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Should retirees buy fixer-uppers? Experts weigh the pros and cons of renovating later in life.

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By Terri Williams

It can be fun – if you have the time and money to burn.

This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org.

If you’re retired – with lots of free time – you may be on the hunt for your next big adventure. And if you watch TV regularly, you’ve probably seen countless DIY/refurbishment shows where buyers buy a dilapidated or outdated home and turn it into a dream home. Sounds like fun, but is it realistic – especially for older adults?

“As a real estate agent, a senior citizen, and someone who has bought many refurbishments over the years, this question crosses my mind,” says Bill Golden, an associate broker with Keller Williams Realty in Atlanta.

When he was younger, Golden says he enjoyed buying fixer-uppers and getting his hands dirty. “But at this stage of my life,” he adds, “I’m realistic enough to know that I can’t really do much of the work myself, and if I do, it’s going to take a lot more time than I had expected. ”

The alternative is to hire contractors to handle everything, which significantly increases costs.

Frederick Warburg Peters, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York, is even more dismissive of the romance of redecorating an old house.

“This is obvious!” he says. “The last thing most older people want is the hassle and inconvenience of moving and setting up a new home, which invariably involves some construction, planning, stress, time, etc.”

In general, Warburg Peters says retirement should be free of these kinds of concerns.

However, some older adults view refurbishing an aging home as an exciting and fulfilling project that can provide an excellent return on investment. Next Avenue consulted with a range of professionals with experience in the field. The following are some of the factors they recommend weighing before you decide to buy a fixer-upper home.

Plus: Good news for homebuyers: Housing market shows signs of ‘normalisation’

The stress test

No matter your age, our experts agree that buying a fixer-upper is not for the faint of heart. Jane Katz, an agent at Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York, echoes Warburg Peters’ belief that older adults want to live quiet — not stressful — lives.

“Renovating a fixer-upper requires a very nimble temperament — and wealth — for the unexpected extras,” she says.

“Overseeing and/or footing the bill on a fixer-upper requires a calm personality and an ability to handle the unexpected,” she says, noting that homeowners often have to make quick and costly decisions about unforeseen issues.

And here’s something else to think about: “If the extra money needed for a sudden fix has to come out of the person’s nest, that’s an added stressor,” she warns.

However, Mihal Gartenberg, a realtor at Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York City, says she believes a fixer-upper can be a great idea for the right buyer. “It can be a stressful but fun process,” she says, “and if you’re the type of person who likes to have projects around the house, and that keeps you young in mind and body, buying a fixer-upper can be a lot of fun and a great investment in time.”

Don’t Miss: I Ruined My Family’s Finances By Pulling Out of My 401(k) to Buy a Home—and I Regret It

Time and money factors

Fixer-upper homes can be bought at a discount, which is an important consideration if you’re trying to get into a good neighborhood without spending a fortune.

“A huge benefit of buying a fixer-upper is the reduced interest in the property, making it easier to negotiate a better deal, not to mention the equity gained when the home renovation is complete” says Jason Gelios, a realtor with Community Choice Real Estate in Detroit.

However, he says many problems can arise that were not visible during a home inspection.

“Once you break down walls or remove things, some of the issues start to surface,” says Gelios, “which is why I always advise my gutsy homebuyers to add a cushion into their renovation budget when considering a fixer-upper.”

Also keep in mind that the reason you can buy a fixer-upper at a discount is because redecorating requires so much work. “These homes, in particular, can cost more in the long run, both financially and in terms of time,” says John Manasco, chief operating officer at Stone Martin Builders in Montgomery, Alabama. “And even though you could live in a fixer-upper, you will have to spend a lot of time and money on structural and/or aesthetic improvements.”

Whether you plan to do the renovations yourself, or with partial or full help, Golden warns that you will be putting in a significant amount of physical effort over an extended period of time. “You spend a lot of your free hours and weekends finishing your house,” he says.

Time and money factors alone can take an emotional toll on homeowners.

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“It’s hard to live in a house that’s currently being built — and that’s if things go as planned,” says Matt Aaron, wealth management consultant at Northwestern Mutual in Washington, DC. “Almost nothing ever fully follows a plan, so a fluctuating budget and unplanned maintenance are barriers to consider.”

You may think you can put up with the dust, noise, and other sights and sounds of construction for six weeks, but what happens when the timeline is extended to 12 weeks? Or maybe in the first week you decide that living in the house during construction is unbearable. Now you will face other additional costs if you decide to live in a hotel until the work is completed.

Some people have no choice but to move. “Even inhaling dust and paint fumes from a renovation can be dangerous for older people,” warns Gerard Splendore, realtor at Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York. “And for DIYers, a simple project like painting a bathroom can lead to back pain and frustration.”

See also: Home renovation isn’t getting any easier or cheaper this year, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait

Materials and labor

In a “perfect” pre-pandemic era, contractors and suppliers didn’t always meet their deadlines. But now time estimates are stretching much longer due to increased demand and reduced supply of almost everything.

“Since the pandemic, the great resignation and last year’s housing boom, everyone has been trying to renovate, which means materials and skilled professionals are scarce,” says Golden. “Plus, the supply chain is still very backlogged, which means some items you might want or need are just not available.”

His view is shared by Steve Schwab, founder and CEO of Casago, a property management company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“While time can be a resource that is abundant in retirement life, you will find that navigating the housing market is particularly difficult given the current economic climate,” he says. “Within today’s housing market there is a significant lack of equipment and labor – and the housing market is also plagued by rising fees with no expected relief in the near future.”

In fact, Schwab references a 2021 National Association of Home Builders report that found material shortages to be the most common since the organization began tracking the problem in the 1990s. (These shortages included framing lumber, appliances, and oriented strand boards).

Rising costs on a fixed income

“As a result of this ongoing volatility, it is difficult to anticipate the total cost and estimated time to completion of a project as a fixer-upper,” he says.

Unpredictable costs can be quite risky for those on fixed incomes.

“In addition to contingencies due to walls and floors opening up, there is also scope creep, which occurs when the homeowners can’t resist adding something to the scope or changing their mind as soon as they see something installed,” says agent Kate Wollman-Mahan of Coldwell Banker Warburg in New York. “In addition, there may be change orders from work that was left outside the contractor’s estimate and the homeowner didn’t catch it.”

Read: My house was built in 1885 – this is how I decide when to do a project and when to call a professional

Dubious contractors

Another factor to consider: finding an honest contractor to work with. “Dubious contractors take advantage of older people, raise prices as they see fit or take down payments and disappear,” warns Splendore.

While Golden says he can’t see himself fixing up anymore, he acknowledges it might be a good idea for some people.

“If you have all the resources at your disposal and the time to get it done, you may enjoy buying a fixer-upper, but it is vital that you realistically consider all factors before committing to the deep dive,” he says. “If you’re going down that road, create a schedule that accounts for unforeseen delays and a budget that includes a line item for contingencies.”

Terri Williams has over 10 years of experience writing about student loans, mortgages, real estate, budgeting, home improvement, and business in general. Her work has appeared in The Economist, TIME, Architectural Digest, and Realtor.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, (c)2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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