Fixer-upper or money pit: How to determine

You fall in love with a house – the elegant front porch, the wood-burning fireplace in the living room, the roomy eat-in kitchen, the expansive master bedroom. All it needs is a little TLC. You’ll just fix the rotting floorboards on the porch, get rid of the raccoons in the chimney and put a coat of paint on the walls.

Before you know it, you discover that termites inhabit the rotting floorboards, none of the bathrooms work and the wiring is hopelessly out of date. Winter comes and the furnace doesn’t work. The list of disasters goes on and on.

This story is so common it was made into a movie. You thought you were buying a fixer-upper, but now you’re living in The Money Pit.

How do you avoid living that script? Here are some tips that can help you tell the fixer-uppers from the money pits:

  • look beyond dirt and décor problems. Unattractive wallpaper, ugly tiles and dirty carpets are easy and relatively inexpensive to replace. You can also landscape a run-down yard. As long as the problems aren’t an indicator of serious neglect, a house that’s just a little worse for wear may actually be a great bargain.
  • distinguish ongoing maintenance jobs from emergency repairs. Every house will eventually need a new furnace, roof and appliances. So don’t cross a place off your list just because it has an elderly furnace, worn shingles or a no-frills fridge – all of which you can replace in good time. Look out for a furnace that doesn’t work or leaks carbon monoxide, missing shingles and appliances that don’t turn on. They mean immediate repair and replacement expenditures.
  • keep an eye out for water damage. Stains around skylights or on ceilings can mean a leaky roof and, possibly, water damage to the structure. Flaking paint around window frames and peeling paint in bathrooms are signs of moisture problems that could be expensive to fix. And a musty smell in the basement could mean a leaky toilet up above, a main drain that’s clogged or cracked, or a leaky foundation – all of which can be costly and difficult to rectify.
  • look for signs of carpenter ants, termites and dry rot. These problems may be present wherever wood meets brick or soil. Evidence of dry rot – a fungus that sucks the moisture out of timber dampened by contact with wet brickwork or masonry – includes dull brown, cracked or crumbling timber, or small brown spores on wood surfaces. Termites leave behind mud tubes and mud protruding from cracks between boards and beams. They also can swarm around the wood they are hollowing out. Piles of sawdust could be evidence of carpenter ants. A localized carpenter ant problem is easily remedied by replacing the wet wood the ants live in or spraying. But any of these infestations can mean structural damage and extensive repairs.
  • be wary of damaged plaster and drywall. Look for rough repair jobs on the plaster, bulging walls or ceilings, cracked ceiling plaster and spongy surfaces. Replacing plaster or drywall is messy and inconvenient, and the damage could be symptomatic of more serious problems.
  • recognize wiring that’s out of date. Old wiring can be a fire hazard, and will need to be replaced. Look for knob-and-tube wiring: ceramic knobs that support cloth-covered wires between joists or studs.
  • test the plumbing. Katherine Hepburn supposedly used to insist on showering in a home before purchasing it. You may not be quite so bold, but you should run all the taps and flush all the toilets. If the water runs brown out of the taps, you may be looking at rust buildup.
  • avoid structural problems. The major sign is continuous cracking in the brick or foundation. Other symptoms, in addition to those listed above: brick veneer, window frames, floor tiles or parquet that are separating or lifting; doors or windows that don’t shut properly; floors that are crooked (a marble on the ground shouldn’t roll); and leaning walls.

This list should help you eliminate the obvious money pits. Any home that passes your preliminary examination should be inspected by an independent professional, who can give you an estimate of how much it will cost to fix up.

Make any offer to purchase conditional upon a home inspection, which can reveal subtle but serious flaws before you seal the deal. Forewarned is forearmed.


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