5 Tips When Buying A Fixer Upper Home (2024 Guide)

Are in the market for a fixer upper? Do you want to know how you can lower your risk and save money? You are in the right place.

Home buying is fraught with risk and pitfalls and even more so when buying a home that needs work. During my time as a home inspector, I have seen many horror stories and major house defects.

In this home buying tips guide, I will go over....

home buying tips
  • What to look for in homes that need work
  • How to determine the age of major home appliances (it's easy)
  • Find out if your home has defective water pipes
  • How to check your electrical panel box for recalls
  • And more...

Let's get started with this guide!

5 Fixer Upper Home Buying Tips

A house can be a dream come true but it also has the potential to be a nightmare. This home buying tips guide is not a a replacement for a qualified home inspector but these tips can help you save money and headaches before you even make an offer (if it's under contract, here are some great tips to close quickly).

There is nothing more exhausting than falling in love with a home, getting it under contract, putting down a deposit --- then you find out later from the home inspection that there are major issues.

Buying a home warranty can help reduce the pain of future problems, but keep reading to learn about our 5 tips when buying a fixer upper...

Tip #1.  Verify Age Of The HVAC

My first and easiest tip to implement is to find out the age of major home appliances --- things like the air conditioner, furnace, and water heater. One of the most common shocks of buyers (especially first time home buyers) is that they fall in love with a home, but later find out that most of the HVAC is extremely old and will need to soon be replaced.

An example of the typical language I use in a home inspection report is that "I observed the furnace is at the end of it's life expectancy, buyer should budget for a new furnace in the near future."

The furnace, a/c condenser, and water heater all have manufacturer labeling and sometimes the age is clearly written on it. Most of the times however, I will have to take a picture of the serial number and look it up online. There are numerous websites that will allow you to decode the serial number to find the age of the unit.

Read Also: Real Estate Due Diligence (How Does It Work?)

HVAC System & Water Heater

As an example, for Lennox A/C units --- the second two digits of the serial number (S/N) represents the year of manufacture. The below condenser was made in 2018. The lower picture is of a Carrier A/C condenser where the date is printed on the label. The same process applies to the water heater and indoor furnace (or heat pump).

determine age of lennox a_c (1)

What Are The Average Life Expectancies of Appliances?

The "average" life expectancy of the major systems of a home is a very common part of inspecting a home. According to Energy Star, if the furnace is older than 15 years, then it is time to consider replacement. It may last for another 10 years, but it could also crap out in the next 6 months. How much longer an appliance lasts for is relative to how well it was maintained by the owner (usually not very well).

Typical life expectancies...

1. Furnace (15 Years)

2. Water Heater (12 Years)

3. Air Conditioner (15 Years)

Tip #2. Look At The Roof

One of the first things I do when doing a home inspection is to take a close look at the roof. When first time home buying, I wouldn't expect you to get into the details of a roof inspection, but you can at least get a rough idea on whether the roof is new, old, or looks like it needed replacement yesterday. The average cost to replace an asphalt roof is about $3 to $5 per square foot.

average cost to replace roof

This isn't rocket science folks. If there are missing shingles, curling/deteriorated shingles, numerous roof patches, badly faded (whitish) asphalt shingles --- then the roof covering will likely need to be replaced soon. The roof is major component of a home and it's something to take into account if you make an offer.

The average life expectancy for a standard 3-tab shingle roof is about 15 years. For higher quality architectural shingle (a thicker material with a more textured look) is around 25 years.

Read Also: Protect Your Roof With Attic Fans? (Potential Benefits & Risks)

very large roof patch
missing roof shingles

Tip #3. Check Out The Windows

Windows, depending on number and quality, can definitely be a major component to a house --- especially to first time homebuyers. It amazes me how sometimes a first time home buyer doesn't even realize that the windows are old and wooden and single-paned. These older windows are much less energy efficient than modern double-paned windows.

