how to see the potential in a fixer upper

This building is for sale in my neighborhood that’s being marketed as a great potential conversion from a multi tenant building to a single family home. This can be a great way to get a single family home in a neighborhood where there might not be many {or any} on the market. And often, at least here in Chicago, single family homes can be very expensive, so making your own can be an awesome way to literally create your own dream home.

listing_exterior 2

But, there can be a lot to think about when you are considering purchasing a fixer-upper – of any kind. If you aren’t a professional Architect or  Interior Designer, it can be a real challenge to see past what a building or space is now and imagine what it could be. What am I saying, it can be a real challenge even if you are a designer. So how do you know if a building like this – or any fixer upper – is a good deal, or a worthwhile investment? Here are the big things that I look for.

You don’t have to have all of the answers now

You don’t have to look at a space and know exactly what you are going to do with it from the beginning. You do need to be able to look critically at the space to get a feel for the potential…  the potential for the transformation and the potential costs. I know that sounds a little… vague, but just stick with me.

When I look at a property that clearly needs work I try to focus on the ‘bones’ of it. If you are going to buy a fixer upper and you don’t have the insight to know what to look at or what might be a red flag yourself , I recommend finding someone who does. Either work with a realtor who has a background in architecture and design or have your own designer in tow so that you can make informed decisions.

Know your budget, and your stamina

It’s important to be clear about how much money you have to spend on any improvements to your future house, and also, how big of a project you really want to undertake.

For example, if you have say, $30,000, it’s probably not realistic to look at places for sale that need to be gutted and entirely re-built. Even if you don’t know the exact cost of renovations when looking at properties, this will help you get a feel for whether something is relatively close and doable, or is far more work than you can afford. It will also help you weigh possibilities such as the potential of a place that is a bigger project but could be phased over time, as opposed to tackling everything at once.

Also, be realistic about how much project you can – or want to – take on. Totally re-doing a space can seem like an awesome idea, and there are so many tv shows and blogs that show awesome ‘after’ photos that make it seem easy and totally doable. But it’s a big undertaking even if you hire an architect and don’t go the DIY route. And if you do want to do it yourself, then expect your nights and weekends to be booked – for a while. So be super honest with yourself about how much project you want to take on. If you are going to want to be done in a month, be real about that. There are no wrong answers except not being honest with yourself. The worst thing you can do is buy a house that is a big, year plus project and then end up hating it because really, you only wanted a house that was a one or two month project. Or ending up living in a place that is just never finished. I come from a family that always undertook projects and never crossed the finish line… I grew up in a perpetual construction site… which might explain a little bit of why I went into Architecture and Interior Design…

What is the construction

Personally, I always prefer masonry over frame and siding, for durability over time if no other reason. It might cost more now, but in the long run it will hold up better and be lower maintenance. That might not be a high priority for everyone, what’s important is that you have clarity and certainty for yourself about what you want here. Then, don’t bother looking at places that are not in that category. There, you’re closer to finding the one already and you haven’t even walked through the door.

windows_before and after

Space planning 101

What are the proportions of the building, and of the rooms. How does the space feel overall, is it comfortable for you? Intuitively do you feel like it is kind of, or mostly working? Or do you feel like you’d want to rip out all the walls. You don’t have to know exactly how the layout will change, you will have a ‘gut’ feeling of whether ‘this is not so bad, maybe change a little’ or ‘gosh, this place really feels weird and uncomfortable… probably more change to get to what you want’. Just be sure you are focusing on the space, and not the paint colors, or dirty walls, or anything – anything – cosmetic. This takes a little practice. But, as you tune into this, if you can get a sense of where the load bearing walls are, it will give you a general idea of what you can do as far as reconfiguring any rooms or opening up walls.

There are no right or wrongs here, but it’s important to realize that the more you want to reconfigure the interior, the more it will cost to tear down and rebuild the walls, and also to move any of the associated utilities. Big ticket items to move are plumbing, stairwells and reworking ductwork.

Also look at the windows, are the size and proportions good, is there enough light? Creating new openings can be expensive so this is something to keep in mind. If you hate all the windows, or if they are small, it will be potentially costly to change.

It’s okay to judge that book a little by the cover 

What is the style of the exterior. You can really transform the interior of a space, and in many ways, you can transform the exterior as well, but if you are looking at an old stone masonry building with heavy details and don’t actually dig the heavy more ornate styles at all, you probably won’t be able to transform it into something that really is you without a major overhaul. Why fight a losing battle, right?

One thing I love about buying an old building and transforming it, is working with what’s there, instead of against it. If you want a certain look in the end, I always advise keeping that in mind to make sure what you are looking at will work with your preferences in general. The solution could be as simple as a coat of paint.

Don’t give up if the building isn’t ‘pretty’ right now. Even with masonry you can make a huge transformation with just paint. Some people resist this, but I have seen a lot of gorgeous brick buildings that are actually better looking once they are painted. I never even noticed this building when it was plain masonry and I really wish I had a before pic. After it was painted black and I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw it, I thought it was brand new but I knew there hadn’t been any construction so it took me a minute to realize that it had just been painted. The lower portion was painted a nice creamy ivory before they redid it red, which I preferred, but you still get the idea.

black brick

It can be tough to imagine anything transformed when all you can see right now is the ‘before’… but if you ask the right questions and have certainty and clarity, for yourself about what you are wanting to create, you’ll know what to do, what is right for you, and you’ll be able to really own and have your dream.

Which is really true for everything in life, am I right?



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