On Wednesday evening, I met with new Buyers. Like many of the families I represent, they were darling, had two young kids in tow and were eager to find a house. "We probably should have bought in 2013 when we first arrived in the Bay Area ," he said, "but we weren't sure we would stay. "Now with two kids, we really feel the pressure to settle in." (Hindsight is always 20/20.)
That's a common story. The addition of children are often the impetus for a move, just as when these same children leave the nest years later to form their own separate lives (deserters). As our lives evolve, we often discover that our homes are either too small, or conversely, WAY TOO BIG!
Our most recent move came about when our youngest left for college and Cliff's mother moved in. At 93, Zee wasn't going to be able to navigate the steep driveway at our previously beloved home, or the stairs within in. At our current property, we were able to create a lovely, stand-alone apartment that's level-in for her. It allows us each some independence while keeping her close enough to check in on a daily basis, but I digress . . . .
I'd met this darling family at a Sunday Open at my uber-cool listing on The Turn, but it was a "fixer" in Piedmont that had caught their eye instead, and the reason why we were meeting after hours, mid-week to walk through the house together. Like many new Buyers they were drawn to the listing by the teaser price and wondered what, and how much, it would take to expand (a fair amount as it tuns out). Thank you to Zac Colin of Kodiak Construction for meeting us there.
Listen, I'm a gal who loves a "fixer," who believes in the "fixer" and has only ever bought the "fixer," but, aside from the cost - which can be considerable(!) - the ability to expand the footprint of a house (in Piedmont at least), has certain restrictions. For starters, Homeowners must meet a strict home-to-land ratio (45/55%, unless the lot is less than 5,000 sq' which then allows for 55/45%). Additionally, the city has an unyielding off-street parking policy that often requires creative thinking to accomplish. For example, a 4-bedroom house must provide two covered, non-tandem parking spaces to meet the building code, while five bedrooms require three parking spaces.
Moreover, if you want to go up, you're likely going to have to strengthen the building's current foundation to accommodate the extra weight. In short, before considering a "fixer," you need to understand the entire scope of the project, the specific building codes for your municipality, AND the ENTIRE costs involved. (Then add another 15-25% for overruns to be safe.)
BUT more problematic - and the BIG unknown - is whether the neighbors will object to an expansion of the house, especially if the plans include a move up, instead of a move out. Even if you meet all of the building codes and setback rules as outlined, neighbors may legitimately (or not) complain about lack of privacy, obstruction of views, or absence of light. In other words, it's probably safer to gamble on improving a larger existing footprint than it is to count on your neighbor's agreement on anything (no matter how reasonable the ask) Under these circumstances, would you be better off spending more for a home that is already "turn-key," instead of pursuing the outstanding unknowns? You might.
So with that in mind, when does it make sense to buy a "fixer" and when is it more prudent to pass?
In my experience, a "fixer" makes sense if:
A renovation may NOT make sense if:
Whether you decide to move forward with a "fixer," or not, walking through the property with an experienced Realtor, architect or contractor is always a good idea prior to making an offer - then do the math. You may find that it makes more sense (and cents) to spend the difference for a move-in-ready house now. Either way, I'm here to share my experience, having bought and renovated six "fixers" along the way. We'll talk openly and honestly about the pros and cons and then you can, at the very least, make an informed decision.
How can I help you?
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.