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The questions you should ask yourself before buying a fixer-upper

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Stumbling upon a diamond in the rough and transforming it into a show house is a common fantasy, especially among DIY enthusiasts and people who love older character homes, but there can be a stark contrast between the dream and the reality if you don’t have a clear understanding of what lies ahead – and what can go wrong.

“There is no doubt that successfully completing a renovation project is an incredibly rewarding experience,” says Sandy Geffen, Executive Director of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in South Africa. “But the success of the project depends on several crucial factors, most of which begin and end with you – the investor and property owner.”

Top tip: If you are considering buying your first fixer-upper begin your research with some candid self-analysis to determine whether it’s the right thing for you, and if it’s right for you right now.

The test

Can you do it

Guard against overcapitalisation on your reno. Click the pic to find out how

If you can honestly answer yes to at least five of the following questions, there is every chance you will be able to tackle the project head-on and circumvent most of the nerve-wracking and potentially costly pitfalls.

  1. Do you thrive on the challenge of taking on new projects?
  2. Do you have any experience with building projects or artistic renovations? Do you have the general knowledge to deal with this kind of endeavour? Have you ever dealt with builders and architects in a project of this nature?
  3. Can you already envision the end result?
  4. Are you creative, hands-on, or handy?
  5. Are you patient and calm under pressure? It may take time to find the right property, after which further delays beyond your control are very likely, especially with older homes that commonly reveal unexpected surprises along the way.
  6. Do you have the time to commit to such a project?
  7. Are you a team player? Are you able to consider the advice and opinions offered by a diverse crew with different skill sets and qualifications and merge them into an efficient team?
  8. Are you prepared to handle and diffuse crises if or when they occur?

Look at your fixer-upper through the eyes of a home inspector


Geffen says once you have made the decision to take the plunge, the next step is to find the right property. Searching online is a good place to start; it will give you a good idea of what is out there. However, it is then a good idea to make contact with an agent since the agent will come with knowledge and understanding of what such a purchase involves and requires.

Top tip: The ideal fixer-uppers are usually those that require mostly cosmetic improvements as the renovation costs will generally be much less than what they return in market value. Major structural repairs and upgrades can be very expensive and time consuming to complete with aggravations like delays more likely.

Three factors to consider when looking:

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Perfect example of a fixer-upper with no structural renovations needed in a sought-after location. This three bedroom home in Craighall is on the market for R4,5m.

  • Location, location, location. The golden rule doesn’t differ for fixer-uppers. Choose a sought-after or up-and-coming area that has key amenities and is in close proximity to good schools.
  • Condition. This can vary widely, but if you want to minimise costs, look for a home that has ‘good bones”—a solid roof and foundation, a good floor plan that suits your needs as closely as possible and quality construction.
  • Configuration. Search for houses that have the approximate square meterage and number of bedrooms and bathrooms you desire because adding rooms is where costs can really begin to escalate.

Whatever renovation is required, it’s usually most cost-effective and rewarding when you, as the homeowner, pitch in and get involved in the project, and not only in a supervisory capacity, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. The pleasure and satisfaction you will experience upon completion, if all goes well, are a wonderful reward and the reason many people want to take on such a project. But remember that success is dependent on careful planning, including labour and materials and, very importantly, the skill, knowledge and professionalism of the team members that you choose to work alongside you.

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