Neil and I bought our house over a year ago now. There it is in the photo above. Having never bought a fixer-upper before it's safe to say there were a lot of things we were completely blind to when we came to the house to view it.
If you're on the market for a fixer upper, or you think one day you'd like to do a renovation project and make a house completely your own, then there's a few points I've learned to look out for along the way.
I hope this post helps you, and please leave any thoughts below – are you currently on the house hunt? Are you renovating too? Have you been victim to any of the problems outlined in my post?
What to look out for if you're buying a fixer-upper like we did
In my experience of buying property in Brighton, you normally only get one 20 minute show around a house before you make your offer, so you better make it count. The fact is, older houses can hide a lot, looking quaint or full of character on first look, and then being an absolute horror show of a few decades worth of bad DIY under a single strip of wallpaper.
So what should you expect when you decide to take on a house in need of renovation? What major work can be hiding in the walls? A few things to consider before you make your offer...
You may be aware from previous posts that it’s nearly the one year anniversary of getting the heating properly installed at our place. It sounds like a silly thing to reflect upon but plumbing and heating is so essential to get right in a house. Any problems with water damage and you could be looking at a hefty repair bill and a big headache before you've even moved in. What's more, if there are problems with plumbing it can often mean floorboards (and flooring) having to be ripped up to make corrections, ruining your hard work. Plumbing is common work for a renovation, but it's important to recognise (as best as you can) any potential problems so that your offer on a house reflects the money you'll need to pay for maintenance of it when you move in. I fully recommend getting a full structural survey on any property you buy and chat with the surveyor before they survey it. Ask them how much of the plumbing they can cover in the survey and if it's minimal, request a drainage survey (usually done using a CCTV camera in man holes nearest your property) to check everything is above board before you begin any work. When our offer was accepted we did both a full structural survey and drainage survey and reduced our offer when issues arose.
Electrics is the one part of an older property that will almost definitely need attention, largely because building regulations have much tighter standards every property must adhere to now, but also because period homes weren't wired with all the lights and plug sockets we need for our modern day lifestyles. Having old circuits might not comply with the power you need when you come to make electrical changes to suit your lifestyle, so one tip I would give you is this. When you're looking around at the property pay close attention to your fusebox for the age it looks and if you can, take a photo of it. If you're not sure whether it's a old board or a new one that might comply with building regs, call an electrician to ask for his advice and send the photo to him. They will normally offer this advice free as it could mean business for them if you end up buying it and need a rewire. When we moved in to our fixer-upper we realised we needed a whole new fuse board which cost roughly £500 (that excludes the rewire elsewhere in the house). We also failed our electrical testing report initially, which meant that if we had a fire caused by the electrics, our home insurance wouldn't have paid out. If you know of any electricians that don't mind swinging by on the viewing this can help you negotiate your offer based on their findings.
Now asbestos is a difficult one to spot when you're viewing a house but there are websites online that will show you the most common floor tiles, garages and electric heaters known to have asbestos in them. These are good to become familiar with before you look at properties. The fixer upper that we bought has a small amount of asbestos in some floor tiles and our whole garage is made of it. We weren't to know this until we could get a a destructive asbestos test done on the property, and of course we had to own the place before we could get samples done but what we did was prepare for the worst. When we pulled our budgets together before we made the offer, we allowed for £1,000's worth of asbestos removal as a "just in case" measure. Asbestos lies dormant and completely harmless in a house for decades until us renovators come in and disturb it. While breathing in asbestos fibres doesn’t mean you will definitely get ill, it's always wise to minimise the risk of asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Asbestos is worth the cost of removing not only for health and safety but because I've heard of horror stories where contractors have walked out on the job because they found asbestos during their work, and rightly so. Contractors are most at risk for asbestos-related diseases, and as home owners it is our duty to provide a safe working environment for them and us as renovation dust is carried through the home (find out more about asbestos here).
Luckily the house we bought has zero damp within it, but we've had more than our fair share of damp when we lived in our previous Victorian flat and I paid out a lot of money on trying to find the solutions to it, including paying for a damp correction course installed in the walls.
There are different types of damp to look out for in fixer uppers. Condensation (which is really common and solvable), rising damp, and penetrating damp.
Damp can be at such different levels of severity and have so many different causes that you probably won’t be able to estimate repair costs without a proper investigation. However, it can be easy to spot whether damp is being caused by something sinister or not.
I am not a damp expert but here is what I would investigate well before making an offer:
- crumbling spoils you notice in walls
- walls that feel moist to touch (I've been known to view houses and just go round feeling all the walls!)
- severe dark patches particularly in bathrooms
And here are the things I think are pretty solvable but it's worth getting a second opinion from damp experts if you aren't a risk taker like me:
- large stains you spot across ceilings (as long as they are dried out, normally these have been caused by innocent problems like the seals on showers in the room above leaking, or a pipe leak that's been corrected. It can be difficult to paint over leak patches unless you use oil based paint which is why sellers may not have got round to it yet and these stay visible long after the problems have been and gone)
- little signs of mildew in the bathroom or built in cupboards (most common in student or rented properties which is usually corrected when air is let flow through the property properly or the heating switched on regularly to dry the home)
There are many other hidden problems to look out for that are outside of the physical aspects of a house as well, such as leasehold/freehold issues, lack of planning permission or building regulations compliance, or even having unfavourable neighbours, which will require a little bit more savvy sussing out during the buying process but I hope these points have helped you on your search for the right fixer upper for your budget.
Most of all I hope it's made you feel a little less fearful for what you're about to buy as sometimes you can feel like you're crazy and taking a huge risk in buying somewhere that needs so much work. What I will say is that everything is solvable (as long as you're financially sensible and budget with excess) and renovating is seriously one of the most rewarding things you can do for your family. Enjoy making this unloved piece of history a home again <3
Collaborative post, all experiences my own