How to Find the Perfect Fixer Upper

What to look for when you buy a fixer upper (and a free house hunting worksheet!)


House hunting can be one of the most exciting and the most stressful tasks in your life. You get to consider lots of different types of homes, maybe in a new neighborhood or a new city, where you imagine creating memories with friends and family.  New beginnings are important milestones in our lives; however, this experience can also feel incredibly overwhelming.  You might feel like there are a million details to consider, lots of moving parts, and the persistent stress that you will never find the RIGHT house, in your budget, where you can be completely confident in your purchase (and what a huge purchase it is!!!).

As you may have read before, (and I’ll tell you again and again!), I urge you to seriously consider buying a fixer upper when it’s time for you to buy your first home or your next home.  There are SO MANY benefits to buying a less expensive house and investing your budget in upgrades and improvements that make it your own.  When you split your budget between purchase and improvements, you have more control over your budget, you can customize your home, take more pride in it, build equity in your investement, and improve the value of your neghborhood (to name a few!).

For your very own "pep talk" when you're ready to buy your own fixer upper, check out the 20 Reasons to Buy a Fixer Upper post! -Click to Tweet!

So, you’re ready to start shopping for a fixer upper? Awesome! Congrats, and don’t stress. I’m here to help! When you’re starting your home search, there are some basic qualities to consider to help you find the perfect fixer upper for you. I created a worksheet to help guide your home search- you can download it now (or at the end!) and follow along:

Grab the checklist in the Design Vault

Square Footage

At the most basic level, a house performs multiple functions for you and your family. Sleeping. Cooking. Eating. Resting. Working. Playing.   When you are looking at new homes, keep track of the square footage when you walk through them, and compare the feel of the spaces inside different homes you have visited. Unless you are prepared to manage a massive renovation project that includes an addition, square footage inside the home is probably not something you will be changing about this house. Do you have an idea of roughly the amount of space you need for the life you want to live? It is helpful to have a rough idea of the square footage that wil work for you when you are house hunting. This helps your realtor show you the most appropriate homes, and it helps you compare apples to apples. 


It’s true what they say: Location! Location! Location! This is the one thing about your house that you really can’t change. I advise strongly against falling in love with a house before you really understand the location. It won’t matter if you have the perfect house if you hate the location or don’t feel safe in the neighborhood. Some questions to consider: 

  • What is the school distrcit (if you have kids or are planning to have them someday!)?

  • What is the community like? Is there a neighborhood association? If you attend an open house- consider walking the neighborhood and chatting with anyone you meet outside, or ask other house hunters at the open house what they know about the area.

  • What types of amenities are closeby? What is in walking distance? Biking? Drving?

  • What will your commute to work be? To the gym? The grocery?

  • How do the nearby house values compare? Use a tool like Zillow (or your realtor!) to check out the trend in home prices over the last few years. Are they increasing? If they have been rising or steady, you can feel more confident that you’re investing in a good area. If home values are falling or stagnant, ask your Realtor for advice, and maybe consider another area.

  • Is this the "right" location for you? Drive around the area during the day, and also at night. Do you feel safe? Is this a place where you feel like you could “come home?” The “right” location means something different to everyone. Just be sure to not ignore the surrounding area when you are considering a house!

Quality of big ticket items

There are several “big ticket” items on a house to pay attention to when you are hunting for a fixer upper. These are things that can obliterate your renovation budget before you even get started! Be sure to ask your Realtor, and absolutely discuss with the inspector after you have an offer accepted, for their professional opinion on any and all repairs that need to be made. Here is a list to help you assess a home on your first walk-through. These items are included on the House Hunting Worksheet for you, too!

Look out for the following (as applicable to your area):

  • Foundation (are there cracks? Water? Does it appear level?)

  • Evidence of water damage (Brown spots on the ceiling? Sagging wallpaper?)

  • Age and quality of roof (Do the shingles look new? How many layers are there?)

  • Sloping floors (Inside the house, do the floors feel solid and level?)

  • Sagging ceilings (Can you see any areas where there is sagging/unevenness?)

  • Windows (How old are they? Do they seem to insulate well?)

  • Heating/Cooling systems (How old are they? Do they work?)

None of these items on their own is necessarily a deal-breaker, but (depending on the purchase price of the hosue and your planned renovation budget, they may be outside the scope of your project.)

Layout of the space

This is something to consider as you walk through the home: Does it “feel” right? Not everyone has the same knack for spacial awareness, but try to imagine your family living in the space. Ignore the colors, the finishes, the ugly carpet…. How would you LIVE in this home? For example: my family spends most of our time in the kitchen and living room, cooking, eating, and playing with my young children. I knew we needed a large kitchen with room for guests that had great visibility into the living room. When we looked at houses- If the kitchen and living room were on opposite sides of the house, I immediately knew that it woldn’t work- no matter the size of our renovations. This is a less tangible quality of houses- and may be something you can’t quite put your finger on- But don’t ignore it! If a house has the right “feel” and you can imagine the life your family would lead in the space, it has great potential as a fixer upper.

Scope of general renovations needed

Finally, let yourself dream about what the house will look like when you have ompleted renovations and you’re ready to move in. Make a simple list of the projects you would like to complete in order to make that dream a reality. Some items to consider including:

  • Floors (what kind? how much?)

  • Walls (what treatment?)

  • Windows (how many to replace?)

  • Light fixtures (how many?)

  • Kitchen

  • Change layout

  • Refinish existing cabinetry

  • New cabinetry

  • New appliances

  • Bathrooms

  • How many?

  • New layout?

  • Update fixtures

  • Very basic upgrades (faucets, etc)

  • Floorplan

  • Will you want to move/remove any walls?

  • Are there structural changes involved?

  • Are you adding non-structural walls?

While you may not know much about construction or renovation costs right now, this general idea of what you would like to accomplish in a home will be very helpful when you are at the point of disucssing your plans with a contractor (before you actually buy the hosue!). If you know the work you want to complete in a house, you can get estimates of the cost of renovations and be confident that you’re making the best purchase for you and your family. 

download the checklist from the Design Vault

As you look at more homes, keeping track of the same information for each home will let you compare them and make the best decision for you. Using this checklist will also help you to use your time walking through a house the most efficiently and effectively- looking at houses can be overwhleming and all the hosues start to blur together. This checklist will help you stay organized from the start and keep track of it all!