Home Purchase Advice

Kendall Holmes

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Before and after I chopped down some overgrown trees and gave it a paint job, here's a house I once owned. The shots are from the same spot on the front lawn.

Q: "As we shop for our first house, we like the idea of adding value through sweat equity. We're new to the do-it-yourself scene, but we're handy and willing to learn. Any advice?"

A. Look for a middle-aged ugly duckling with good bones in a stable neighborhood with good schools.

Here's what I mean: First, while I've bought and sold nearly a dozen houses over the past 15 years, I've never purchased a house in a neighborhood that seemed as if it was heading downhill, nor in a neighborhood with bad schools.

My sweat equity--and yours--only pays off if a buyer sees the value of our hard work. And buyers look for clean, bright houses in convenient, stable neighborhoods with good schools.

In many cities, neighborhoods built just before or after World War II offer a good place to begin your search. Often, the original owners in neighborhoods of this vintage are selling their homes--leading to an influx of families with children.

Once you narrow your search to a few neighborhoods, look for houses with peeling paint, ugly wallpaper, outdated light fixtures, dirty carpets and overgrown or non-existent landscaping. Search, too, for houses that offer a lot of space for the money, especially those with a floor plan that makes sense and those with a functional kitchen, even if it's outdated.

Houses like the ones I've just described often sell at a significant discount because despite their size and functionality, they make a bad first impression. Yet from a do-it-yourselfer's perspective, they offer great value. They need work that takes plenty of time, yet doesn't cost a lot or require advanced skills.


For example:

  • Many 1940s and '50s kitchens have functional layouts and rugged cabinetry. But grime, dark paint and inadequate lighting wrecks their appearance. Without spending a bundle, you can dramatically improve a kitchen like this with paint, new lights, new flooring and, perhaps, new countertops.
  • Older bathrooms often make a bad impression because they often have peeling paint caused by inadequate ventilation. And they're usually dimly lit by today's standards. Yet many older bathrooms feature sturdy ceramic tile walls and flooring--not to mention solid tubs and toilets. New paint, new lights and an exhaust fan will work wonders in a room like this. Of these three projects, only installation of an exhaust fan might stretch a first-time do-it-yourselfer's abilities.
  • Overgrown landscaping can destroy a home's street appeal, as can a bare lawn or a neglected, weed-filled flowerbed. These are easy--and fun--first-time projects.
  • That leads us to the biggest sweat-equity winners: Ditching the dirty carpets, and repainting walls, ceilings and trim. A decent paint job can add many thousands of dollars to a home's value. As for the carpets, guess what lurks beneath most of them in older houses? Hardwood floors, which command a premium in today's new houses.


What houses should you avoid as you narrow your search?


I would stay away from houses with any obvious structural problems, such as a cracked or shifted foundation, funky wiring, or noticeable water damage. And once I found a house I wanted to buy, I would hire a reputable home inspector to make sure I wasn't missing anything.

Also, while I love truly antique houses--those built before 1900--I'm not sure I'd advise first-time do-it-yourselfers to buy one. Old houses usually need lots of work! Finally, I would avoid buying a house that would only make me happy if I added onto it, or undertook a major reworking of its existing floor plan.

In short, find a house with the right things wrong with it--cosmetic things, not structural--and you'll be on the road toward making your sweat equity pay off. Happy painting!


Ken Holmes is an award-winning print and web journalist and editor. Distributed by Inman News Service, his weekly column appears on Yahoo, Quicken.com, Excite and many other leading web sites. You can leave questions here for possible use in future columns.

About the Author
By Kendall Holmes, The Old House Web

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