Author Topic: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!  (Read 6762 times)


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Here's my question, which will probably just get some face punches, but here goes anyway:  My ultimate question is whether I should buy a fixer upper for 500,000, and then borrow $130k to fix it up, while continuing to carry another $220k in debt on a difference piece of vacant land that I would be trying to sell.    Here are the details:

I wasn't even house hunting, but I  found a gorgeous house in a terrific neighborhood where I can bike to anywhere I ever need to go - except Costco.  I want it.  It costs 500k.  It needs some serious remodeling and I can't swing a hammer, though I'd be willing to learn anything.   I want to add an entirely new kitchen, remodel the existing bath and possibly add a fancy pants master bathroom (face punch accepted).  I also need to put a laundry room somewhere (nothing fancy - big enough for the washer, the dryer and the lengthy hanging rod for air drying, of course).  Several different contractors have estimated that  I'd need to spend north of $150k to accomplish these tasks.  (I have zero construction skills, tools, etc.).  The dilemma is whether to buy it.  Also, I should point out that I am not willing to have my family live in a construction zone for any significant amount of time.  If it were just me, I could care less.  I don't mind a little dust.  But I don't want to put my spouse or young kid through that kind of chaos.  Here is my financial situation:

Basics:  Married, 1 young kid
Income:  $200k/year (but will shrink to $100k/year in May 2015 when spouse stops working)
Debt - $220k mortgage on a lot -- see below.

Paid-for home, worth 550k. 
40K worth of equity in a lot (The lot is worth 260k, but we owe 220K on that
Various 401ks, etc, currently worth about $700k, most in Vanguard index funds
Other investments - mutual funds, etc. - about $80k
Practically ZERO in pure cash right now, which is an odd situation, but that's another story
529 college account for the kid who is 6:  $22k (we are currently adding to this  at the rate of $500 per month)

The thought here is to buy the fixer upper and immediately sell my current house (the realtor says this should sell quickly for 550k; the lot is unpredictable - it could take "years" to sell).  After my current house sells, I would have enough to buy the fixer upper for cash, with about $20k left over.  (There is risk here; I would have to buy the new house before selling the old one.) 

I would then need to scratch up 130k (at least, apparently) to fix up the new house to get it move-in ready.  So I could liquidate my 80k of investments (thus incurring cap gains taxes, and taking us to literally no financial cushion - cash or otherwise) and then borrow 50k.  Alternatively, or I borrow the entire 130k, which would mean that my total mortgage debt would be 350k (220K on the lot, plus $130K on the new house).  The lot would eventually sell, and when that happened, that would bring the mortgage down to about 90k for the new place. 

Convince me that this is stupid and risky and not worth it.  It sure feels that way when I type this.  Plus a 350k mortgage on a $100k income seems terrifying. 

The big question is why do I want to leave my perfectly good $550k house.  The one and only reason is location.  The  houses around me have one-by-one turned into unpleasant rentals and the situation does not seem to be getting better.  If it weren't for those rentals, I would not even consider moving.  I actually get irrationally angry when I think about the rental situation, as it actually has me contemplating debt debt debt.

Okay.  Let me have it.  Please be brutally honest.   


  • Bristles
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My wife and I have bought and done many fixers over 30 years. We stick with average houses that people with young families want to buy. Much larger market, and we don't have to sell at the maximum market price. I would NOT advise taking on a house in this price range as your very FIRST one. Especially if you have no skills in doing so. Also especially if you plan on living in it during the rehab. That's a bitch to do, and very hard on the family.

Plainly, buying/fixing/reselling houses is gambling to an extent. That said, if you pay attention it's not exactly like playing a slot machine, but it can be very dangerous to your financial health if you don't have a LOT of money to carry it through completely from purchase/rehab costs/resale. Especially if you have to hire out all the repairs to contractors. Good luck, because you'll find out quick you better baby-sit them, or many of them will steal you blind and leave you holding the bag at every chance they get.

