10 Warning Signs When Buying a “Fixer Upper”


Some buyers love the idea of making repairs to a home and adding “sweat equity” to increase its value. There’s no doubt that HGTV has helped fuel that vision, but if due diligence isn’t adequately performed, a property can end up being a money pit. Here’s a list of warning signs that might help you prevent a real-life nightmare. 

  • A listing sold “AS-IS”. This is typically a sign that there is major repair work needed which the seller’s won’t complete. Ask the listing agent for any reports and identify the extent of problems and how expensive or time-consuming they will be to fix. Be realistic with whether the repairs are beyond your means.
  • Smell of moisture. Moisture intrusion can cause a huge amount of damage to a home, so be on the lookout for mold or warping. The first clue is that moisture smells and aside from damage to the property, moisture can negatively affect you or your tenant’s health.   
  • Stuck windows or doors. Difficult to open windows or doors can be a sign that the house is settling due to age or structural shifts. If there are concerns, try a sampling of windows or look at the gaps around a door in its frame – if the gaps vary, there may be issues. 
  • Foundation Problems – San Luis Obispo has a lot of clay content in its soil which expands and contracts with the weather. This natural process can wreak havoc to older homes and there are specific neighborhoods where this is a common concern.
  • Poor drainage – A common cause of foundation issues, homeowners should be aware of a property’s drainage. Check rain gutters and downspouts, which should ideally terminate 3’ or more away from a house’s foundation. Be cautious when grading slopes toward the house, as water can pool underneath a raised foundation home. Ask your home inspector to look for signs of efflorescence on the interior of the perimeter foundation. 
  • Bad Roof – If the roof is near the end of its useful life, take into account the cost to replace it along with your purchase price. Roofs are expensive but integral to the overall health of your home. Look in the attic and at ceilings for signs of water staining. Additionally, determine how many layers of roofing currently exist – most homes have composition shingles which are heavy and can put extra load on the house’s framing. Be concerned if there are more than 2 layers of shingles.
  • Outdated plumbing – Older homes often used cast iron waste lines that generally have a finite life span. Determine the age and condition of plumbing on older homes and look for signs that may indicate issues, such as poor water pressure, pipe leaks underneath the house and dissimilar metals (which can accelerate corrosion).
  • Outdated electrical systems – Be aware of type of electrical panel and system on the home. Knob and Tube wiring along with aluminum wiring can be causes for concern. Additionally, it is not uncommon to find ungrounded 3-prong plugs in many homes on the market. In older homes, the electrical panel may not be properly sized to today’s technology requirements and in most cases, if the panel supports less than 100 amps, it’s probably due for an upgrade.
  • High Energy Bills – There has been more emphasis placed on energy efficiency over the last decade as utility costs keep rising. Check the furnace, insulation, and door/window seals for efficiency and opt for an energy audit to really know your home’s energy health.
  • Historic home designation and zoning rules. Municipal guidelines can sometimes restrict the type of improvements homeowners can make. A historic designation might be the most limiting factor, as cities want to retain original architecture to the extent possible. 

While some buyers prefer old homes over newer construction, it’s important to have a realistic idea regarding the condition of ALL facets of a home. Just like a classic car, an older home will require more maintenance and having a gameplan in place to tackle repairs on a “fixer upper” is key to good home health. Feel like we missed a major point here? Contact us at [email protected] or 805.459.1865 to let us know what else should be on this list! 

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