Fixer-uppers are often less expensive and more widely available than new construction homes. Because of this, a fixer-upper might be your first foray into homeownership. There are many advantages to buying a fixer-upper house. From customizing every last detail to building equity with each improvement, a fixer-upper can be the best choice for a first-time buyer. However, older houses are prone to a number of issues. Some problems with older homes are due to their age, but others are due to materials and building practices used at that time. In this post, we identify ten common problems with fixer-uppers and explain how to deal with them. Follow below to learn more!
Are Fixer Upper Properties a Good Investment?
For some buyers, there are many advantages to choosing a fixer-upper house instead of a new construction home. First, there might be more financing options available to those considering a fixer-upper. In some cases, home buyers can even bundle a renovation loan with their mortgage.
First-time homebuyers can do this with the Federal Housing Administration 203(k) rehabilitation loan as long as they meet criteria outlined by the FHA. For example, homeowners seeking FHA renovation loans must use the property as a primary residence — not an investment property.
As homeowners remodel and execute all the repairs necessary to make their home livable and desirable, they also build equity. Most homeowners gain equity in their home as they make monthly mortgage payments and as the housing market changes. Homeowners who improve their fixer-uppers could experience an immediate jump in equity.
According to an article for Curbed, “you can go back to your lender and request a new appraisal” once your renovations are complete. Refinancing after making improvements to your fixer-upper could mean lower monthly payments or a bundle of cash up-front.
Fixer-uppers also tend to be less expensive than new construction homes. Back in 2018, fixer-uppers were listed 8% below their market value on average. Buyers who are shopping at a lower price point might even find their dream home in a fixer-upper. Plus, purchasing a home that needs a bit of updating means you and your co-owners can customize the house to your lifestyle aesthetic preferences.
How to Avoid Buying a Money Pit
However, buying a fixer upper comes with risks. Homeowners who fail to take necessary precautions could end up buying a money pit that takes several years and thousands of dollars to fix. Those who voluntarily waive the home inspection contingency, clear title or appraisal contingency are at particular risk.
A home inspection is especially important. This is because a certified inspector will investigate all potential pain points — from the foundation and framing to the electrical and plumbing systems. This is why your real estate agent will probably warn against making a no-contingency offer. Together, your inspector, appraiser, lender and real estate agent should help steer you away from a home with too many needed repairs.
10 Common Problems With Older Homes
Of course, not all fixer uppers are damaged beyond repair. Many require a few cosmetic updates or other minor repairs. With the right contractor and an experienced remodeling team, even a fixer-upper with major issues can be brought safely into the 21st century. Below are a few common problems — some minor and some major — that you might encounter with a fixer-upper house. We also provide average renovation costs associated with each issue.
#1 Nonexistent or Outdated HVAC Systems
First on our list of common problems with fixer-uppers involves heating and cooling systems. Some older homes might not have an HVAC system, and those that do might have an inefficient or defunct system. Homes built in the late 19th century or early 20th might have a few radiators, but typically lack ductwork. In her article “Good Bones or Money Pit? How to Buy the Right Older Home for You” for Homelight, Dena Landon explains. Landon notes that “homes built in the early part of the 1900s or before [have walls that might] be too thin to add ducts.”
Even if the walls are thick enough to accommodate ductwork, the electrical system might not be able to handle modern air conditioning. If so, homeowners might consider a mini split or passive methods of heating and cooling their homes. Passive methods include automated window treatments, strategic furniture placement and weather stripping.
Many homes built between the mid-century and the 1970s already have HVAC systems. However, Landon writes that “older HVAC systems cost more to run, maintain, and service.” Below are a few ways to diagnose a faulty HVAC system.
Signs of an Outdated HVAC System
Owners of fixer-upper homes might suffer from rising utility bills and uneven temperatures throughout the house if their HVAC system is getting too old. This is because HVAC systems become less efficient over time as debris builds up, clogging ducts and vents. Uneven heating is a less obvious sign of an older HVAC. It is especially common when the previous owners built an addition onto the existing house. There might also be a problem with the ductwork.
In a recent article for USA today, Joni Sweet identifies a few more “red flags.” Sweet writes that it might be time to repair or replace your HVAC system if “your HVAC system runs constantly.” If repair work continues to “exceed what you hoped to spend,” it might be time to stop fixing and start shopping.
How to Fix an Outdated HVAC System
The best way to fix an outdated system is to first diagnose if the existing system is salvageable within your budget. The next step is to hire a respected technician who can either repair the existing system or install a new system. Repairs could cost up to $500 while a replacement could cost several thousand dollars. Installing a brand-new system could save money in the long run.
