My husband and I bought our Grand Haven, Michigan, home in 2000. We hoped to save money buying a 100-year-old fixer-upper for just $52,000. Newer homes that needed less work were selling for about two to three times what we paid for ours. We've had to make do with a lot of inconveniences that would cost us far more than we saved in purchase price to properly fix. Even fixing our home on a shoestring has cost us nearly as much as we saved -- around $49,000. Here are some of our costlier old-home-buying surprises.
Historic home requirements
When we purchased the home, we expected to make most necessary improvements by qualifying for historic home preservation grant money. Funding for the program has since been cut, but was available at the time through MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority). Unfortunately, we didn't realize until after we purchased the home that the grant required us to restore the home with circa-1900-style building materials, such as wood (instead of vinyl) replacement siding, leaded windows, vintage plumbing, and period electrical fittings. These materials are great for museum structures, but they aren't suitable for family dwellings. We skipped the grant and took out a 30-year, fixed-interest mortgage at 7.25 percent. We also couldn't claim historic home preservation tax credits that we had counted on.
We expected to upgrade the electrical service and replace the fuse box with a breaker box. We weren't prepared for the crazy configuration of electrical outlets, though. No room has more than two outlets and most are located in inconvenient places (floor, alcoves). An electrician friend did basic repairs on damaged outlets and wiring to bring the home up to electrical code. He reduced his fee, but normally the job would have cost about $9,000 in parts and labor. We're saving for the more extensive upgrades. Adding more convenient outlets may not ever happen.
The home had been rented prior to our purchase. The former tenants didn't pay the water bill and the pipes froze during the winter just before we took possession (after the inspection). Several pipes and one toilet burst and flooded several rooms. Carpet, sub-flooring, insulation, and ceilings were ruined. We purchased the home for as-is condition through our church and they provided some help with repairs and volunteer labor. We footed most of the bill, which put us way over budget. We bought the cheapest materials we could find (most of which have since had to be replaced) and it still cost us about $7,000. Doing a lot of DIY repairs also required a great deal of time and work.
The only phone jacks are in the kitchen and basement. The former tenants had festooned makeshift telephone cords around the house. Again our electrician friend helped clean up the wiring. At full price, this would have cost around $1,000. When I installed Internet in 2003, I had to route cables through a hole in my office wall down to the basement phone jack. We knew we were buying a project house and were prepared to be steeped in work. But we never expected something so basic as phone service to cause so much hassle.
When our home was built, the area was considered rural Grand Haven. No driveways were added. It would cost us about $10,000 to have one poured, so we've limped along with our dirt drive.
The kitchen wasn't built to house a modern sink or appliances. These are inconveniently arranged. There's no place to put a dishwasher and virtually no usable counter space. There are five doors leading off this small kitchen. Remodeling would mean tearing down walls and running new plumbing. The kitchen also serves as a dining area. To revamp the kitchen would cost at least $30,000. As a homeschooler and stay-at-home mom of four, I've spent a lot of time in this unhandy kitchen. For all its disadvantages, we have a lot of happy memories in it. Our kids have also learned to live well with less, to help out, and to be self-sufficient.
We knew the television system would be antiquated. We were unprepared for the mess of cords the former tenants had strung through the house to pull in reception. These had to be painstakingly removed for safety. There's also a huge, useless antenna that will have to come down someday. When television went digital some years ago, we couldn't use the adapter boxes because of the defunct antenna. Fortunately, we've never been big TV watchers and have never had cable.
We have a tree of heaven, planted in the 1950s, that puts up shoots everywhere. It stinks and oozes an acrid, burning sap. We also have one cracked clay sewer pipe from which roots grow and clog our toilet system. We didn't budget for a new sewer that would run about $12,000. We make do by putting copper sulfate down the toilet periodically.
We expected to have more trouble from insects and mice than we've had, but we didn't expect to be plagued by bats nesting in the attic. The local exterminators we've contacted don't deal with bats because they're a protected species. I've become an excellent "bat whisperer" (literally). I turn on the light to get the bat to land. Then, speaking soothingly, I scoop him up with a towel and release the bat outdoors. We're hoping that the new roof and upper-story siding we had put on last fall will keep the bats at bay.
The house has a crack in the foundation, which we expected would cause some flooding. However, even in heavy rains and snow, we've had little water damage. We paint it with sealant and so far, so good. To repair the crack could cost as much as $18,000.
Buying this old house has been quite the learning curve. Would I do it again? Yes -- but only if I had enough money to do the repairs right.