Whether you’re just diving into the world of fixer-uppers or plan to rehab a rundown old home for your own personal use, a whole-home renovation can be a daunting prospect. Permits? Demolition? And what comes first—paint or flooring or windows? Plus, if you’re working in a rougher area, you’ll need to take precautions against theft or vandalism.
Many new or aspiring investors—plus homeowners who may not even realize they’re real estate investors yet—could benefit from a simple rehab plan of action. Here is a very basic strategy for assessing and executing the renovation of a property to live in, flip, or rent.
1. Secure the property
The first order of business: Securing the house. That means new locks throughout—and paying attention to any other methods of ingress. (Ingress means entrance—in other words, are there obvious ways a thief or vandal could access the property, such as through a window?)
Start by either personally changing the locks or calling a locksmith. In some cases, you may need to board up or block off insecure windows and doors until you can change them out. If you do not take the time to check and double-check the home’s security, then vandalism, such as physical damage or theft of fixtures, appliances, or even AC units, could leave you with far more work than you had originally intended.
Contact your utility company immediately. Get the electricity turned on and leave exterior lighting on at the property (after replacing any dead bulbs or floodlights). No exterior lighting? Prioritize this purchase. You may also consider leaving a light or two on in the interior to make it look like someone is there.
Consider putting up fabric or sheets of butcher paper over the windows to prevent passers-by from being able to see what you are doing. Keeping the outside world from peering in discourages vandals or thieves from breaking in. You don’t want brand-new light fixtures to go missing.
Working with local authorities
If you’re worried about theft or vandalism, consider contacting the local authorities. Tell them that you have purchased the property and are currently renovating. Ask them if they could have police patrols on the lookout when in the neighborhood.
They will likely be very happy that you are renovating a property in the neighborhood and will be fine with keeping an eye on things for you.
2. Create a home remodel game plan
Start with a list of problems, intended renovations, and any other minor to-dos that need completion before moving in, renting, or selling the property. Then create a logical order of attack, starting with major systems such as the roof, electrical, HVAC, and plumbing. Next, tackle floor plan changes. (If your floor plan or layout changes would affect the major systems, it may be best to do the work simultaneously.) Cosmetic items, like paint or new lighting, should come last.
Having a scheduled game plan that makes sense is always a good idea before starting the rehab. Take some time to consider the property and what needs to be done.
Make a list
Here are some of the items that you should be looking at:
- Landscaping and hardscaping, including retaining walls
- Retaining walls
- Exterior lighting
- Patios or decking
- Paint and trim
- Garage door
- Exterior door
- Interior lighting
- Interior doors, including handles and hinges
- Outlets and plugs
- Kitchen cabinets, appliances, hardware, and counters
- Bathrooms, including vanities and showers
- Smoke and CO2 detectors
- Hot water heater
This list may be overkill for many homes. Still, review each and every item so that you don’t miss anything.
Think about layout—and budget
Sit down and think about what your plans are. Be general at first. Do you want to move walls? Install a new bath? Does the kitchen need updating? As you layout your rehab project, it will begin to take shape, helping you firm up your budget estimates.
If you’re planning a major room remodel, like a kitchen addition or a master bathroom renovation, make sure to list to-dos for each element—and price out how much they’ll cost.
Consider budget while you’re planning out your strategy. Hopefully, you’ve already considered potential costs—but if not, it’s time to call contractors for quotes on every line item. Many investors hire a general contractor to manage the entire remodel. While that can add to your budget, it also removes a significant burden from your shoulders, especially if you’re not DIY-inclined.
Whatever budget number you end up with, make sure to add extra for emergencies and surprises—we recommend 10 or 15%. This ensures your entire plan won’t be thrown off-course if opening the walls reveals major trouble.
What if I don’t know what work is needed?
If you’re staring at a home and all you can think is, “Wow, it really needs a lot of work,” it’s time to call in the pros. Hopefully you had an inspection done during the closing process. If not, have one done now. That report will provide a great starting point. By reviewing the inspector’s comments, you’ll know if the roofing is solid, if the ceilings or drywall have evidence of mold or moisture, or if there are any other major problems that affect the whole house.
Next, consider bringing in an architect, contractor, engineer, and—if it interests you—an interior designer. They’ll be essential partners for your renovation project, especially if you plan to remove any existing walls. That’s typically not a DIY project: If the wall is load-bearing, you’ll need an engineer’s eyes, and you’ll likely need to install heavy beams to ensure the roof doesn’t come crashing down.
