Overhauling a home means sticking your neck out. Sometimes your head.
A fixer-upper survivor, I still remember swathing paste on a strip of wallpaper way too floral for my husband’s taste, then watching in horror as it released from the wall and fell on my head. I ran to the guest bedroom, 6-foot paper hitchhiker and all, and tried a wall in there. Success!
Taking on a fixer-upper generally offers buyers a lower-priced home with the freedom to make decisions on their own watch. It is, for sure, an adventurous road that can involve everything from cosmetic work to installing a new electrical system, but those with experience will tell you it’s certainly achievable with a budget, a schedule, and research on products and vendors. And lots of stamina and patience. The result is a home that fits your lifestyle and reflects your taste, right down to the drawer pulls.
The angst most people have over fixer-uppers usually comes from fear of the unknown. But a home inspection and then a walk-through with a contractor or architect can clarify what you are dealing with. Having both kinds of input is important. Home inspectors flag things that need attention. A contractor and/or architect has the experience to put this report in perspective and prioritize the “to do” list.
Margie Florini and her husband, Joe Randazzo, are two veterans in the fixer-upper market. The Danvers residents have been renovating, living in, and selling properties for more than 20 years.
As conventional wisdom dictates, Florini and Randazzo consider location first in their house-hunt. “We look for the environment and location that works for us. You can change the house but not the location,” Florini said.
What do they avoid? Cookie-cutter designs and areas where the houses look the same right down to the landscaping. “I look for sad-looking houses in lovely places,” Florini said. She and her husband also consider how long it would take them to get from home to the worksite. They usually live in the properties they renovate, but sometimes they can’t.
Next, they examine how the home sits in the neighborhood (is it among well-kept homes?),
on the street (is it set back far enough?), and on the land (which way does the house face?), and how sunlight moves through the house. “I never want my front door on the north side. It’s always darker and colder,” Florini said.
Douglas Dick, a principal at Cambridge-based LDa Architecture & Interiors, said location is a common topic of conversation with clients, regardless of whether they are building or renovating a home. “When you look for that new house, the smallest or largest renovations won’t fix the wrong location,” Dick said. He often suggests that his clients go to Walk Score (www.walkscore.com ) to get a snapshot of the neighborhood they are exploring and the amenities available close by.
When Florini and Randazzo find a property in a good location, they check the condition of the flooring, foundation, walls, ceilings, roof, and HVAC systems. They also search for obsolete things like knob-and-tube electrical wiring. “Knob-and-tube is a real red flag,” Florini said, citing the expense of replacing it. She recommends taking a contractor with you when you look at the house. “You need to find someone who will listen to you,” she said. “These homes are like living things to me.” Check to see whether the contractor charges a fee for the site visit.
Florini creates an Excel spreadsheet for her “scope of work” list, essentially a line-item budget. “I do a SOW on a fixer that I am considering while I walk through a property alone or with my contractor,” she said. For comparison, she keeps a spreadsheet on the actual expenses when the remodel is underway, grouping the work by trade: electrical, plumbing, finish carpentry. In addition, she takes photos and keeps copious notes on what worked and what didn’t. The couple take on whatever tasks they can handle themselves and find that having a cadre of trusted plumbers, carpenters, and electricians makes a huge difference.
They spent nearly a dozen years planning, saving up money, and renovating one of the first fixer-uppers they purchased, a Beverly fisherman’s cottage. This home needed a lot of work, but it had a water view and good bones. They tackled a lot of the initial cosmetic work themselves and hired licensed experts to upgrade systems. Then, after living there for 10 years, they hired an architect to draw up the plans for the design they devised: They added a second story, sun room, and a mudroom. With any major project, there are always high anxiety moments when unforeseen problems crop up (in this case tree roots in the sewer line was one). “You really have to have patience,” Florini said, and “you don’t want to be too flexible.”
This onetime ramshackle cottage is now a contemporary shingle-style home with water views on three floors. It sold quickly and commanded an unusually high price for the neighborhood, Florini said. They invested a lot of time and money in that house, and more than tripled their investment.
Next up for Florini and Randazzo? A Cape in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
The plan was to update this modest-sized home and sell it. The major renovations involved systems upgrades and joining the kitchen and dining room, creating an open-concept space with a bar-height peninsula, granite countertops, new lighting, appliances, wood floors, and storage. They also added a mudroom and laundry space off the kitchen, updated two full baths, painted the interior, and renovated the back entry. There were hurdles along the way with this home, too (the house came with illegal electrical and plumbing work). This Cape, not far from the harbor and the beach, sold in just a few months, but not for much of a profit.
Their current Danvers home, a circa 1910 modified Foursquare, needed a lot of attention as well. The property’s great bones, pretty setting, and convenient location to Randazzo’s office outweighed the cosmetic, structural, and systems work that lay ahead. (For starters, one of the back egresses had rotted and was pulling away from the house, and the three-story chimney was one Santa visit away from separating from the house.) In just two years, though, they’ve created a home that suits their needs and will, when the time comes, be a better offering for the next family. The kitchen has been upgraded, the back entry was redone, and there is a new master suite, a laundry room, another bedroom with a walk-in closet, an additional full bath, and a two-car garage.
Others who have successfully taken on fixer-uppers insist there’s a golden rule: Always hire an architect to turn your vision into a plan.
Linda Greenberg of Brookline has been taking on these properties for 16 years — from the South End to Brookline to Martha’s Vineyard, where she recently renovated a summer getaway.
“With an architect, I present a budget and they take it from there,” specifying where every light fixture should go right down to the type of nail to be used, Greenberg said, and “there is no void between client communication with the contractor. It’s all on paper, and you can always refer back to the plan.” This, she said, helps you obtain accurate bids and contain costs, but you should always find out what a builder’s “up-charges” are should you change your mind on something.
Citing the savings, she researches and purchases nearly everything from lighting to doorknobs on the Internet. For convenience, though, she usually buys all her appliances from local vendors.
For many, renovating a fixer-upper is a chance to put your personal touch on a property.
Diane Giardi and her husband, Don Tison, purchased their 1766 Gloucester cottage more than three years ago and did just that. An educator and accomplished artist, Giardi made the ceramic tiles used in the kitchen and bathroom backsplashes. And Tison, a professional woodworker and furniture maker, saved the couple money by removing and replacing all of the wood trim, cabinets, and other finishes in the kitchen, dining room, and elsewhere, designing and building the cabinetry by hand, as well as adding attractive design details throughout — often with recycled architectural elements.
“Know what you’re getting into,” Giardi advised. “Hire a builder, electrician, and plumber to look at the home before you buy. If you use a home inspector, find one that was a licensed builder first.”
Being handy also helps keep down expenses.
It’s always a juggling act between the purchase price and the cost of the potential renovations, said Douglas Dick, the LDa architect. The firm encourages its clients to think about how long they plan to be in a home and to come up with a master plan of renovations that can be done over time.
This, he said, helps eliminate the risk of having to revisit an old renovation to accommodate the new one.Anna Kasabian is a realtor and the author of 11 design and architecture books. Her 1930s bungalow is a work in progress. Send comments to Anna@jbarrettrealty.com.