Do you know what to look for when buying a renovator? This blog will help you learn how.
You may be looking for something you can turn into your forever home, or wanting to improve a home for profit and to create a financial nest-egg … or something in between.
One thing’s for sure … when you’re buying a renovator – it can change your search quite considerably.
You’re inspecting, choosing and buying on potential – not actual – whilst trying to be realistic about what’s possible, and what you can handle – in time, money and stress.
So just how do you do that?
How do you see through the vinyl cladding, exposed brickwork, apricot carpet, yellow bathroom and fluro light fittings … to see the beautiful, transformed home that helps you live the life you want to?
And what are the checks you need to do to not get caught out and buy a lemon?
These are questions I’m regularly asked!
I’ve personally bought renovators several times, and have professionally also helped lots of clients inspect their potential renovators.
There are many, many ways to assess a home and determine its ability and readiness to be renovated. Some of those ways may be outside of your immediate expertise and require the assistance of expert professionals.
However, if you’re house hunting with renovating in mind, there are methods that can simplify your search, and help you see whether that worst-house-in-the-best-street can become your new, transformed, family home.
This checklist shows the steps I use in searching for, inspecting and buying a renovator. In fact, I suggest using this type of assessment for buying any property – whether you plan to renovate or not.
This checklist is not exhaustive – but it’s a great guide to help you get started, and simplify your searching. (It’s a fairly epic post – but could have been longer! If you’ve been reading UA for a while, you know I like my research!)
A lot of these steps you can do from the comfort of your lounge-room, online – helping you dismiss properties before you even visit them. That’s a HUGE time saver.
BEFORE YOU VISIT
What are you seeking to achieve?
Work out the big ‘why’ first. What’s renovating this home about? Creating a forever home? Making money? A stepping stone to future property purchases?
Once you have your big picture ‘why’, break it down into criteria. What does that ‘why’ mean to you? How does it impact your location, the type of home, the land area, the style and size of renovation you’ll do, how much time it will take and how much you’ll spend on it?
This will help you build a picture what makes a property suitable for your reno. As you search, you may find you don’t tick the box on every criteria. However, this will certainly help you see what are deal breakers vs “we can work with that” – and weigh up the pros and cons overall.
What’s the orientation?
By this, I mean, what direction does the property face?
And no – not to the street. Some agents will say a property is north-facing – and mean it faces north to the street.
However, most homeowners creating family homes are concerned with creating great living spaces which flow onto outdoor private garden spaces – in their back garden. So what we’re focusing on is which direction it faces to its main area of private outdoor space (usually the rear).
Alternatively, the home may have incredible views you want to maximise in any renovation work – so what direction are they in?
Ideally, the rear of the home will face north, east or somewhere in between those two. If it’s any other direction, you’ll need to create design solutions to ensure it’s still a liveable, loveable home. This can be challenging to work around (and if asked, because of this, I generally advise clients to not buy homes that are south to rear).
Read this blog for more info about why orientation matters so much.
Read this blog for info on what to do when your main view or rear garden isn’t facing north or east.
[When viewing the home on aerial maps such as Google, north is usually at 12 o’clock – straight up the screen.]
Check council information
Most Australian councils make their planning information freely available online, and searchable based on the property address.
It can be very fruitful to do some quick preliminary town planning research about what’s possible in renovating a home before you visit it.
For example, is the home a heritage item? Or in a heritage conservation or character area? This may mean you’ll need to satisfy specific requirements about how the home renovation will need to look, materials you’ll have to choose, how much you can change or demolish the existing, and whether you’ll need specialist consultants involved.
Does the site size or frontage width bring about specific requirements? In Brisbane, many homeowners get caught out thinking their land size is over “Small Lot Code” requirements because the square meterage is over the required size. However, if the frontage is less than 15m (regardless of the site area), it’s classified as a Small Lot.
Do your renovation plans even require town planning approval at all? Or can they take a fast-track path to getting approval? This can save you time and money. Look at what is considered “exempt or compliant development” to see if you can skip town planning approval altogether. Often Council websites will have fact sheets outlining what type of work falls into this category. In NSW you can check if the council participates in the Electronic Housing Code and search easily there.
