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Nine red flags to watch for when buying a fixer-upper home

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Avoid making these rookie mistakes.


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Reality television makes buying a fixer-upper home look like an easy, breezy walk in the park that the property backs onto. Gut the entire thing, happily knock down a few walls with a sledge hammer, rebuild the walls and maybe throw on a new roof, all thanks to the magic of television editing.

But the reality is that buying a fixer-upper and actually fixing it up requires time, patience and professional assistance. So we enlisted the help of real estate pro Julian Pilarski to share some of the warning signs to watch for while shopping for a house.

Read on to discover nine red flags to consider before buying a fixer-upper home.


Wet basements can be caused by a variety of issues, some more serious than others — a crack in the foundation walls can often be the culprit. This can be an expensive and laborious task to repair and can often result in repair bills costing tens of thousands of dollars. In most cases, however, a simple damp basement can be mitigated by controlling the water runoff outside through proper drainage around the perimeter of the home and by installing downspouts.


The structure of a home is made up of an intricate series of posts, beams and various other components. Occasionally, in an effort to create that “open plan” feel, people end up removing needed structural components. Think of it like Jenga — pulling the wrong block out can result in catastrophic failure. If structural work has been done, dig deep to find out if permits were issued so that the structure hasn’t been compromised.


Additions are a great way to add space to an existing home. In Toronto’s urban sprawl, for example, there are lots of century homes that often have extra rooms added on. Many of these additions, unfortunately, were built on improper foundations and are not structurally sound. Plus, they tend to not have a heat or cooling source. Don’t be misled into thinking the extra square footage is a bonus — at least not without investigating first.


We’ve all probably seen half-completed renovations, and then wondered why the previous owners didn’t just finish the job. In some cases, there can be legitimate reasons, but more often than not, it’s best to proceed with caution. Why wasn’t it completed? Look beyond the home itself. There could be latent defects, or possible resistance from neighbours or the municipality.


Consult with the municipality regarding what’s prohibited within the zoning limits. The building code is filled with restrictions — anything from the lot lines, amount of mandated “green space” and a plethora of outdated rules and regulations. If you’re thinking big, your dreams can quickly be halted if you don’t take the time to research your plans.


The height of the basement can be very limiting to a property. Most people assume that basement heights can always be increased, and in some cases, this is correct. However, it’s extremely expensive and is often limited by a maximum of 12 to 18 inches. Having a functional basement has become a must-have for most buyers, so make sure the height of it is satisfactory before making an offer.


Fresh paint? Newly patched ceilings or brand new drywall in the basement? When things seem too good to be true, take a step back and evaluate. It goes without saying that you should always consult with professionals (home inspectors, realtors or experienced contractors). Often, those quick cover-ups are hiding much larger issues.


This is an area that’s commonly overlooked and underestimated. A shiny, “new” electrical panel doesn’t necessarily indicate that the entire electrical system has in fact been updated. Replacing the wiring in a home can cost tens of thousands of dollars and become a very aggravating process.


Yes, you’re buying the bricks and mortar that make up the home, but you’re also buying into the area and the neighbours. Take a peek into the neighbour’s yard, and consult with the city’s planning department to learn about up and coming changes in zoning, parks, schools and anything else in the area. Because the last thing that you want to do is invest all of that money in a place that isn’t worth it.

When it comes to home-ownership, understanding the big picture is always better.


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