Starting with a $500k house, just really limits your market on who can buy when you are finished, and you BETTER use very high-end materials. People expect a lot of a house up in those ranges. They don't want to buy a fixer, they want turn-key.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Thanks MikeBear!  That is really good advice about the fixing up/construction process.  It is good to hear from someone who's done so many.

Also, just to clarify; I am not intending to re-sell this home anytime in the near future. I want to fix it up and live there for at LEAST 10 or so years,  if not the rest of my life.  I guess what's really bothering me about the process the idea of having a 340k mortgage on a 100k income (until we sell the lot).  I dislike debt and that seems like a heavy load.


  • Magnum Stache
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If you were able to fix it up cheap and sell at a decent profit, maybe. Otherwise, it sounds like you aren't that keen on renovating a place.

Living in the place while renovating sounds like something you'd rather not do, and living elsewhere while the renovation is being done is an added cost.

I'd pass. :)


  • Pencil Stache
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I think $500k (half of a million dollars) is too much money to pay for something that needs an additional $150k or more work.


  • Stubble
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A $500,000 house for 3 people?  Must be on Park Ave, NYC or something.  That sounds like way too much house.  Your opportunity cost and ongoing expenses are going to be big.  I would pass.


  • Walrus Stache
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I live in a high COL area....   but yes, we did buy a $480k home and tear it down to the studs and rebuild it with our hands, relatives and 4 months of contractors support.

We budgeted $200k, cash, and after the vast pools of money stopped pouring into it, I expect we spent $300k, and it is not finished yet.  I stopped everything to get a handle on the cash flow, as it was nearly impossible at a single point of time to determine EXACTLY how much was owed / flowing where.     (the last work is the trim / details / baseboard/flooring, etc, so very livable, just not "done",   needs about out $10k to finish)

We are very very handy.   Hub's family has built / rebuilt 5 homes before this,   We had already done at least 3 kitchen remodels and 4 bathrooms ourselves.   My dad has a personal business as a custom cabinet maker, etc.  It was our "dream" to build a home for ourselves, we had envisioned it for a long time, and DH was between jobs at the time so devoted a lot of effort to it.

I would NEVER do this again.   I would NEVER recommend it.   Only interior renovations, or a wing / room addition, but not a whole house over 1200 sq.ft anyway.

If you are looking for a home, and willing to renovate.  plan for it assuming 100% done by contractors, and get three estimates, and budget on the highest estimate.   Does it look like a bargain now?


  • Stubble
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Don't buy the house- AND consider selling the house you are in. As others have pointed out, buying housing is a lot like gambling on a location. If your neighborhood is filling up with cheap rentals, it might be time to cash out. The cycle of lowering property values leading to lower tax revenues and and cash-strapped schools leading to even lower property values can be fierce, and surprisingly quick.

The US housing market has recovered partially due to very low interest rates- as you see even on this board, investors are turning to real estate because of limited options. When the fed raises interest rates, the real estate investment market will probably weaken, and lower real estate values.

Currently, the US housing stock is also way out of whack with market demand- you mentioned wanting to buy the other house because it is walkable/bikeable, so I assume your current house isn't. As baby boomers retire, they tend to downsize and move to more convenient, walkable places, not buy $500k houses in the suburbs. In marketing research, most Millennials keep on saying they want to live in more walkable places and place less emphasis on a house out in the suburbs- and even if most of them wanted the $500k house, very few of them could afford it due to student loans. We have a glut of single family homes in suburbs, and our two largest generations are looking for smaller, more walkable homes, of which there is a shortage.

Sorry for the rant- I'm an urban planner so I spend all day thinking about these trends and what they will do to our cities. Right now is a good time to get out of larger, suburban homes, as long term demographic trends are going to lessen demand for them. And if your current house isn't the large, suburban home I imagined it to be, then please disregard all of this.


