Brownstone Boys: Some Things to Consider When Buying a Fixer Upper

Nathan Law

Editor’s note: Welcome to the Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com. Buying a home that needs work can give you the opportunity to design a space that works and looks exactly how […]

Editor’s note: Welcome to the Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

Buying a home that needs work can give you the opportunity to design a space that works and looks exactly how you would like. You can adjust the layout, pick the finishes, improve the functionality, and make a home that you and your family can enjoy to its fullest. When we set out on our renovation journey, this is exactly what we wanted to do. It was also a chance to restore an old home and make it better for us and the next generation.

There are many options out there — houses that need from light to full gut renovations — but what should you consider when buying a fixer upper?

Budget
The sales price of the home is only half the story. To understand if it’s the right place for you, you will also have to figure out the renovation budget. This should include hard costs for the construction, materials and finishes as well the soft costs for the architect, engineers and filing. You may even want to budget for a place to live during the construction (see below). As you consider this along with the scope of work (also see below), you will be able to determine the budget. It’s very important to understand these costs before pulling the trigger on the purchase. You don’t want to buy a house that ends up needing $400,000 of work when the purchase price leaves you with a renovation budget of only $200,000. In that case, the home might not be the one for you.

Timing
Buying a home that needs a full gut renovation could mean that it will be quite a while before you are actually able to move into it. In New York, getting through the architecture and design process, filing with the city, and construction may well take a year.

view of a kitchen renovation

Living arrangements
Usually it’s not possible to live at home during most renovations. We definitely don’t recommend it, especially if it’s a big renovation. Not only can living there be quite uncomfortable but it can slow down the process considerably if the contractor has to work around people living in the house. This could actually end up increasing hard and soft costs. We also don’t recommend having a hard deadline to be out of your current living situation and needing to be moved into your newly renovated home. It can create a very stressful situation if any unexpected things arise that could delay the project. Make sure you have a safe and clean refuge away from the construction.

Scope of work
The biggest consideration when buying a fixer upper is what the scope of work will be. Do you need to fully replace all of the electrical, plumbing and mechanicals? Do you want to remove walls and completely reconfigure the rooms? Are you adding HVAC? Are there beautiful original details to restore? (We hope so!) Are there major structural issues that need to be addressed? You will likely want to have an architect, contractor or other knowledgable person walk through the house with you before you make an offer to assess the potential scope of work and costs before you move forward.

before and after pictures of a reno

What should you look for when viewing a fixer upper?
Every old house has a story to tell. Look for unique features that you can bring back to life. Tall ceilings and big windows are beautiful features that new-construction buildings usually don’t have. Ornate woodwork that has been painted can be stripped and restored. Marble fireplaces can be polished. We love to see stained glass, plaster moldings and ceiling medallions. They are all things that you are only going to see in an old house. Maybe it’s the ideal location that can’t be beat. Or even the potential for great outdoor space. Whatever draws you to an old home, it can be a rewarding process to give it a new lease on life. The road to the finish line may be long, and the ups and downs can be stressful but in the end you’ll have a home that you’ll love.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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