If this info is not available online, you can often find out what you need by calling the council, or visiting them in person.
You can also see if previous owners have submitted approvals for work – and whether they’ve been approved or not.
Buying a home with unapproved enhancements may cause you problems you don’t want to take on. Or seeing that a previous owner has had a previous approval rejected can provide insight as to whether your plans for the home are achievable.
You may find there’s existing drawings on record too which give clues to existing services, structural design of the home, and other things which will give you a head start when renovating.
Compare to similar properties in the area
I’m a big believer that your home is generally your biggest asset, and so any money you spend on it should be seen as an investment that needs to achieve a return – financial, or lifestyle, or both.
So whether you’re buying a house to renovate it into your forever home …
Or you’re buying one to renovate and sell at a profit …
Checking what is selling in the area – both renovated and unrenovated – will help you see what prices are like, and the wiggle room you have financially before you over-capitalise.
Speak to local agents and do your research thoroughly. Use online tools such as On the House and set up real estate alerts on realestate.com.au and domain.com.au
Doing this upfront will help you make offers faster and more confidently because you’ll have an understanding of market value.
WHEN YOU INSPECT
I remember a building inspector saying to me that people inspecting a home generally look at a home in one view range …
Between their ears and their knees.
It’s so correct! I’ve spent a lot of time at open inspections – watching other visitors as much as looking at the home. You can see how people ‘inspect’ a potential purchase as significant as real estate. They look at the area between their ears and knees.
So, my most powerful suggestion is that you extend your range of view outside the norm. Look up at cornices, lighting and ceilings. Look down at flooring and under things. Open cupboards. Look under the house. Look around at the neighbours. Look over fences. Walk to the extremities of the block. Turn on taps. Flush toilets. Flick light switches.
Many people will advocate doing several inspections. Sometimes competition on a property does not permit this and you need to act faster.
So just do the inspection properly the first time. A second visit is often good to remove the emotion from the experience – the excitement of seeing a home for the first time can cloud your perception. Don’t be scared to request a private viewing the second time around, or do it within 24 hours of when you saw it for the first time.
Whilst you’re inspecting, you’ll be determining how ripe the home is for renovating, and what will be involved in doing that.
The simplest renovations are the ones that rationalise and modernise an old home. This is where the bones of the home are great, and it needs basic refurbishment, and a better connection within existing spaces and to outdoors.
Structural modifications to reorganise the whole home, or to extensively add to it, are a much bigger undertaking.
Assess the home to see which option it will be. Go in eyes wide open as to which option you’ll need to turn it into the home you’re ultimately wanting – and what you’re prepared to take on to achieve it.
These are some of the things I pay particular attention to. Working through these items will help you see where challenges may occur with your future plans for the home:
- What’s the age of the home?
- How much of it is original? What is the quality of any original or subsequent work? Is all work approved?
- What is the home constructed from? (Solid brick homes are fantastic thermally, but can be challenging to reconfigure structurally. Lightweight homes are more straight forward to modify, but if not insulated, can be cold and hot when you don’t want them to be.)
- Is basic maintenance required before you can begin renovating?
- Will any rectification work involve hard-to-match new work (repairing original ceilings etc)?
- Any evidence of cracking, movement, leaking, damp, mould, mildew you need to get checked out?
- Is there anything looking remotely like asbestos?
I attended an open inspection with clients. The entire home was clad in lightweight cladding which had been installed by the previous owner in the early 1980s. It sounded glassy when you knocked on it – which can be an indicator of asbestos. The agent called the owner during our visit and got the product name of the cladding product they’d used.
The agent – despite being asked directly – never disclosed that it could be or was asbestos. Online research indicated that it was most likely asbestos.
The presence of asbestos certainly isn’t the reason I wouldn’t buy a property – however the cost of safe removal needs to be factored into your renovation budget (and that cost may be a deal-breaker).
Resources for asbestos: 20 point Safety Check for Asbestos and How to Identify Asbestos
The Floor Plan
- How is the home arranged? Is it already planned to respond to the orientation of the site?