  • Bristles
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What's the average home price in your area? Is $500-650k on the high side? If you're not happy with how your current neighborhood is evolving then could you move to a less expensive house that's still close to your work? Even if it's smaller/less luxurious? You're in a solid financial situation right now with your paid off home and investments but it seems like this new house you're considering may not be a sound financial decision, especially considering your income will be cut in half soon.

Also, what was the purpose of the lot you own? We're you planning to build there when you bought it?

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  • Walrus Stache
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The lot is worth whatever a willing buyer will pay, in a reasonable time.  Since you say it would take years to sell, it is not worth $260k.  What could you list this property for today and get a solid offer in 60 days?  That's what the lot is worth.

How would you buy this house and borrow the $130k needed for the remodel?  Would you take a mortgage on that house, sell your house, pay off everything except the $130k and use the remaining cash for the remodel?  That's a long list of things that have to go exactly as planned to make this work.  You don't have much in reserves if something goes wrong.

In your shoes, there is no way I would do what you are suggesting.  You have a mortgage on a property that produces no income and probably has little or no equity.  Your income is about to drop in half.  You have never done any remodeling before.  You have to sell your current house to make this work.  Too much risk for me.


  • Walrus Stache
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #10 on: November 22, 2014, 11:30:43 AM »
I think its worth remembering that houses are a pretty poor investment, i.e they barely keep up with inflation on average.

If the house next door to this one is worth $630k you will JUST break even (minus selling expenses) after you have finished the re-model and thats assuming your $130k estimate is accurate (and every project always costs twice as much as you originally thought).

So unless your buying this thing way under market value.. like at least $250 less than comparable house then this is not a good deal.

Add to that the future risk (i.e what houses will worth when you try to sell) then I'd say I wouldn't touch this with a 10 foot pole.



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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #11 on: November 22, 2014, 11:59:15 AM »
FWIW this is a low end house where I live.  The average SFH in my neighbourhood is $600,000.  The question is whether it is good value for your area.

Here are some questions:

1. Do large renos usually pay off?

No, they don't.  They don't because a lot of the improvements will not increase the value of the home accordingly.  Look here:

2. Do you care if you end up with a net loss on the reno?

a. Yes - good, don't do it.
b. No, we want a perfect home and don't care about return on the renos matching cost or being regained on resale - okay, keep going on to the next question.

3.  Are we prepared to take on a reno of this size given the amount of work it will be to supervise?

a. No - good, don't do it.
b. Yes, even though we are not handy and don't have experience and know this might cost much more and take much more time than the estimate we are prepared to do this because we want a perfect house.

If you still want to proceed then consider that:

1.  It may not make sense to liquidate investments for the reno.  It likely makes more sense for you to borrow the money to do the reno and carry a mortgage.
2.  You can make an offer contingent on the sale of your house.
3.  Where are you going to live during the reno?  My guess is you are looking at 4-6 months of reno work.  Are you going to rent after selling your current house?
4. Have you looked at houses that are already finished in the $700,000 range?  Nothing available in the right location?
5. A $350,000 mortgage on $100,000 income is not terrifying imo.  It is pretty average where I live.  You'll be paying about $2000 a month all in and this is the same as renting here.  Is your spouse stopping work forever?  If not, the situation is temporary.

In your shoes I would not make this move because of the impending drop in income, your lack of experience and your low tolerance for living with renos.   I would still look at moving if the location where you are is not working for you.  Just find something finished, lower cost or something that only needs more minor renos in your preferred area.


  • Handlebar Stache
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #12 on: November 22, 2014, 03:30:10 PM »
An appropriately priced fixer in a terrific location will get snapped up my a contractor who knows what the value will be after his low cost reno. If you buy it you are probably paying too much. Next you will get eaten alive by contractors on cost and schedule, as others have noted. Since you really don't have the cash to do the project and don't want the debt, don't do it. Sell your house in the slum, invest the proceeds and rent in the terrific neighborhood.


  • Walrus Stache
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #13 on: November 22, 2014, 03:45:54 PM »
Does your lot have power and plumbing and all that?  Can you live in an RV (bought used and sold for nearly what you paid) on the lot during the reno?

