How to buy a “Fixer Up” House to be a Home.

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Fixer Upper
Staff member
Feb 5, 2013
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Erie, PA
I wanted to start a thread for all to join in on and who knows maybe if the input is good would turn into a sticky at some point.
I have been thru this process a few times in my life the first being a very young man with young children, working long hours and having endless energy and learning skills as I went. There wasn’t an internet let alone anything called a DIY forum.

One of the first things I learned when I started looking at houses as a young guy was I couldn’t afford what I wanted in a home and there was all these compromises to look at. Those days the housing market was growing rates were sky high and realtors when working with you had this term they used to try and sell you on called a “Starter House” The idea was you buy a house less than you want in an area you didn’t want and pay for it for a few years building equity along with hoping housing prices kept going up and also improving your credit score in the process. If you did a little improvement that helped too. The idea was you sell it start all over a little closer to what you want and keep doing that and eventually you have the house of your dreams. Meanwhile your kids went to 3 different schools and about the time you got your dream home in the good community with the good schools your kids were in collage.

I wasn’t one that wanted to fix something up to sell and move on and the type of hobbies I like gardening and stuff I hated to leave behind. I actually hate to leave behind my handy work in some ways also. I found out there was something called property tax and it varied all over the place even in the upscale town mostly dependent on the age of the house. In the town I bought in a 100 year old house might be taxed at $800 per year where a new home about the same size might be $3000 over 30 years that’s $66,000 and that was enough to pay for the house. So my idea was find the location I wanted as in towns and schools etc. find something old and in need of lots of sweat equity that had a basic good structure to start with. The advantage I thought was it didn’t need to have everything I wanted because I would just add what I wanted and how I wanted myself. That was how I ended up doing it. I was luck as I had the energy and the skills to do most of it myself and had some family willing to help. It is very easy to think you can tackle a big project and very easy to underestimate how much work you are biting off. I ended up with the house I wanted in the beginning and then some and was happy there for 30 years. So it can be done.

I learned a lot in the process when looking for houses I had several I looked at some newer than the one I ended up with all in about the same price range. The newer ones were more of what they call a spec house with the cheaper methods and products and those being around 10 years old really looked worn. The other reason they were priced comparable they were located just on the fringe of where I really wanted to be. I thought I knew a lot more than I did at the time and I spent more time looking the houses over than the realtor said she ever saw anyone do. There might have been home inspectors then but I never heard of one. There was local building codes but nothing like the unified codes today and it was a time when an owner could still build his own home and get financing and insurance to do it. So it was the tail end of a distant era. I didn’t itemize and calculate and scrutinize like I do today I instead crawled around and in and under with a pen knife poking in structure looking for bad wood rotted pipes and bad wires. The house had a metal room circa 1940 metal roof that looked like it needed painted is all. I painted it once and said never again. I never really finished working on that house. Homes are like that. But it took a couple years and I was proud of my work and was a nice place to live.

Fast forward to 2013 kids gone work carrier coming closer to retirement older and smarter and still full of energy but the rest times between spurts of energy becoming more frequent and lasting longer. Thinking that smarter might replace the stronger I decided to do it again and take advantage of the awful housing market that’s still hanging on around here and do it all again. Being smarter I wasn’t about to tackle an 1880’s house again so I started looking for something much newer and found a 1903 baby. Factoring in the 30 years that had elapsed I don’t think I did myself a favor though. I used a similar methodology though but instead of schools I used golf courses to guide my search. Went south of the bigger city and looked in a little town that seemed more 1950’s than 2000’s kind of a Mayberry RFD setting albeit the town is a little depressed economically that made the housing all the more attractive. We looked at foreclosures and short sales and then some that had been in that state a couple years. I spent more time this time looking at neighbor’s properties and how they kept them up. Property taxes haven’t changed the older the better it still seemed. I wasn’t as enthusiastic this time about doing high wire acts on ladders and roofs and the house we found was one that someone had made a really great start at doing and stopped. They had new siding on the whole house and half the roof surfaces were new. The whole house was rewired 200 amp service all done to code. The plumbing was a total mess and sitting thru 2 winters unheated made it even a bigger mess. They had a new high tech gas furnace in and the drawback was the inside full of junk and garbage walls and ceiling falling in carpets that looked like they needed tossed in 1955. And they must have had 20 cats. When we looked at the house there was ice and frost half way up the walls. It had a nasty drop ceiling and when I popped panels half the plaster was off the ceilings above and the ceiling wiring was draped thru the space. It was exactly what I wanted. Haha. I figured the house in that little town might be worth 80k if all done and if you could move it 30 miles north would be worth 120k. I looked at what it was going to take and it was 70% labor free to me if I did myself and 30% material. I itemized every bit of it and allowed to hire pros for the rest of the roofing and a few other things. I figured it would be ok if you could get it for 40k but having sat for 2 years it wasn’t like it was going to sell fast and getting worse by the day. Doing my homework I find out like all homes now a day the mortgage had been sold and resold and lien’s had piled up on it and the bank that owned this PA beauty was in CA and into this place for about 80k. I had to think they were ready to cut it loose just because it was getting worse and they were paying to keep electric on and taxes. I told the realtor we would offer 20k and he said he was pretty sure they wouldn’t take that offer, I assumed maybe that was offered before and he was hinting 25k might be better. I said 24k is our top number and they excepted. Figured it was done. Well the closing agent found another 10k lien to the local township and there was no money at the low selling point to pay that so the deal was off. As a last ditch effort I asked to speak at the township meeting and explained if they forgive the lien they get a new tax payer and all that comes from that, if not in a couple more years they would be paying to rip it down. They put it to a vote and it passed 2 to 1 and we got the place.