- Does the plan work simply, or is it a maze? And if it’s a maze, is it simple to rearrange, or will you need to completely modify the home to get it to work?
- Are rooms sized well?
- Is the home zoned well into private and public areas?
- Where are the bathrooms and kitchens? Do they need to be relocated to get the home to flow well? (Moving plumbing can get costly depending on access and work required).
- Is it possible to simply open up the home to the garden more effectively?
- What’s the storage like? Is it sufficiently sized? Can you see capacity to add more?
The Block of Land
- Is the block simply shaped or a strange configuration that’s challenging to work with?
- Is it flat, or steep? Does this hinder or help your renovation plans?
- Does there look like any water issues – where water might sit and not drain away? Especially against the house?
- Family homes work well with areas of level garden off interior living areas – is this present, or achievable with minimal work?
- Are there rocky outcrops on the land, or other indicators the soil may be difficult to work with?
- Where does power come into the site and connect to the home?
- Where is the meter board located?
- Will it need to be moved based on what you want to do to the home?
- Can you see where water services are?
- Is there an old septic tank in the garden that may cause a problem for future extensions or pool installation?
- Do there appear to be any water connections on the property or in the back garden?
Current regulations often require you to run sewerage and stormwater to the street.
If a block of land falls from the street to the rear, check whether the stormwater and sewerage are running through a neighbour’s property, or being dealt with on the block in some way. Adding or upgrading bathrooms and kitchens, and significant renovations, may require you to upgrade in-ground plumbing arrangements.
In older areas, you also can find several properties running their lines into one property, rather than to the street. Upgrading this can get costly.
Position of the home on the block
- If you’re planning to extend, how is the home sitting on its block?
- Can you privatise it from the street easily?
- What are the boundary setbacks like? Do they look tighter than what’s normally allowed now? Will this cause an issue with approvals with your council?
- Is all the garden out the front? How will that work with your orientation and indoor living areas, car access and maintaining privacy from the street?
Overlooking and overshadowing from neighbours
- Do neighbours currently easily overlook into the home and private outdoor spaces?
- Can that be changed simply with landscaping, external screens?
- Will it be a consideration if you’re extending the home?
- Will your renovation potentially be contentious, compromising their privacy and overshadowing them?
- Can you, materials, trucks etc get on, off and around the site easily? Tricky access can bring about premiums in building costs and structural implications.
- Can you get under the house?
- Can you get into the roof?
You may not know what you’re looking at when you look at the structure under a house, or inside a roof cavity. However, your ability to access these spaces can certainly assist with pest and building inspections providing reliable info, and in other professionals later assessing potential for renovating.
The rest of the street
- Does the rest of the street have renovated homes? Or homes in the process of being improved? Is the area showing growth and investment from other homeowners?
BEFORE YOU MAKE IT YOURS
Don’t skip the due diligence
So you’re excited. This is the one.
You make an offer (in writing), it’s accepted. Perhaps there’s some tooing and froing on price, but finally you get the green light.
Just wait – it’s not yours quite yet. Not unless your contract is unconditional (as with buying at an auction).
The process of contract negotiation gets managed a little differently depending on where in Australia you are. Get familiar with what you’ll need to do.
Standard practice before you go “unconditional” (ie have a contract you can’t back out of without a lot of hurt, or have someone else come in and buy the home) is that you do three things:
- get a legal conveyancer to check contracts and do the required searches on the property
- sort out and confirm your finance approvals
- get a pest and building inspection on the home and land
It surprises me that purchasers will make as chunky an investment as buying a house without first understanding the nuts and bolts, and doing this homework. Here’s some points about this formal due diligence before going unconditional I’ve seen homeowners not understand or miss …
- Getting a builder friend to look through it is not the same as getting a pest and building inspection. A pest and building inspection provides a written and comprehensive report that can protect your risk in purchasing the property. A home is a big investment (plus any work required for it), so spending a small amount upfront can save you big time.
- In the homes we’ve personally purchased, we’ve used the results of the pest and building inspection to negotiate our offer price down.
