So, You Bought a Fixer Upper...Now What?

Tips, tricks, hacks & suggestions for making your new space your own

A white house with a blue door

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They say a house is not always synonymous with 'home,' and if you purchased a fixer-upper, you can probably resonate with that statement a bit more than most.

A fixer-upper house, apartment, or really any living space—although loved and valuable in its own right—tends to be a lot of work. Of course, that's the intention of purchasing (getting something on the cheaper side with the goal of renovating), but sometimes the first steps can be a little overwhelming.

But it doesn't have to be. From understanding and managing expectations to taking steps to update your space, you can make your house a home. It just takes a little mental clarity, passion, patience, and elbow grease.

First, Know Your Budget

It goes without saying that a fixer-upper is going to need work, but don't underestimate this and find yourself in a tough place. Before you start any renovations, figure out your budget. This is the money (and flexible spending) you have towards updating the house.

As you determine your budget, also create a list that prioritizes your needs. If you have a family, for example, you'll want to consider how the spaces are conducive to your everyday life. If you have elderly or disabled family members that may come to visit, you'll also want to think about mobility.

Your priority list can help you determine what's essential (and what you want to invest in first) vs. what's lower on the list (and invested in if you have budget leftover). It can also help you to create a more manageable and purposeful to-do list. And, if you're considering hiring outside help, it can ensure that there are fewer trips to your home.

You'll also want to think about your payment schedule, says J. B. Sassano, President of Mr. Handyman. "There may be cost savings by purchasing needed supplies in advance or having the service provider secure the items on your behalf."

If you need to budget for other things outside of your home, creating a payment schedule can help you manage that without feeling to overwhelmed as the costs add up.

Start With the Foundation & Exterior (Then Work Your Way In)

Before you do any updating, changing, renovating, etc., the single most important thing you can do for your new home (if you haven't already) is assess the foundation.

"Foundation issues can sometimes be associated with water damage, especially if the land slopes downward towards the home," shares an expert from HouseMaster. To determine if this is an issue you're facing, you'll want to see if there's standing water, grading issues, or cracking.

If the foundation is solid, you're ready to move forward—and some experts say starting with the outside is a better idea. Although much of what makes a home feel like a 'home' is the interior, it's better to think about the exterior from the beginning.

When you first get settled, there are a few important repairs and updates to make. First, a good rule of thumb is to start with security. "Replace the locks," says Sassano. "Even if the previous owner promised to return the copy of every key, it's always a good idea to change the locks throughout the exterior of the home."

You can call a locksmith, visit the hardware store and purchase your own lock and key sets, and even make copies, too. If the house has an alarm system, familiarize yourself with it and change the code (and the garage door code, too).

It's also a good idea to inspect potentially dangerous areas of the home, like the vents, gutters, and chimney. Even if you don't plan on using the chimney, assessing it can help you determine the health of it and whether you should just replace it, as well as updates that could help save you money on gas and electric bills.

Other updates for the exterior, depending on your home, of course, would be checking and cleaning the gutters, painting, cleaning windows, planting, and landscaping. Sometimes little changes, like cleaning the glass on your window panes, for example, can make a huge difference.

Although your fixer-upper won't feel like home with just a coat of paint, it does help you to see parts of what it will look like when the renovations are done. And, if nothing else, that can be inspiring.

Be Smart With Walls & Rooms

When you're renovating a fixer-upper, sometimes it may be tempting to take down walls or reconfigure the space to fit your needs or lifestyle. While you can do this, it's best to consult with an expert first before taking anything down or out.

"Removing or modifying loadbearing walls can compromise the structural integrity of your home," cautions Sassano. "Before removing any walls, do your homework to ensure they are 100 percent NOT loadbearing. Also, walls are the highways for plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling, and other utilities. Look for clues the wall is needed for any of these things. Obvious signs include switches, plugs, heat registers, etc."

If you want to remove a wall, start with removing the drywall first. It's recommended to score the inside corners of the wall and ceilings to make a clean break.

Evaluate Your Electric

Another big component of your home is the electric. As you start your renovation process, consider some of the most common problems and whether they are impacting your home: flickering lights, quick burnouts, dead outlets, warm switches, etc. If any of these apply to you, then you may want to investigate further or hire an expert.

"[Flickering or dimming lights] could be a sign of poor connection and lead to eventual arcing—loose/corroded connections making intermittent contact," advises Joel Worthington, President of Mr. Electric. If these issues are not addressed, your home is at risk for sparking, overheating, and at the worst, fire.

Check the proximity between outlets and insulation, look for a tripped breaker or build-up causing melted wires, or loose or corroded connections. If you're in an older house, look for older wiring.