If your home is too old or the layout is too complicated to accommodate a modern HVAC, you might consider a ductless mini split. Ductless mini splits avoid the hefty renovation costs involved when installing a typical HVAC, but are still quite efficient and effective. Purchasing the units and installing a mini split system throughout your home could also cost a few thousand dollars. The exact amount depends on the size and layout of your home.
#2 Foundation Issues
Second on our list of common problems with older homes is damage to or deterioration of the foundation. The severity and type of damage depends largely on the materials and techniques used to build your home’s foundation. These materials and techniques vary widely from decade to decade.
Signs of Foundation Problems
Signs of foundation issues include cracks in the walls of your home, crumbling masonry, uneven floors and windows that never quite close properly. Homeowners should pay particular attention to door and window jambs, as cracks above these openings can indicate issues with the foundation.
In some cases, leaks could also indicate problems with your home’s foundation – particularly the foundation’s sill plate. Your home’s sill plate wraps around the whole foundation where the foundation meets the ground. Because the sill plate comes into contact with the exposed ground, it can be vulnerable to warping and other types of damage.
Sagging floors could also indicate major structural problems with the foundation. Homeowners might think they need to replace old wood or laminate floors, but what they really need is to fix the foundation.
How to Fix Foundation Problems
In her article “Good Bones or Money Pit? How to Buy the Right Older Home for You” for Homelight, Dena Landon notes that “it’s not possible to replace an entire foundation.” Foundation repairs are possible in many cases, however, but they are expensive. Landon writes that “foundation repairs run between $2,300 to $6,800.”
Fixing a sill plate could cost anywhere from a thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. The larger your house is, the more you might have to spend. To diagnose exactly what is wrong with your foundation, you will probably need the expertise of a structural engineer.
#3 Leaky Windows
Third on our list of common problems with older homes is leaky windows. The windows in your older home might have degraded over time. This could allow air and water to pass into the home through gaps, cracks and other entry points. As such, older windows tend to be less efficient. Older windows are more likely than modern windows to rattle in the wind, let drafts in during the winter and leak during a storm. As their wooden frames and metal hardware deteriorate over time, older windows can be more difficult to open and close. The single-pane windows found in homes from the 50s, 60s and 70s are not only less efficient but also less sound-proof than modern windows.
In her guide “Postwar Home Challenges” for Old House Journal, Mary Ellen Polson notes that jalousie windows – pictured above – are of particular concern. Polson writes that Jalousie windows “don’t seal tightly when closed, allowing water and dirt to get in and conditioned air to seep out.” In hot and humid climates like those of the Southeast US, “metal parts tend to corrode and cranks easily [break or go] missing altogether.”
Signs of Leaky Windows
If you struggle to open and close your home’s windows, it might be time to replace or repair them. Rooms that feel particularly drafty might need their window panes or window frames replaced. Windows that rattle in the wind or leak during storms should also be repaired or replaced. If you notice mold, mildew or condensation forming around your windows, that could be another indicator. Having your windows inspected before restoring or replacing is always a good idea, as older windows could contain lead.
How to Fix Leaky Windows
You might be able to fix your home’s leaky windows on your own. Options include weatherstripping the jambs, removing flaky paint and/or restoring rotted wood. However, if you need to replace the glazing or insert new frames, it might be best to call on an expert. If your home is considered “historic” by your city or state, you might need to follow certain protocols before replacing or repairing antique windows.
The cost of a window repair will vary based on the number of panes and the complexity of their pattern. For example, HomeAdvisor estimates that repairing one window with a single pane should only cost about $200.00. Repairing a bay window with three or more panes, however, could cost between $600 and $3,250.00. The cost to replace old windows is similar, with the low end around $400 and the high end around $3,000 per window. As with repairing antique windows, replacing older windows costs more as the size, complexity and number of panes increases.
#4 Toxins Like Lead, Radon, Asbestos and Formaldehyde
Unfortunately, some older homes are riddled with chemicals like lead, asbestos, formaldehyde and radon that can be harmful to humans and pets. If you are planning on buying a fixer-upper, your home inspector should test for radon, lead and other toxins before closing. The seller might have already disclosed the presence of certain toxins. For example, sellers are required by law to tell prospective buyers if there is any lead paint in their home.
If your inspector finds dangerous levels of chemicals like lead and formaldehyde, your mortgage broker might consider this a dealbreaker. In that case, they could pull out of the buying process and refuse financing. Hazardous materials like these might be found in foam insulation, foundations, sealants, flooring, paint and more.