Are you willing to delay some of the reno items?  Must you have the laundry room completed before you move in, for example?  Seems like you could live without that, if it has any laundry hook ups now.  You could add your fancy master before you move in, then live in the house while the other bath is remodeled (or vice versa).  There's lots of ways to not have to like through the major construction, and yet maximize the time you aren't living somewhere else.  If you are willing to do those things because you want this badly enough, they will save a lot of money.  If not, then it seems like you actually don't really want this house especially badly.

Also, would you be willing to make sacrifices?  Can you apply mustachianism and not have custom cabinets in the kitchen, by a pre-made vanity for the main bath at a discount place like TJ Maxx, not select the finest marble, etc?  If this is going to send you down the road of reckless abandon, then don't do it.  Be honest with yourself about whether you can stay frugal and controlled when there's a really pretty backspash and a fancypants range in front of you, begging you to take them home with you.

Lastly, I won't punch just based on a $500,000 price tag.  In the last place I lived Stateside, that would be a modest (1200 sqft) place in the burbs (not near All The Things) and  not updated.  If you were lucky.  So that, in and of itself, might be obscene, or it might not.   


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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #14 on: November 22, 2014, 03:56:05 PM »
I wouldn't do it.

Unless, maybe, I could live in the house during the renos.  Is it really unliveable?


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #15 on: November 22, 2014, 08:16:23 PM »
THank you, everyone, for all your thoughtful responses.  Honestly, I have been mulling this decision over with lots of friends, relatives, etc, but it is really excellent to get advice from like-minded people (or so I like to think; I aspire to be a mustachian)  I am sort of blown away that people would take time out of their day to give me their analysis.  Again, many, many thanks.  :) :) :) 

Anyway to answer all the questions:

(1) THGE LOT We bought the lot less than a year ago with the idea that we would save up and build on the lot.  We bought the lot after a couple of years of looking and not being able to find anything we liked. Clearly, were are house-picky.  We spend tons of time at home and want to create an awesome little slice of heaven for our daily living.  Anyway, the  idea was to stockpile cash and build on this lot in a year or two, coming out debt-free given the 550k equity in our current home.  Finding this new fixer upper I now have my eye on was simply something I saw biking home from work one day.  On an impulse, I called the realtor and saw the place and well, you know the rest. Back to the lot, though; that  location is convenient too, but not quite as much as the neighborhood where the fixer upper is located:  The feel is more suburban but it is still an easy 10-15 minute bike ride to downtown and ALL THINGS. THe bitch is that it's an uphill ride on the way back up to the lot and you are riding on a busy street.  The lot is in a fancy-pants suburban-feeling neighborhood.  I didn't love that part of it, but I loved the views of the whole city and the relatively convenient location and the light, bright, high-up sunny feel. 

(2)  GOALS IN TERMS OF INVESTMENT VS. THE PERFECT HOME.  I don't place a high premium on recouping my investment in the fixer upper.  The plan is to live there possibly forever.  THat said, I don't want to be a complete moron and have $1 million into a house that will sell for like $500k.  My main stomachache right now is whether we can pay our freaking without stress during the process and before the damned lot sells.  Again -- the only debt would be the roughly $350k mortgage, assuming, of course, that I could control renovation costs, which sounds nearly impossible based on what I am reading here.

(3)  COMPS TO THE FIXER-UPPER, AFTER RENO  The house across the street from the fixer-upper I want to buy is worth $900,000 (a realtor recently evaluated this home for an acquaintance of mine who is living there), and is an excellent comp in terms of square feet and lot size.  That house has been totally remodeled.  Similarly, another neighbor house is probably worth about $700k and sits on a much smaller lot than does the fixer-upper.  Other houses on the block are also lovely.  A house a couple blocks away on a super-crappy, tiny lot recently sold for $875k after less than a month on the market.