"Aluminum wiring used in the 60s and 70s, non-metallic wiring installed in the 40s and 50s, and knob and tube wiring in pre-1930s homes are well-known safety hazards," says Worthington. "As are loose connections and frayed wires resulting from wear-and-tear."

The bottom line? Assess all areas of your electric (especially if you see problems) in order to mitigate your risk and ensure your home is in tip-top shape post renovations.

As you renovate, consider alternatives like LED or smart lights, which are more energy-efficient, or replacing everything from old wires and bulbs to filters in order to ensure your new home is running smoothly.

Focus on the Small, Manageable Changes

Just like the interior-exterior dilemma, some experts it's better to go big first so that you don't waste time with tiny changes that may eventually be ripped out or shifted completely. While this is valid, there's something to be said for the small shifts, too.

When you move into a new space—fixer-upper or not—the process can feel overwhelming. One way to combat this is to focus on what's manageable. For example, rather than processing how you're going to get the entire kitchen gutted and redone, start with patching the nail holes in the walls of a room you know you're going to keep. While this may seem silly at first, it's a task that needs to be done (and frankly isn't fun), so the sooner you're able to cross it off your list, the better you'll feel.

Enjoy the Design Process

Once you have the essentials out of the way—everything from knocking down walls and reconfiguring rooms to cleaning filters, assessing fire hazards, and updating the electric—you're ready for the fun part: the design process.

When you purchase a fixer-upper, you have a unique opportunity to make your space truly your own. While most homeowners are limited to the structures and layout of the space they've purchased, you have both flexibility and freedom. That means you can paint, move, shift, add, and completely create your dream home—from scratch.

If you're thinking about painting the walls, Matt Kunz, President of Five Star Painting, shares some tips about what to start with. "Good primer is critical to achieving a beautiful, even paint job," he says. "Primer is usually white; however, you can often add a tint in a color that matches the topcoat. This will result in a better overall color application."

A good rule of thumb when considering paint is to think about the mood of the room. "The color you pick can affect the tone of your room," Kunz shares. "For example, a dark hue can make a room feel masculine. On the other hand, a light hue can make a room feel airy and quaint. The best way to pick a color is to choose bright colors for areas where you socialize (living room, dining room) and cool colors for areas you will like to be calming and relaxing."

You'll also want to think about your lighting and how this can impact your paint color and theme as well. For example, natural light can be very different than harsh, interior lighting. Be sure to look at your paint in natural light to see the truest form. From there, you can determine other accents or decor items that fit (or don't).

But, Kunz says, the best thing to do is start small. "You do not have to overhaul your whole home. You can introduce color to your home by painting a bathroom, hallway, or accent wall."

Deep Clean (Everything!)

Once the main renovations are done and the design has been incorporated you'll want to deep-clean your entire home.

Why wait to clean until now? Well, renovating can be messy and accumulate dust, debris, etc. Plus, if you paint, you'll create even more of a mess with duct tape, supplies, and potential spills. It's best to deep clean once all of these processes are done, and before you have guests over.

Cleaning also does more than just uplift the space. Vera Peterson, President of Molly Maid elaborates: "Deep cleaning your home can have a profound effect on your mental and physical well-being. Even tiny cleaning victories can boost your mood and give you a sense of accomplishment."

And for someone with a fixer-upper, this sense of accomplishment means a lot. As you set out to clean, Peterson recommends starting small but considering all parts of the home. "It’s important to think of the home as a whole," she says. "We’re all familiar with the big spring clean... and deep cleaning the interior could mean anything from purging and donating items you no longer need, to sanitizing floors, counters, handles, and windows, but it’s the exterior of the home that is oftentimes forgotten about.

It’s important to be sure the roof and gutters are clean and free of debris to avoid flooding, mold, and other damages. It’s also important to deep clean high traffic areas of the home’s exterior like lawns, decks, patios, walkways, and driveways to ensure there aren’t any slip or trip hazards."

When it comes to cleaning interior items, consider both what you can see and what you can't. Also think about everyday items that you use or are around daily but don't always remember: ceiling fans, showerheads, tile grout, and the like.

Enjoy the Process

Buying a fixer-upper can sometimes feel like you bit off more than you could chew. This is normal, but remember it doesn't have to feel stressful. Once the big decisions are out of the way (budget, major restructuring, and interior reconfiguring) you're ready for the fun aspects: design and personalization.

Even some of the less 'fun' tasks—like cleaning—can be fun when you surround yourself with good company, good music, and a positive mindset. At the end of the day, you'll make your house a home; it may just take a bit longer—but it's worth it.