It isn't really a big deal in relation to the functioning of the home as whole, but it still impacts the value and sellability of the home... it needs to be taken into account. If my client is forced to sell their home in a few years (lets say due to a job relocation), then it is very likely that the next buyer will discount the home due to the old windows.

When you are in the home, you can either open up a few windows, or just keep carefully observe the windows. Again, this isn't rocket science. Do the windows look ancient? To know if the window is single-paned, just gently tap on the glass. Does it feel very thin? Then it is only one pane of glass.

An alternative to new double-paned windows if you are on a budget is to install storm windows with low-e coatings. Storm windows provide another layer of air which can greatly help with energy efficiency at a lower cost. Always keep in mind if the home has storm windows installed in front of the older windows.

old single-paned wooden window

Tip #4. Look Out For Poly

One time I did a home inspection for a lady, and she paid me half price just for me to check out house very quickly for major issues --- not a full detailed inspection like I normally do. When I entered the house, it took me about 5min before I realized the home was piped with something called polybutylene (also known as poly) --- which is a defective type of water pipe and no longer installed.

If you would like to read a very detailed guide on poly, you can check out my article on polybutylene here.

I took a picture of the piping, told my client about the issue, and she decided immediately that this isn't the house for her. On another home with a different client, the main water line was made out of polybutylene and I urged my client to have a plumber check it out. The plumber told my new home buyer that "there is no way I would buy it" and that sunk the sale.

According to NACHI.Org, poly was installed from 1978 to 1995. The piping generally has a bluish-gray color to it. If you see a water pipe that looks unusual (not the normal copper or CPVC) then the pipe is likely polybutylene. Poly is known for leaking, burst pipes, and general plumbing mayhem. 

If you buy a home with polybutylene, it would be a good idea to budget for complete piping replacement and to expect future leaks. Many of the homes I inspect with poly have numerous water stains on the ceiling from past leaks and I have to use a moisture meter to determine if they are currently wet.

Poly Identification (1)

Tip #5. Discover If The Panel Box Is Defective

A common "major item" that I find in homes is a electrical panel box that has been recalled, no longer in production, and has a history of defects. These panel boxes also frequently have a history of class action lawsuits against the manufacturer. Many times the breakers don't trip when they are supposed to, or may even have a history of melting and other problems.

The most frequent defective panel box that I come across was made by Federal Pacific. These panel boxes were made from the 1950's to 1980's. Many of these electric panels can work properly for many years, but after a while, home owners discovered that breakers wouldn't trip.

If a breaker doesn't trip when it's supposed to, then nothing is stopping electricity from surging into the panel box and the home's wiring from the outside electric meter. The electricity will keep surging until there is no more fuel or the wires actually melt. Obviously, this type of a situation can and has caused many fires.

The average cost to replace an electrical panel box by a licensed electrician can range from $700 all the way up to $2,500 depending on the panel size and the local market.

Here is my list of the most common defective electric panels...

  1. Federal Pacific
  2. Sylvania (Or GTE-Sylvania)
  3. Zinsco
  4. ITE Pushmatic
federal pacific stab-lok

Federal Pacific "Stab-Lok"

Federal Pacific "Stab-Lok"

What's The Bottom Line On Home Buying Traps?

Buying a home inherently comes with risks. Besides the financial aspect, as a home inspector, I am thoroughly familiar with the repair risks of buying a home with major defects. Especially for a vulnerable first time home buyer, a large repair may destroy their financial solvency.

In this article, I presented some of my top tips that any buyer can implement when viewing homes with a realtor. It doesn't take long to figure out the age of major appliances, take a look at the windows & roof, and determine if the home has poly.  Taking a quick peek at the electrical panel box is also a smart thing to do.

If you do these basic steps as outlined in this article, you will save some money by avoiding a full inspection fee (and possibly a deposit to seller) but maybe even more important... you won't fall in love with a house that you aren't going to buy.

Do you have a house buying horror story or a valuable tip on home buying? Tell me in the comments.

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