One OHW forum member gave this recommendation to another forum member considering the purchase of a house built in the 1860s that needed considerable cosmetic work:
Go out and a) buy a bottle of your favorite vice, b) get some takeout, c) rent “The Money Pit.” Settle down and watch the movie from the point of view of a documentary.
There’s a good reason why the 1986 film “The Money Pit” starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long is a popular one here on OldHouseWeb.com: it gives us a chance to laugh because folks who have lived in and owned old houses see the truth in it. And truth in home renovation is often stranger than fiction.
Until this past weekend, I hadn’t seen the film in years. In all the film’s over-the-top ridiculousness, there are a number of excellent lessons for anyone considering purchasing and/or renovating an old house.
1. Do your due diligence.
In the movie, Walter and Anna rushed into a sale because they needed to find a new place to live quickly and the price was right. They spent more time getting sucked into the personal history of the seller Estelle than they did asking questions and gathering information about the house and the work that had been done on it. If you want to avoid a money pit, do your homework to make sure the place has good bones.
2. Get an inspection before you buy.
Once you’re convinced the place is a good buy, get an inspection to be sure. Even if you’re paying cash and an inspection (and title report) isn’t required, you’re better off paying for an inspector who has experience with old and historic homes to let you know what you’re in for so that you’re not surprised when the stairs collapse from wood rot.
3. Beware the weak trees.
When you’re considering buying a house, take a good look at the grounds and flora for signs of disease or contamination. No one wants weak trees.
4. Don’t buy a house if you’re broke and can’t afford to repair it.
Being a home owner is one heck of a financial commitment. If you’re already broke, buying an old house isn’t going to make you less broke.
5. Prioritize your renovations.
When you’re excited about renovations, the cosmetic stuff can seem like the priority. Make sure your water and electrical/gas systems are in place before worrying about choosing the color of paint.
6. Hire reputable contractors.
Get references for potential contractors and go and look at the work that they’ve done and know that contractors in remote areas may be limited. If you’re buying a house in a remote area, know that you may need to pay more for a contractor to travel if you don’t find one to suit your needs in your immediate area.
7. Know the permitting laws.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of renovation, you need to know the permitting laws in your area and talk with your contractor to make sure the permit applications are completed.
8. Don’t pay for work that hasn’t been completed.
Paying money up front to contractors isn’t the industry standard and it’s typically not a good idea. Only pay for work that’s been completed. Definitely don’t pay anyone who is sucking down your Scotch and complaining about the quality.
9. Stay out of the work area for your own safety.
Don’t unplug equipment and don’t take shortcuts through a construction area. Bad things can happen.
10. Extensive renovation will take more than two weeks.
How long will that take? Two weeks? Probably not. If you’re looking at extensive renovations, work with your contractor to give you an accurate time line based on worst-case and best-case scenarios.
File those lessons away and remember that not all old houses are money pits.