Damaged Old Brick House
© mino21 / Adobe Stock

A good fixer-upper home can save you money and become a tremendous source of pride, but choose the wrong one, and you’ll end up with a money pit that sucks in more work and cash than you ever imagined.

Foundation damage, worn-out wiring, hidden mold, and other expensive repair issues are common in older homes, but they’re not always obvious. Before you fall in love, spend some time checking for signs of renovation nightmares that could be lurking in your prospective dream home.

The Foundation is Faulty

Macro Shot of Cracked Foundation
© sparky / Adobe Stock

A damaged foundation is a clear sign to proceed with caution. Check the foundation for cracks wider than 1/4 inch, especially those at a 45-degree angle to the wall. Look at the house from a distance to see if it leans or bulges in any way. Windows and exterior doors that stick are another sign of foundation trouble.

If you can, have an inspector come out to look at the place after it rains. This will help you find out if rainwater builds up around the foundation, which can lead to leaks over time.

The Basement is a Mess

Water Damaged and Moldy Basement Wall
© Amy Walters / Adobe Stock

Basements tend to betray a lack of upkeep before anywhere else in the house. Look for signs of water damage, such as cracks in the walls, water stains, patches of mold, and pooled water. Inspect the floor for heaving and cracks wider than 1/4 inch, which suggest the foundation might have issues.

Check for exposed wires and pipes that aren’t properly secured and insulated. These tell you the house wasn’t optimally maintained.

Concrete that’s honeycombed, meaning it’s pitted and crumbling, might be water-damaged or it might have been mixed or applied incorrectly, making it weaker. A powdery white coating known as efflorescence on concrete is a sure sign of moisture issues.

The Plumbing and Electrical are Out of Date

Rusted Plumbing Pipe Burst
© iredding01 / Adobe Stock

Replacing a plumbing or wiring system is a costly, time-consuming job and one of the most common problems that turn a house into a money pit.

Galvanized steel pipes aren’t a great sign. These tend to become clogged with sediment, reducing your water pressure. You can clean them, but you’ll need to repeat the process regularly. Ideally, the house’s entire plumbing system should be copper.

If the house was built somewhere between 1965 and 1973, have your inspector check for aluminum wiring. This is a fire hazard and should be replaced. Other signs of an out-dated electrical system are knob and tube wiring (fabric-covered wires connected to white knobs), a fuse box instead of a breaker panel, and a breaker panel with only four or six breakers.

The electrical panel should have a capacity of 150 to 200 amps, and the house should have 220-volt service. Anything less and you won’t be able to run the appliances and electronics common in a modern home.

The Roof is Deteriorating

Heavily Damaged Wood Shake Roof
© sheilaf2002 / Adobe Stock

A bad roof is a classic sign of a money pit. The cost to replace a worn-out roof starts at around $5,000 for a simple 3-tab shingle roof on an average-size home and can rise to $20,000 or more if you want premium materials, and your roof includes dormer windows, skylights or other complex features.

The roof itself isn’t the only thing you need to worry about, though. A deteriorating roof can let water leak into the attic, creating ideal conditions for rot and mold. If left too long, these issues can weaken the wood frame of the house and leave you with major renovation bills.

If the roof shows signs of damage, such as curled shingles or missing gutters, check the attic for water damage.

The Heating and Cooling Features are Lacking

Old and Rusty Radiator
© Karrrtinki / Adobe Stock

If the home’s heating and cooling system is more than ten years old, chances are you’ll need to replace it soon. It might keep running for another five or ten years, but it will use more energy than a newer system, so either way, it will cost you money.

Also, consider the house’s energy efficiency. Many older homes were constructed with gaps to allow airflow. The modern, energy-efficient solution is to seal these gaps, which is a simple, low-cost job, and install a ventilation system, which is not so low-cost.

What’s more, if the house lacks insulation in the walls and floors, you’ll need to add some or put up with high heating and cooling bills.