It is an ongoing project but we moved in after about 3 months of the dirtiest work and it is now 80% complete. I did something in this house I didn’t know how it would work out. I bought 75% of the materials to rebuild the house based around cost off the internet and most of it off Craig’s List. The oak kitchen we found 100 miles away and hauled in a cattle trailer. Windows, doors, light fixtures, ceiling fans, lumber, flooring, the list is too long to remember it all but I would guess it was all 10 cents on the dollar, and all in excellent condition. It was a lot of looking but there is so much used materials out there and it’s kind of fun to reuse them. I plumbed every inch of supply with new PEX smartest thing I ever did. Under those old carpets we found chestnut floors and all oak trim and have refinished all that. It took a good 6 months of evenings and weekends to do the bulk of the work and we had some good family help also. This house was a true rebuild Fixer Up in every sense of the term. We added walls and took out walls and added an archway. When you have a house like this its total freedom to make it what you want. One of our splurges was off the living room we put in a front projection theater room with a 110” screen something we both enjoy.
I encourage people if they are the type of people wanting to do something like this to give it a try and I also would ask them to really be aware of the commitment in time and energy this takes. Be realistic in your ambition. As if you bite off too much and have to hire much of it done it might end up costing you too much in the long term.

I know there are several others that are frequent posters here also doing some minor and major DIY homes for their family. If we could get people to add how they did it I think it would be great inspiration for others coming here to see that someone else has or is doing what they are thinking about. Tell the good the bad and the ugly of it all.

In closing my story I do have to say there is a quality to living in a Home that you made a contribution to with your own hands that can’t be explained. It’s akin to the difference between a House and a Home.
Excellent thread Bud, do you have any progress pictures you'd be willing to share?

I do and I will see what I can put together. I have taken a 1000 at least one advantage of the digital world. :)
Mine is a far different story. I was young married, with two kids and broke, no hope for buying that house. But while visiting my sister 40 miles out of town I met a realestate guy who had been in the country for five years and selling houses for one. He asked me if I could fix house, I thought he wanted some work done so I said sure. He said I have a house that you should buy, $700 down. Then he told me how to get gov. grants and rebaits that totaled $700, and he would lend me the money. Then he lent me $10k to sit in my bank wihile I qualified for the morgage. Over the next year he dropped in for coffee once in a while and pushed me to get the house ready to sell. In that year the market was moving up fast. He stopped in one day and said you have two weeks to get it done, there are people waiting for you. I asked him why he was doing all this and he had a strange answer. He said, you thought I was selling you A house, I'm going to sell you five houses in six years and you will not have a mortgage when we get there. If he didn't die in the middle of that, I'm sure I would be doing alot better now.
I was thinking about this the other day, i have some simple rules i would recommend to anyone.

1) Study the RE data, if you can live in a different area buy a house that is expected to go up in value. Some people make %10-%20 a year just for living in the house. I think the RE data is fairly reliable if you are flexible to live anywhere (assuming you'll be working on the House for 1-2 years anyways.)

2) Don't buy a house with a wet basement. I think this is the simplest and best tip because it is hard to ever fix a basement completely and it causes mold.

3) Test for asbestos, raydon, CO etc. levels before you buy it.
Great tips I agree. I always say houses have sleeper issues no matter how hard you look they seem to pop up a few years down the road. If you know they are coming and have a prudent plan in advance the good profit points should outweigh a few you miss.

All these TV shows stress how they stage houses for sale. The one trick is to force yourself to look past the obvious and into what’s below the surface.

In my case I have never bought a house with the intention of reselling it but I have always approached it as if I was going to do just that. Find the location you want to be in and then find deal you know you can handle if you plan on a lot of DIY making it what you want the increased equality will just be a nice plus.