(4) LOCATION OF MY CURRENT HOUSE/REASONS FOR WANTING TO SELL.  My current house (the 550K one near the rentals) is actually not in a suburban area.  IT IS LESS THAN 5 BLOCKS FROM THE FIXER-UPPER.  How can that be possible, you ask?  Well, I live in an historic neighborhood and the blocks are patchy and bizarre.  You will find a meth house across from an $800,000 place -- no shit.  (For example, just this past summer, some developer bought the old meth house about 2 blocks from me, razed it, and put up a new house (historic looking, as it must be now that the historic district rules the place) that will go on the market for around 625k.  So the  trend has generally been upwards in the 10 years I lived in the neighborhood.  The typical scenario is that grandma dies in her bungalow and then someone with a shitload of money moves in and renovates the hell out of the place and makes it house and garden beautiful. 

Except on my freaking block (current block -- not fixer-upper block).  The problem on my block is that one person owns 50% of the houses on the block and she is trashy in terms of keeping up her places.  AS in she does not water the lawns half the time, stuff like that.  She sometimes parks her car on her lawn by her front door  (what the hell???).  Her son lives in one of them and we have chatted and they have no plans of selling any of these little cash cows. Ever.  (If I had been thinking straight, I could've figured this out when I moved in 10 years ago, but she took a lot better care of the places back then.).  So, the truth is that I just got unlucky, I guess, in terms of the damned block I landed.  The blocks immediately to the north and south of me are fantastic -- 100% owner occupied and within the past year 2 of these houses sold in the 600k range.  If I lived even on those blocks, I would not move because I adore my current house and yard.  The rentals are just driving me crazy.  I realize  that sounds crazy, but honestly, imagine living next to a frat house.  That's what I've got going on with one of the rentals right next to me.  Parties at 4 am on weeknights that wake up the kid; beer bottles in my front yard the next morning -- shit like that.

Anyway, I am still mulling it over.  Thanks again for your thoughts and advice.   I will let you all know what we decide. 


  • Magnum Stache
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #16 on: November 22, 2014, 08:41:36 PM »
Isn't it possible though, that ten years from now, if you bought the fixer upper, your neighbor could rent to a frat house? I would stay with the build on the lot idea.


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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #17 on: November 23, 2014, 07:11:35 AM »
You aren't going to able to control costs on the lot-build any more easily than you are an a reno, and in fact, because there are even more choices on the lot-build, it might be even harder.

So I'm not sure you are weighing that aspect properly on your pro and con list.  Either you will have the self-restraint, or you won't.  But if your choices are "lot build in a few years" or "reno now", then either way, you are going to need o have self-control and a willingness to sacrifice if you don't want to overspend.

I don't get the sense that you are willing to compromise on sacrifice much.  Maybe I'm way off, but that's the sense I get.  If that's the case, either of these options are going to cost obscene amounts. 

Have you done any research to give you a good estimate of what you might actually spend on the lot build?  Since you are determined to move soon(ish), and stay very long term, for me, it would be mostly about comparing overall cost of the reno vs. the lot build. 


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #18 on: November 23, 2014, 08:03:54 AM »
Not surprisingly, fantastic information and advice provided thus far.  Through the years, I have bought, renovated (including my residences), and sold properties.  I am handy and have done much of the work myself, even though I have had a full-time, stressful job. I had gone into every project thinking that I would make a tidy sum. However, from a financial point of view, sometimes it was worth it and sometimes not. And it ALWAYS took longer than I initially thought.  One point that has not been brought up here by others is:  What type of person are you?  What I mean is, will you be worrying so much about a contractor, supplies, permits, etc, that your full-time work will suffer?  If the house is always on your mind (I know it was for me),  will you be so stressed out that not only you and your job, but also your wife and child will suffer too?  Also, even when I was doing all renovations myself, I NEVER came in under budget.  Either some material/appliance/supplies cost more than I estimated or more commonly, the repair/renovation required much more work than I could ever have predicted.   And when you are dealing with good, reputable contractors (which I hope you do!) they will have to and should do everything right, which generally means their work will not be a "band aid" and will legitimately cost more.  Bottom line, I think you are taking on too much with the yet to be purchased house.  I have also had homes that were surrounded by homes that were not kept up and going down hill fast. And as someone else above stated, and I have found out the hard way, the fall in prices in such a neighborhood go down really, really fast.  I would get out of there. 500 to 550 k is a lot of money for someone to spend for a house in a neighborhood that is declining.   