The Rooms Smell Funny

Black Mold in Corner of Old House
© urbans78 / Adobe Stock

It might seem perfectly understandable that an old house would have some funky smells lingering, but don’t write off unpleasant odors too quickly. The smell of sewage often means there’s a problem with the sewer line, septic tank or another part of the waste water disposal system.

Pet urine odor, in addition to being hard to get rid of, suggests there could be rot in the floors where the pets left their marks.

A musty smell means mold is growing somewhere. Rotting wood, particularly around the windows, warped flooring, and stained drywall also indicate moisture problems that can lead to mold growth. Because mold can be hidden inside walls and under floors, you’ll need an inspector to accurately assess the extent of the mold growth.

You Spot Signs of Pests

Close Up of Termite Damage
© Mel Stoutsenberger / Adobe Stock

Insects and rodents can do a lot of damage to a house, but even extensive damage can remain hidden unless you know what you’re looking for. Ultimately, you’ll need to hire a professional to make sure the house is pest-free, but there are a few clear signs that trouble is lurking.

Buckling floorboards and loose floor tiles, pinholes in drywall, and wood that sounds hollow when you knock on it are all signs of a termite infestation. Little brown waste pellets and urine puddles inside cabinets and drawers mean mice or rats. Tiny holes and tunnels in wood suggest woodworms are at work.

The Grounds are Unkempt

Old Leaning Wooden Fence
© mega / Adobe Stock

If the grounds have been neglected, chances are the house has been, too. An overgrown garden, cracked or crumbling walls, deteriorating fences, and areas of collapsed paving all tell you that the property has been suffering from poor upkeep for several years at least.

Some features, such as swimming pools and decks, can pose a legal liability if they’re not up to code. If the house you’re considering has any major hardscaping features like these, make sure they were built with the proper permits and that you know what it will take to get them back into a safe condition.

You Don’t Like the Floorplan

Staircase in Abandoned House
© pixs4u / Adobe Stock

A floorplan that doesn’t suit your preferences suggests renovating the house could end up costing you more than you expect. Altering a floorplan often involves moving load-bearing walls, which is a tricky and labor-intensive job. In addition to demolishing the old wall and building a new one, the contractor will also need to reinforce the foundation.

All this can easily make moving a wall the most expensive part of your remodeling project. If you’re considering buying a house and then changing the floorplan, first check if the floorplan you want is possible, then get an idea of how much it will cost.

The House is Vulnerable to Floods

Severely Flooded Houses
© Wildcat / Adobe Stock

A home by the river isn’t so romantic when the river ends up in your living room. Before you set your heart on a house near any body of water, check the location’s flood risk. Water levels can vary dramatically with the seasons and from year to year, so don’t rely on your own estimation.

For an accurate risk assessment, take a look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Flood Maps or check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources, Department of Water Resources or equivalent.

A house that sits lower than the ground around it is also at risk for drainage problems and flooding. If you notice the house is set low, ask your realtor or the local Planning and Zoning Department about the site’s flood risk.

No matter how much you love the view or that charming breakfast nook, don’t let it distract you from the fundamentals of what makes a house a good financial investment. Keep your eyes open for signs neglect, deterioration or outdated building systems.

Before you make an offer, have the house professionally inspected and collect estimates for any major repairs it will need.

Viewing each house with a critical eye before you become emotionally invested is the key to finding a valuable, enjoyable fixer-upper instead of a disappointing money pit.

Editorial Contributors
Henry Parker

Henry Parker

Henry Parker is a home improvement enthusiast who loves to share his passion and expertise with others. He writes on a variety of topics, such as painting, flooring, windows, and lawn care, to help homeowners make informed decisions and achieve their desired results. Henry strives to write high quality guides and reviews that are easy to understand and practical to follow. Whether you are looking for the best electric riding lawn mower, the easiest way to remove paint from flooring, or the signs of a bad tile job, Henry has you covered with his insightful and honest articles. Henry lives in Florida with his wife and two kids, and enjoys spending his free time on DIY projects around the house. You can find some of his work on Today’s Homeowner, where he is a regular contributor.

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