Quite a few years ago they used to say you had to live in a house something like 7 years to make it pay off when you factor in all the costs of buying. I don’t think that’s true today but I have no idea what the point is it pays to own.
IMG_5456.jpg IMG_5464.jpg IMG_5473.jpg The ongoing saga of rebuilding a house on a shoestring. When we redid the kitchen I added a few windows and a door onto what we hoped would be a deck this summer and is now a 3 foot drop off. After pricing the material it looked like the deck would have to wait another year and also the hot tub that was supposed to sit on it. Never say never I was looking at craigslist last week and some guy was selling a pool and deck for 200 bucks and the deal was you had to remove it. After several came and looked at it and told him too much work I came along and he said you can have the whole thing if you clean up the mess when done. Just what I needed another project but it was only a couple miles away so I said it’s a deal. The pool an above ground one was mostly shot and had weeds growing in the middle. The deck had one nice big end that was 32’ x 16’ and was a little sun checked but the framing below looked like new and the decking on the bottom side looks new. So far I have taken out two 3 pound coffee cans of screws and nails. And have about 8 hours in the disassembly. I will post a few photos of the raw material and later the finished deck at home. IMG_5456.jpg



The second photo the house behind my work truck is the 24K short sale where we are living. Tip to anyone hauling PT wood sticking 8 foot out the back of a 8 foot bed. Stop loading when you think you are half full and make two trips. That load gave my load range E tires a real workout in the back. That was the first of 6 or so loads so far I think I have 2 more loads of wood and then the pool I will scrap or use the tin for something.
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He said, you thought I was selling you A house, I'm going to sell you five houses in six years and you will not have a mortgage when we get there. If he didn't die in the middle of that, I'm sure I would be doing alot better now.

Wow! That is some twist. Now you'll have to explain more....
Bud: that's what I call a deal, good for you. I hate it when the so called pros show up to improve a place and start with a loader to distroy things like that.

I hope you do an inventory when you are done you can see how much you got paid for pulling screws. I would change the post out for 6x6s.
I was thinking 6x6 post also the ones I’m pulling look brand new and are the right length and were only set in dirt. I haven’t decided yet as I won’t have any great spans. The deck I’m building will be free standing also.

My sister is thinking about building a small deck and has been getting quotes and having sticker shock on just the cost of materials. She asked me to find her a used deck. I asked her and who’s going to tear it down? She said what if I hired the same guy that’s building it for her to do it. I told her with the cost of labor she would most likely be cheaper going with new material. I think that’s why so much good material goes in dumpsters. I hate to see it also. I look at it not that my labor is free but like I’m saving on a gym membership.

The biggest problem is the guy that built it used cheap screws like drywall screws to attach the decking and in a few spots almost every head snapped off or were rusted shut that the bit won’t catch. Mostly around the pool side where they got wet with pool water. Fortunately those short pieces of decking won’t be of much use and I just ran a saw down and cut them out. I’ll find a use for the pieces maybe use them for garden edging or something.

I salvaged a good 150 feet of number 12 wire out of it as well.
Well the pools been down about a week and 75% of the salvaged wood has been cleaned up so I had a little time and started in on the first section of the free deck at home. The photo was taken midday I managed to get all the joists in and laid the decking out on top to cull out the best pieces, and by then it was getting to dark to take another photo so I put a couple lawn chairs on top and watched the sunset having a beer. Will post more when I get a chance.

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Had a little free time this weekend until it rained. Started on the rails. Total cost to date is about $200. Most of that is the 1500 guard dog screws. The front opening is 8 ft and that section will be removable to get the hot tub on.

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It's tough getting much done when you have three hours of time when you get to it. Tonight I built the 8' removable section. Four lags and it slips right out. Now four days of rain.

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Haha it's still on the front deck waiting for the last wall to go up by the stairs. When we moved in the siding was all melted from the last guys grill. Don't want that to happen again.

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I don’t know how well the poles will hold up that I built the rails out of but she wanted a rustic look and I wanted to do something different than the same 4x4 posts everyone has. The 3” X 5” x 8’ poles were on sale for $1.47 each and they were surprisingly straight and flat. At the corners I locked them in together with a 1.5 x 1.5 corner detail. They are some rock solid rails. Time will tell how they hold up or if they will twist themselves to death.

The rail height and the side to the neighbor’s house will have the lap sides like I did the tall wall to the street using up some of the leftover deck wood. The front wall I will close in with the 2 x 2’s that you normally see on decks. I’m hoping the lap sides will block the view but still let the breeze thru. That leaves the small wall by the steps that will also be a 6’ tall and a gate to keep the dog in. Then clean and stain it wire for the tub, move the grill and wait for the snow to fly.

Oh and don’t let me forget to hook the down spout back up. I can live without the waterfall feature.
Rails for the temporay fiberglass steps that I found sitting by the side of the road waiting for the trash guy. Eventually the deck will continue (maybe) along the back wall of the kitchen to the entry door. At least that was the idea when I put the lights in above the window.

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