The real estate listing read like a warning sign: “Pardon big mess. TLCrequired.”
Still, I could see in the pictures that there was something special about this house—a massive brick Georgian lounging on 11 acres with an in-ground swimming pool to boot. How could I resist?
As a real estate agent in Enumclaw, WA, I always tell people the first rule is never to fall in love with a house before it’s yours—especially if it’s a fixer-upper. But I broke my own rule. In fact, I was head over heels before I’d even seen this rundown house in person—so much so that I made an offer on it that same day, based on the photos alone.
What it’s really like to buy a fixer-upper
Since I was on vacation in Hawaii at the time, I called my friends Buzzand Suzie and asked them to go take a look. Buzz thought it had potential, despite a long crack in the travertine tiles in the kitchen. Suzie was decidedly less impressed. She said the house was cold, dark, and “smelled funny.”
After requesting more photos of the property, I could understand Suzie’s concerns. There was trash piled in every room. The house had been empty for at least three years, and the owners had left a lot behind. Thieves had taken anything loose of value and tossed the rest around. Someone had tried to make off with the six-burner Dacor oven, but it was so big they only made it as far as the dining room, where they left it up on end. Mice and other varmints had had the run of the place, and left evidence of their habitation everywhere.
Outside, weeds had grown so high they reached the second-story windows. In the backyard, construction leftovers and equipment had been left in piles so big, you could see them in satellite images I pulled up on Google Maps.
The price: $560,000. Which seems like a whole lot for a rundown house, but it was a huge piece of property, within commuting distance of Seattle. Plus, the price had just dropped by a hundred grand. Some house-flipper was bound to snap this place up.
Maybe it’s because I couldn’t smell the house from Hawaii, or maybe I was already too much in love. Whatever the reason, my husband and I made a full-priced offer on the house that day—and not a moment too soon. The sellers received multiple offers, including one for the same price. They said we could have it if we agreed to remove all trash ourselves and pay the $800 overdue water bill.
We wholeheartedly agreed to the terms.
The risks of a fixer-upper, revealed
Even after our offer was accepted, closing the deal wasn’t easy. The house was a short sale, which left no room to negotiate for repairs. At one point during negotiations, the high-end washer and dryer within the house disappeared. With a normal sale, we could have insisted on replacements, because the appliances were listed in the purchase agreement. But we were out of luck.
We had the house inspected, and thankfully, that report came back without any major flaws, so we sallied forth and finally got our hands on the keys to our castle.
That’s when we got a better look at what we’d gotten ourselves into.
As we walked through the house as new owners, we made a mental list of all the repairs and replacements that needed to be done to make the place habitable, let alone bring it back to its prior glory. The list kept growing as we went from room to room. For instance, here was a nice bathroom, but who took the mirror and linen cupboard?
Right about now, you might think that my husband, who works in construction and was responsible for doing all the major repairs, would be asking me what I’d gotten him into. On the contrary, he was busy admiring what was good about it. The house wasn’t old—it was built in 2001. The windows and walls were in good shape, and the trim and wainscoting were beautiful. For every missing or ruined appliance (who steals the inside of a range hood?) we found something else that was in good shape, or even a bonus, like the steam shower.
While my husband set to work getting utilities hooked up and the heater going, my mom and daughter-in-law spent four days tossing trash and scrubbing rodent droppings out of every sink, tub, and cupboard. We filled the pickup with loads for the dump and the local thrift shop, which accepted piles of clothes, toys, and knickknacks that had been strewn throughout the house. We convinced the sellers to send someone for the two dead cars buried in blackberry bushes in the front yard.
One month after closing, the house was clean enough, and smelling good enough, for us to move in.
But still, there were surprises.
After I cleaned the guest room tub, my husband wondered why there was water in the crawl space underneath. It turns out the drain for the tub was never hooked up, so when I rinsed the tub, the water went everywhere. After I mowed the backyard, I kept feeling strange lumps and hearing crackling noises as I walked. Pulling back matted grass, I found plastic milk cartons, basketballs, and an unopened jar of pickles. Every time I thought I had all the trash out of the backyard, I found another trove.
I paid someone to clean the flowerbeds. I’d check on him and say, “What did you find today?” He’d say, “Not much. Just a cellphone, some plastic bags, and one slipper, this time.”
Would I ever buy a fixer-upper again?
Six years later, I can’t say we’ve completely restored the house to its former glory. No house is ever “done,” in my experience. Still, I’m glad we bought it. Not only was it a great investment, but we’ve had room here for many memorable family reunions, pool parties, and barbecues. We’ve raised sheep and chickens, and delighted in living in the country. And when we do sell the house, as we expect to later this year, we’ll walk away with a profit.
If we’d been turned off by a dirty house that smelled funny, we’d have never bought the house we now love.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore all warning signs when you look at a house, however. Here are a few problems you might find—and when you should and shouldn’t overlook them:
Cooking smells, musty odors, cigarette smoke—what a turnoff! Should you walk?
When to overlook: You can fix most smells that don’t lead anywhere, although it might take time. I know a buyer who got a great deal because the house smelled like an ashtray. That smell didn’t leave right away. After professional carpet cleaning, freshly painted walls, and a lot of time with the windows open, however, the smell is gone.
When to worry: Some smells are a sign of a bigger problem. Does it smell wet? Better have the house inspected thoroughly for mold and mildew, or even water damage. Other smells may be more than you’re willing to bear. As a real estate agent, I’ve shown a house with a strong pet smell that sent my buyers retching and running for the exits.
Garbage and clutter
Distress sales, in particular, often have personal effects and junk strewn all around.
When to overlook: Depending on your capabilities and how badly you want the house, you may not care if you take a few loads of garbage to the dump yourself.
When to worry: Make sure the trash isn’t covering up bigger issues, and don’t forget to factor the cost of cleaning and dump fees. Avoid houses that may be contaminated and require cleanup of toxic materials.
One person’s dream house could be your nightmare.
When to overlook: If the house is more than a few years old, you’ll probably want to change the decor anyway. What difference does it make if the walls are tangerine or purple now? Ugly carpet shouldn’t stop you from buying a house, especially if you can fit new flooring into your budget fairly soon.
When to worry: Some decorating mistakes are harder to fix than others. If all the floors and counters are covered with tile you hate, this might not be the house for you. The same goes for awkward floor plans, or strange features like a fish pond inset in the entry floor. You might also be leery of strange projects that look as if they were the handiwork of someone who had no idea what they were doing.
Sally Herigstad has been writing about personal finance since 1998 and is the author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills.” She is also a licensed real estate broker in Washington, and a retired certified public accountant.