Should We Buy a Fixer-Upper?

Your guy thinks it's a great idea; you're not so sure. Here's how to know if buying a fixer-upper home is the best choice for you.
By: Tara-Nicholle Nelson
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As a high-powered Realtor in the fancy-schmancy Bay Area real estate market, I have developed an uber-sophisticated client needs assessment technique I like to call “The Restroom Conversation.” (I say this TIC, which in this case stands for Tongue-In-Cheek rather than Tenants in Common!)

The Client. I’d sit at the coffee shop with my married clients and interview them on what they both wanted. Six times out of 10, the guy of the couple would say he was specifically interested in a fixer. As soon as I heard the word “fixer,” my eyes would dart over to catch the expression on his wife or girlfriend’s face. Sometimes I’d see agreement, sometimes neutrality, sometimes dismay, but often incredulity or even terror. Depending on the expression, as soon as the guy stepped out to go to the restroom, I’d ask her nonchalantly, “So what do you think about the idea of buying a fixer?” At least 50 percent of the time, she’d blurt out, “Please do not show us fixers. He will never finish the projects and we’ll be living in a half-done house for the next five years.”

Or vice versa -- the wife’s DIY delusions of ripping out walls and terracing backyards were making the husband practice those deep breathing relaxation exercises he saw Deepak Chopra model on TV that time. (One time, the girlfriend actually said out loud, “Why are you breathing like that?” which was a great segue for me to launch into The Restroom Conversation when I finally got him alone!)

Now don’t get me wrong, some buyers really do have the means, inclination and skill to take on a true fixer. But when one is up for it and the other is decidedly not -- that’s a different situation.

The Workaround. For my couples like this, the first buyer’s tour was very educational. I taught them to decode the listings. Needs TLC, contractor’s special, handyman’s special -- not so much. Places labeled “Diamonds in the rough” were more often diamonds only in some extreme optimist’s fantasy world. I’d throw one or two real fixers into the mix on the first time we went house hunting all together and, 9 times out of 10, they’d realize they didn’t have the time or money to take one of these on, especially while living in it at the same time as they planned to be working on it.

So I’d show them lots of houses that needed some paint, carpet and maybe a bathroom makeover, but try hard not to show them houses that were totally not livable or required multiple, long-term projects. And I would always try to at least throw in one or two homes in move-in condition, just to expose them to the other side of the fence.

The Result. It’s amazing how compelling Pottery Barn accents, custom color schemes, refinished hardwood floors and the “vortex of cuteness” (to steal the words of a favorite client) can be, even to the most die hard DIY-er. And the price differential between move-ins and cosmetic fixers just isn’t big enough to make the fixer make sense. Compromise achieved. Almost always.

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