- Try and be present when the pest and building inspection is happening. It’s another chance to look at the property. You can also learn a lot about the property from the inspector. Their reports are designed to highlight the worst of the home, so they can be brutal to read. Being present to hear it verbally, and see it pointed out to you, can give you a more even-keeled understanding.
- Legal searches can help uncover registered easements, or land resumption plans and other worthwhile info, not disclosed by the seller, that may impact your plans for the home (or make you not want to buy it at all).
- A bank valuation is a necessary step in a bank determining whether they’ll lend you money to purchase it or not. The selling agent will often say “the seller needs ‘X’ to sell this house” – but it’s actually irrelevant what they ‘need’. The house is worth what the market will pay for it – and a bank valuation is generally a conservative view of this. It can be good leverage in negotiations with the seller.
- If you’ve offered more than a bank will value the home at, and can’t make up the difference financially, you may have to pull out of a contract because you can’t get suitable finance to purchase.
- Use the pre-settlement inspection (on the day of, or near to, your settlement date) as another opportunity to check everything. It’s your last point of recourse should something have happened to the home between your offer and settlement occurring. Once settlement happens – the house (and all its problems) is all yours!
WHEN YOU MOVE IN
Homeowners often ask me whether they should renovate straight away or live in the home for a while to learn how it behaves and feels at different times of the year.
My suggestion is this – if you’re not using a qualified designer such as an experienced residential architect – live in the home for a while.
How you anticipate you may live in a home can change as you actually live in it.
Watching how the sun moves, noticing traffic at different times of the day, or views and spaces you didn’t notice but now love. These things can really inform future plans for your home.
If you’re using a qualified designer, they should be able to assist you with predicting these and other aspects of your home.
KEEP A LEVEL HEAD
Buying THIS home is not your only option
Try and remove (or at least temper) the emotion and excitement of your home purchase.
You can feel like you’re on an unstoppable freight train hurtling towards an predetermined destination, and you have to act super fast to get everything to fall into place.
It’s not true.
Yes – sometimes you do have to make decisions fast to stay competitive when buying a home. This is why it’s great to do as much as you can upfront.
Know who you’ll use for legal conveyancing. Get your finance in order. Know what paperwork you’ll need to get together. Have an idea about pest and building inspectors. Suss out the council regulations for the areas you’re looking at. Talk to local agents.
And then try to think methodically and with your head, not your heart. Weigh up the pros and cons. Do the checks.
I know this is far easier said than done. And if you’re competitive by nature, the need to ‘win’ the race can sometimes take over rational thought and behaviour. I’ve been there. It’s addicitive!
However, being the one holding a home that’s actually an expensive liability (and not an asset) is not ‘winning’. It can be financially debilitating.
As I said, the checks and suggestions made in this blog are by no means exhaustive. There is LOADS you can find out about a property before you buy it, and during your contract negotiations.
And I may sound like I’m full of doom about this … it’s just that I’ve seen homeowners stuck with homes requiring an expensive investment to maintain them – or unable to renovate them at all – because they didn’t do their homework in their search.
So do the homework you can, and get the best (impartial) advice you can.
Don’t rely on information from the seller, selling agent, or other failed contracts.
Prepare, research, and then you can act quickly when the time requires it.
ps I also wrote this blog outlining the 10 top things Veronica Morgan of Location Location Location Australia recommends you look for when buying property.
Belinda Litster says
Great article Amelia.
I have never lived in a home that hasn’t needed renovating and putting my own mark on. My current renovator is the forever home. When we purchased it 6 years ago it needed painting on the outside. Six years down the track we’re still waiting to get the exterior painted! Every time a painter comes to quote they run away! But my, I do love what we have done inside!
Thanks for your kind feedback on this blog post. It’s a very different exercise renovating your ‘forever’ home isn’t it?
External painting is a big job – especially when there’s lots of prep! I hope you can find someone to help you soon.
It’s great that you love what you have been able to do to the home. How our home is impacts so much about how we live, so loving where we live can make a big difference overall.
Best wishes with continuing to create your forever home,
– Amelia, UA x