  • Bristles
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #19 on: November 23, 2014, 08:24:09 AM »
My main comment would be that I would sell the house you live in ASAP.  The value of that house may fall, people don't usually like to pay 550k for houses next to crack dens or cars on blocks among the weeds in the yards and such. If your realtor thinks it will sell quickly for 550k I'd pull the ripcord. There's nothing wrong with selling and renting a cheap apartment while you sort out your next move.  Plus that will give you access to the cash up front for buying/building, and you will make sure you are working under correct assumptions and you really do get 550k for it.  Depending on what size house you wanted to build on the lot, and how much building costs are in your locale, you may be able to build a reasonable place for 550k and would then only have the mortgage on your lot, which you are already carrying anyway.  I agree with above posters on two other things as well:

- The value of your lot probably isn't what you think it is, just like my 400k house isn't worth 450k because that's what i might be able to sell it for a few years from now after it sits on the market forever.  I'd consider it a 'win' for the lot if you even had positive equity in it.

- The house you're considering buying probably is priced too high or needs more work than you think.  Houses like this that are truly good deals after considering the $$ that needs to go into them that are in great locations/neighborhoods are generally gone to flippers/contractors pretty quickly.  Many realtors even have a collection of flippers in their rolodex they can call and sell these types of properties to as a pocket listing before it even hits market.  This isn't to say you shouldn't buy it, if it's perfect for you and you are okay paying a premium for that, it's a personal call. 

In regards to renovating, I have fairly decent experience in this area, I'm now on my third renovated house.  I have always performed the vast ammt (90% minimum) of my own labor, with the assistance/teachings of my father-in-law (skilled tradesman who built his own house), and have generally been able to control my costs fairly well.  However this heavily depends on:

- Own labor.  Sometimes it takes me longer than I thought to do stuff.  For me this doesn't 'cost' money...if you are paying a contractor every time you run into something unexpected the bill can run up really fast.

- Knowing what you're doing.  I estimate well because I had a skilled person to teach me how, build in appropriate contingencies, etc. When you are hiring out all the work, things can get tricky.  Contractors will bid what you ask them to when you scope.  If you don't know what to include in that scope, it's going to cost you in change orders down the road.  There are a lot of great contractors out there but some bad ones too.  Some won't tell you if they know you're missing something big because they know they can put the screws to you when half your house is tore apart.  Other contractors will suggest adding things to the scope you don't even need.  Having the experience to weed through this kind of stuff is worth a lot in terms of how successful your reno will be.

- Newer properties.  Less surprises for the houses i've done.  If i was tackling a 1950's or before place I'd anticipate a lot more work/money for unexpected stuff.

- Mostly interior renovations, minor footprint changes.  These are far easier to get a handle on than things involving extensive expansions/additions. 

I wouldn't be scared off by taking on this project but understand what you are going to get into.  I can understand your sentiments that you value a nice place to live, my wife and I are very particular about our homes as well.  A lot of good advice on this thread, good luck with whatever you decide.
« Last Edit: November 23, 2014, 08:49:48 AM by Terrestrial »


  • Magnum Stache
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Re: Would any Mustachian Ever Buy a 500K Fixer Upper? Ever? Go ahead, Punch me!
« Reply #20 on: November 23, 2014, 08:45:44 AM »
It seems like it would be better to just sell current house and buy something that is move-in ready @$600Kish.  Way less risk, and you're not carrying two properties for months while the new house is renovated, nevermind time dealing with contractors, overruns, etc.  The $550 + 130 + 220 mortgages on $100K income sounds completely untenable.


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