Signs of Toxic Materials
Obvious signs of toxic chemicals in the home include acute illness, crumbing walls and peeling paint. The most reliable indicator, however, is simply age. Any house built before 1978 when the EPA banned the use of lead paint probably contains lead. Houses from this time might also contain asbestos or radon.
In a recent article for Realtor.com, Kathleen Wilcox warns “the older the home, the more wary a buyer should be.’” Homeowners with pets and small children might choose to avoid homes built before the 1980s. This is because the “door frames and window sills [in these houses] are most likely to have lead paint.” Children and pets are at greater risk of exposure and greater risk of major health problems because they crawl, teethe and chew.
As for formaldehyde, most off-gassing likely occurred shortly after installation of foam insulation and other building materials. However, exposure could still be harmful. While asbestos is typically harmful only when disturbed – i.e. by a natural disaster or remodeling – it can still be dangerous.
How to Get Rid of Toxic Materials
Homeowners should not attempt to rid their houses of radon, formaldehyde, lead or other chemicals on their own. Instead, they should seek the help of an expert. An expert will test for these chemicals.
They will then remove materials wherever possible, replace those materials with safer versions and/or seal up the foundation, walls and elsewhere. Professional remediation costs vary by toxin. For example, radon remediation costs between $500 and $1,500 on average.
Unfortunately, lead paint removal can be incredibly costly. The EPA estimates a total cost of between $10k and $30k for an average-sized home with lead paint on walls in every room.
According to Brie Greenhalgh in a recent article for Bob Vila, removing asbestos could cost just as much as removing lead paint. Greenhalgh writes that the national average for removing asbestos in a home is $1,994 – usually priced per square foot. However, “an asbestos remediation project on an entire house could start at $15,000” and approach $30k.
#5 Renovation Restrictions
Fifth on our list of problems with old houses is less related to safety or habitability and more related to aesthetic or lifestyle preferences. Depending on where you live, there might be local restrictions on the type and scope of renovations a homeowner is legally allowed to execute. Some city planning departments — like San Francisco’s — specify the ways in which homeowners can alter historic properties. This is why it is important to know whether your home is historically significant or simply old.
In her article “Why historic homes come with a unique set of challenges” for The Almanac, Bay Area writer Melissa McKenzie explains. McKenzie writes that “age and architectural style don’t necessarily make a home historic.” A home’s location in a historic neighborhood, its original architect or a historically significant event could all make the home historic. In most districts, historic homes are broken into multiple categories. These categories dictate how the home must be cared for and how it can be updated.
If your home is deemed historic, you might not be able to change the layout, alter the exterior or add modern elements like A/C. Some districts are stricter while others have looser requirements. At the very least, McKenzie writes that most “local zoning laws require a commission or agency to review any exterior renovations for [historic homes].” On the other hand, a home’s historic status could make it eligible for grants, low-interest renovation loans and other financial aid for repairs.
#6 Insufficient Insulation
Sixth on our list of problems with old houses is insufficient insulation. Homes built between the fifties and sixties are most likely to have insufficient insulation. In the article “Busted: Common Problems in Older Homes—Broken Down by Decade” for Realtor.com, Jamie Wiebe explains. Quoting Kershan Bulsara, Wiebe writes that “‘1960s homes were not built with an emphasis on insulation.’” The energy needed to run one’s thermostat was so much cheaper than today. As such, “‘preventing heat loss was not a huge concern for builders or homeowners.’”
Today, heating costs are nearing record highs due to supply chain issues, storms and inflation. In a recent article for Money, Brad Tuttle writes that “federal agencies warned that heating bills would surge 5% to 50% higher this winter.” Back in February, “energy prices were up 27%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Improving insulation in your old home might be a worthy investment if heating costs continue to skyrocket.
Signs of Insufficient Insulation
There are a few easy ways to tell if your home has insufficient insulation — especially during the winter. Your home might be under-insulated if the walls feel cold, if the pipes freeze often and if you notice ice dams on the exterior.
Drafts and temperatures that vary wildly throughout your home could also indicate insufficient insulation. Of course, higher heating bills than you expected — even with all of today’s supply chain and inflation issues — could also be an indicator.
How to Fix Insufficient Insulation
In “Busted: Common Problems in Older Homes” for Realtor.com, Jamie Wiebe writes that improving insulation can be pretty easy. Wiebe writes that you can “rent an insulation blower from your favorite hardware store…and your home will be toasty long before wintertime.” Keep in mind that this could cost around $50 each day you rent the blower. Be sure to hire a professional if the materials used in your home’s original insulation might contain formaldehyde, radon or asbestos.
