations! You’re a homeowner. While it can be a very exciting time, if you’ve bought a “fixer-upper,” it can also be a very stressful time.

Whether you bought the home because of the great deal you were able to cut, the design possibilities of starting from scratch, the rental income you’ll earn once renovations are made, or the hefty potential for resale profit, there are some key issues you’ll need to address immediately:

Hire an Inspector

Hopefully, you hired an independent inspector to evaluate the property before you purchased it, but if not, now is the time to do so. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation can provide insight on how to choose the best inspector for your home.

Home Inspector Preparing Estimate

These are the main components that will be reviewed:

  • Foundation—as the main support for the entire home, structural stability will be essential. Are there cracks, bowing, or shifts in the concrete walls or floor?
  • Basement— is there dampness or any sign of leaks? If the room is finished, are there any signs of water damage? Is there sufficient insulation? Is there a musty odor?
  • Lot—the ground should slope away from the house. Are there pools of water in the yard? Are there any trees close to the house that may be encroaching into drain tile?
  • Roof—all shingles should be in place and not curled. How old is it? Is it the original roof or is there more than one layer of shingles?
  • Exterior—are problems with the overall appearance only cosmetic or are repairs needed immediately? Are gutters and downspouts attached properly? Are there any loose boards or wires?
  • Attic—the interior roof structure should look sound with no signs of leaks. Is there sufficient insulation?
  • Windows and Doors—is there evidence of water leaks around windows or doors? Check ceilings, too, for water stains or bowing. Do doors and windows operate properly?
  • Electrical—is everything in working order? How old is the wiring? Are current safety features such as ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets installed? Is the circuit panel updated and expandable to service new equipment or a remodel?
  • Plumbing—are there signs of leaks under sinks, ceilings (from the fixtures above), walls? What condition is the sewer line in? Has it been checked for cracks or blockage? How old is the hot water heater?
  • HVAC—has the furnace been updated to high-efficiency or is it original equipment? It the system working properly to heat or cool the entire home?

What’s next?

Now that you’re familiar with what needs attention in your fixer-upper, you’ll want to prioritize any remodeling by the most urgent or critical.

Priority #1: Structural Integrity

While it may seem like common sense to make sure your home is structurally sound before you start renovations, it’s not always easy to determine how serious a problem you might have.

Cracked Foundation

If you suspect a problem with the roof or foundation, it’s imperative that you hire a professional contractor to evaluate the situation. Ask for recommendations on the most effective way to correct the problem and the cost. There’s no point in starting cosmetic or interior reno work if it’s going to be destroyed by leaks or shifting.

Priority #2: Health Hazards

Here’s another issue that may be a “no-brainer,” but do you really know what a potential health hazard looks like? Check for these and mitigate the problem immediately:

  • Mold and mildew—a musty basement, a slow-leaking pipe in the walls, or an attic exposed to the elements may all be breeding grounds for toxic black mold. Protect your family from severe symptoms associated with exposure such as chronic coughing and sneezing, eye irritation, fatigue, headaches, rashes, nausea, vomiting, and bleeding in the lungs and nose.
  • Asbestos—older homes built between 1940 and 1970 were often built with materials that incorporated asbestos. As a low-cost but effective fire-retardant material, it’s very likely that it was used in many components throughout your home, such as:
    • Blown-in insulation
    • Vinyl or linoleum flooring
    • Fiber-cement siding shingles
    • HVAC duct insulation
    • Plaster
    • Roofing material
    • Window caulking and glazing
    • PaintWhen inhaled, loose asbestos fibres can damage lung tissue and cause disease such as cancer. Undisturbed asbestos is not harmful, but if it’s been cut or is flaking, contact a certified abatement crew to safely remove it.
  • Lead-based paint—Canadian homes built between 1960 and 1990 may have harmful lead-based paint on the interior or exterior and pose a health risk to young children and pregnant women. Lead poisoning can cause nervous system and brain damage as well as a deficiency of red blood cells.

Wall mold

The Government of Canada website advises homeowners to identify lead-based paint in their homes by sending samples to a lab for analysis or hiring a contractor to x-ray it. It’s possible to cover undisturbed paint with wallpaper or wallboard, but removal by a certified expert will ensure your home is safe from future contact.

Now comes the fun part.

Priority #3: Aesthetic Improvements

Once you’ve dealt with the serious issues, it’s time to decide what improvements you want to make that fit with your personal tastes or those of your potential buyers. If you’ve been fortunate enough to find the ideal fixer-upper that primarily requires cosmetic improvements, you’ll have an opportunity to make low-cost improvements that will pay large resale dividends.

Low-budget items that improve the overall look can also be DIY projects:

  • Paint touchups
  • Floor refinishing
  • Drywall repairs
  • Updated light fixtures
  • Refinish cabinet doors and hardware
  • Plumbing fixture and faucet updates
  • Backsplash tile
  • Window shutters
  • Exterior siding
  • New appliances

You may also select projects that provide a high return on investment (ROI):

  • Kitchens
  • Bathrooms
  • Hardwood Flooring
  • Granite or Quartz Countertops
  • Decks and Patios
  • Windows and Doors
  • Finished Basement
  • Room Additions
  • Rental Space (in basement or above garage)
  • Covered Porch or Pergola
  • Outdoor Kitchen
  • Landscaping
  • Outdoor Fireplace or Firepit
  • Stone or Brick Exterior
  • Home Theatre/Audio System

Whether this will be your lifetime home or a fast turnaround sale, you’ll want to be careful not to over-improve. The general rule for reno investments is to keep your home value within 10 to 15 percent of the median sale price of neighbouring homes. Don’t forget to take into account that many of these complex renovations will require the expertise of a contractor, so you’ll want to account for the cost of labour when calculating the added value.

Priority #4: Improve Efficiency

Energy efficient window types

Your fixer-upper is probably filled with components that lack today’s high-efficiency, high-tech features. Consider bringing it up-to-date with new equipment and materials that will make your home more comfortable and energy-efficient, such as:

  • Furnace—install a unit that is 80- to 90-percent efficient to reduce heating bills.
  • Hot Water Heater—today’s 55+ gallon tanks will cut utility bills by 25-percent or more depending on technology. Tankless water heaters eliminate water storage for even more cost savings.
  • Replacement Windows—drafty, old windows allow significant heat loss resulting in high heat bills. Replace with high-efficient Low-E coated or Argon gas-filled panes for optimum reflective and heat-retention properties.
  • Light Fixtures—replace incandescent bulbs and fixtures with long-life, high-efficient CFLs or LEDs. They cost a little more up front but will stay lit for years.
  • Plumbing Fixtures/Shower Heads/Faucets—save water with low-flow, water-conserving plumbing fixtures and shower heads. New decor products and finishes also compliment room styling.
  • Gas Fireplace—traditional wood-burning fireplaces are notorious for drafts and air leaks. Install an air-tight gas insert to provide a beautiful ambiance while warming the room.

Final Thoughts

Whether your fixer-upper is your ultimate dream home or just a stepping stone to financial freedom, establishing a renovation plan will save you time and money plus increase your home’s value.

There are more product and material options available than ever before. Follow this guide— hire an inspector to evaluate the condition of your home, prioritize reno projects by importance (structural integrity, health hazards, aesthetics, and efficiencies)—and your fixer-upper will become the showpiece of the neighbourhood.

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