#7 Water Damage, Mold or Mildew
Water damage can occur in any home where the roof has a leak, a pipe has burst or the foundation has been damaged. The older the roof, the older the pipes and the older the foundation, the more likely leaks are to occur. In “Restoring a historic house” for Curbed, Robert Khederian explains how serious water damage can be.
Quoting interior designer, architect and old house restorer Steven Gambrel, Khederian writes “‘water damage is serious, important, and It needs to be addressed.’” Not only can water damage produce unhealthy levels of mold and mildew. It can also endanger the structural stability of your home. Gambrel tells Khederian that water damage attracts bugs. It can also have “’long-term effects like dry rot,’” which could eat away at the framing of your home.
Signs of Water Damage, Mold or Mildew
A musty smell, sudden onset of allergy-like symptoms and stains on the floor, walls or ceiling could all indicate water damage. In an article for Forbes, Matt Clawson writes that a musty smell is often the best indicator of water damage, mold or mildew. Clawson notes that “you might see signs of mold on the walls of an old home.”
However, it is far more likely that “you will smell the musty gasses released by mold hidden in walls, attics and underfloor framing.” If you do smell what you think might be mold, contact a professional inspector immediately. Only a professional can remediate mold safely and thoroughly.
How to Fix It
As noted above, a professional must be called in to diagnose and remediate mold and other results of water damage. A structural engineer and professional remodeling team might be needed if the water damage has affected your home’s framing, roof or other structural elements. In the United States, the average cost of mold remediation is just over $2,000 USD.
However, major issues require more money, more time and more specialized professionals. You might need to replace the roof, install new plumbing or undertake other expensive renovations. According to Clawson, “the cost to remove mold and properly install new drainage…in a very old structure sometimes is not economically feasible.”
Any home could have pests like carpenter ants, wood-boring beetles, termites, mice, rats or roaches. A home could even house bees, bats or birds! Though any house could suffer from an infestation, older homes that have been neglected or left vacant are often at greater risk.
An infestation left unaddressed by previous owners could have damaged the insulation, electrical, plumbing or structure of your home. Termite and other pest inspections are not always included in a standard home inspection. However, if you suspect an infestation before buying a house, your real estate agent will probably recommend commissioning a pest inspection.
Signs of a Pest Infestation
Nothing is more obvious than seeing a cockroach or a mouse skittering across the tile floor of your kitchen. Other obvious signs of an infestation are hearing pests moving around in the walls or seeing their droppings on the floor. However, there are other signs that might not be so obvious.
Finding bites or irritation on your skin could indicate an insect infestation. Nests, unpleasant smells, tracks and bite marks on your houseplants or walls could also be signs of an infestation. The easiest way to confirm an infestation is to call an inspector – and then to call an exterminator.
How to Fix an infestation
Steps you must take to fix an infestation depend largely on the type of pest and the severity of damage caused by that pest. In some cases, you might be able to get rid of the pests on your own. You could do so by plugging up holes, leaving out traps and spraying a repellant. In other cases, you might need to call one or more professionals.
First, you should hire an inspector to diagnose the nature and extent of the infestation. Second, you might call an exterminator to mitigate the problem. If the pest – namely mice or rats – damaged your home’s wiring, you might also need to call in an electrician. A structural engineer, plumber or contractor might also be needed if the framing, plumbing or insulation was eaten.
Costs also vary depending on the type of pest and the severity of damage. Termite treatment could cost as little as $300, but repair work could quickly exceed $3,000 if the termites damaged your home’s framing. Getting rid of roaches could cost anywhere between $100 and $6,000 according to a recent article from This Old House.
#9 Damaged or Deteriorating Pipes
Ninth on our list of common problems with older homes are damaged or deteriorating pipes. Damaged pipes could lead to leaks, floods or poor water quality. Homes built before the 1980s were typically outfitted with either clay, polybutylene or galvanized iron. Each of these materials is prone to damage. Clay pipes are especially vulnerable to damage from tree roots. Galvanized pipes are prone to rust and sediment build-up, while polybutylene pipes break down when exposed to oxidizing agents in the home’s water supply. All are costly to repair and/or replace.
Signs of Damaged Pipes
The age of your home is its most telling sign. Homes built before the 1940s might have clay pipes, while those built after the 1950s might have galvanized or polybutylene pipes. However, the previous homeowners might have treated or replaced the house’s plumbing system in the past. Low water pressure and smelly blockages in your home’s plumbing could also indicate damaged or deteriorating pipes.
Water discoloration, sediment in your water or an unpleasant taste could also indicate damaged pipes. If you notice leaks – either inside or outside your home – be sure to call a plumber or inspector as soon as possible.
How to Fix Old Plumbing
In some cases, older plumbing will be beyond repair and must be replaced. Either way, repairs, removals and installations should be handled by a professional plumber. Unfortunately, this could be a costly endeavor. In her article “Good Bones or Money Pit? How to Buy the Right Older Home for You” for Homelight, Dena Landon explains.
Landon writes that “it can cost an average of $2,500 to $15,000 to replace all of a home’s plumbing.” If you need to replace a few sections, you might pay a few hundred dollars. In general, Landon notes that “the cost will be influenced by how difficult it is to access the pipes.” The overall cost will also depend on “the materials you select for replacements.”
#10 A Dangerous or Insufficient Electrical System
One of the most expensive and most dangerous risks involved when buying a fixer-upper is damage to the home’s electrical system. An older home might have two-prong, non-grounded outlets instead of the three-pronged outlets we expect in today’s homes. Older houses might also have outdated electrical systems like knob and tube wiring. These are usually incapable of supporting modern appliances, HVAC systems and other day-to-day operations of a typical 21st century household. The type of insulation used in knob and tube wiring can also be incredibly dangerous, prone to sparking and starting fires in the home.
Signs of a Dysfunctional Electrical System
As with other issues outlined above, your home’s age will be the first sign of an outdated, insufficient or dangerous electrical system. For example, Jamie Wiebe notes in an article for Realtor.com that “un-renovated homes might also have knob-and-tube wiring [which] were common until the 1930s.” Ungrounded electrical systems were common until the 1970s, when building codes across the country finally started requiring GCFI outlets.
Other signs of a dysfunctional electrical system include frayed wires, discoloration of the outlets or covers, smoke, flickering lights and sparks. An unpleasant smell or buzzing sound could also indicate issues with your home’s electrical system. Outlets that are coming loose might also indicate damaged wiring.
How to Fix an Outdated Electrical System
Again, an outdated electrical system should only be addressed by a licensed electrician. Hiring an electrician for a thorough inspection is the first step according to Josh Garskof in an article for This Old House. Quoting electrician Allen Gallant, Garskof writes that while “some wiring problems are just inconveniences…but others can pose serious fire or electrocution hazards.” You might plan to buy a house — or have already bought a house — “that’s more than 50 years old.” If so, Garskof and Gallant note that “it’s a good idea to hire a licensed electrician to give your home a thorough going-over.”
A licensed electrician will “‘look at the insulation on the wires to see if it’s dried out and fraying.’” The electrician will also “‘look for corrosion in the service panel, and he’ll look to see if a previous owner did anything unsafe.’” After reviewing your home’s system, the electrician will recommend next steps. This could include anything from covering junction boxes and adding more outlets to replacing all receptacles or swapping out all wiring.
Other Common Problems with Old Homes
We outlined ten of the most common problems with older homes. However, there are many other issues homeowners with fixer-uppers might face. These include damaged mortar and masonry, balloon framing and abutting sewer and water lines.
Each of these can impact the safety, health and overall habitability of your home. Before buying a fixer-upper, be sure to hire a home inspector who will assess the structural integrity of your home.
Financing Options for Homeowners Who Need to Make Major Repairs on their Fixer Upper Home
In a recent post, we identified eight financing options for new homeowners with fixer-uppers. First, homeowners might consider a Fannie Mae HomeStyle Renovation Loan. Two of the most common options for first-time buyers are limited or standard FHA 203(k) rehab loans. As mentioned above, these loans bundle your mortgage with a low-interest renovation loan.
They could also qualify for a Freddie Mac CHOICERenovation loan. Certain homeowners might apply for an unsecured loan of up to $25,000 through HUD. There are also many locally funded grants, low-interest loans and other financing options available to owners of historic properties.
It can be difficult to obtain funding through a local historical society or other funding source, however. In “Historic home renovations: How to qualify for historic home grants and loans” for The Mortgage Reports, Erik J. Martin explains. Quoting Jon Wiest, Martin writes that “‘there is a competitive application and approval process'” than other loans.'” Plus, “‘homeowners must submit a detailed scope of the work involved as well as several competitive bids to be eligible.'”
However, those who are approved for locally funded grants could receive up to $20,000 towards their home repairs. There are also federal tax breaks for owners of historic homes. These tax breaks encourage homeowners to protect historic properties that might be expensive to maintain.
For further financing options, head over to our post “Financial Help for First-Time Homeowners with Fixer-Uppers.”