For every project on the list we made above, get two contractor quotes. The goal is to try and establish an apples-to-apples bid. If this is your first flip or renovation, it may be hard to find a contractor. Keep calling.
A special note on windows and doors
Take a really good look at the current condition of all of the windows and doors on the property. Ordering replacements may require waiting a number of weeks—or more!—for delivery. Getting that taken care of right away will keep your renovation timeline and budget on track.
3. Decide on yes, nos, and maybes
At this point, you need to start narrowing the comprehensive bid sheet down. There should be two main factors: the budget and the economics of the deal. What makes sense for your end goal, whether it be rent, sell, or living in the house yourself? What makes sense for the neighborhood?
And most importantly: What can you afford?
Go through every to-do and label it “no,” “yes,” or “maybe.” After you are done doing this exercise, you need to total up the amounts of the bids for the line items where you put “yes” and “maybe.” Does that fit your budget (with allowance for surprises)? Then you’re set. If not, it’s time to keep culling.
4. Remove debris
Before diving into your interiors to-do list—and we get that you’re impatient, because it’s probably massive!—take some time to tidy the exterior.
Start by removing loose debris in the yard and around the house and pulling any tall weeds. You’re not just doing this to please the neighbors: You also want to comply with local codes. The last thing you need are code enforcement citations when you are just getting to know the property.
There’s no need to do anything further on the exterior right now. Don’t worry about major landscaping renovations until you have tackled the interior changes.
If the home wasn’t empty when you bought it, now’s the time to clear everything out. Toss or donate old cabinetry, furniture, and any other debris found inside, so you have space to continue construction.
Cleanup and demolition can all take place the same day, but demo cannot start until the house is empty. Once the junk is gone, you will have a better look at the exact demolition required.
Also, be sure to have a plan for junk removal. Don’t pile it in the front yard. If the property has a lot of trash and significant demolition work, rent a “roll-off” trash dumpster that can be dropped off in the morning and picked up that night or the next day.
5. Start the interior
Unless you need to deal with some exterior leaks, we recommended starting all of the interior work first. One good reason: You want to utilize your budget on the inside—where people will be living!—before tackling curb appeal.
While you might have a rough idea of the costs, you never know what you will find in a building until you start the work. This is why it’s so important to budget extra for emergencies. Mold, leaking pipes, or rotted framing can easily put a major dent in the budget.
Have a contractor meeting
Before you begin, gather your contractors and make sure everyone’s on the same page. Review your plans, introduce everyone, and exchange phone numbers. Some of them, after all, will be working together and closely coordinating various aspects of the rehab project. Having such a meeting will help remove you from the “middleman” role.
6. Begin repair work
The next phase of your rehab is locating the major systems that need work. Be sure to hire licensed electricians, plumbers, HVAC contractors, and more to evaluate and make needed repairs to these systems.
Once these systems have been fixed and are in working order, your property might be covered in holes. Repairing most major systems requires cutting through walls—how else can you replace a leaky pipe behind the drywall? If you added or removed walls, you likely also have exposed studs.
If you need to add new drywall, make sure to get references for a good drywall person and mudder—these skills can look deceptively simple. Otherwise, you’ll want a good handyman to make sheetrock repairs and prepare for paint.
Your contractors will need to know specifics in order to get the job done. Just saying that the stove will be “about here” or the bathroom will be “over here” won’t work.
Tell them exactly where and how you want things. Draw out what you would like—to scale if possible. It does not have to be fancy; a pencil drawing will often do. Have a product list for tile, fixtures, carpet, etc. The more specific you can be on the front end, the better off you will be on the back end. Plus, fewer mistakes will be made throughout the process.
A new coat of paint always noticeably changes the interior aesthetics—and it’s a must-do for any renovation, especially if you’re adding or repairing drywall.
Once the major systems have been fixed and sheetrock has been installed or mudded, prep the interior for paint. If you are painting kitchen or bathroom cabinets, then be sure they have been sanded so that a new coat of paint can be correctly and easily applied. Cover everything you don’t want painted in plastic or painter’s tape.
If you are painting the entire interior, then consider working a painting subcontractor into the budget. The time they save will make it well worth the additional cost. For amateurs, a DIY paint job can take significantly longer than expected.
8. Replace or repair flooring
When deciding which flooring to install in your home or rental, consider cost, durability, and overall appeal. New carpeting always makes a property look nice but doesn’t necessarily stand up over time. If you plan to rent out the home, it might not be the best pick. You may also consider refinishing original hardwoods or even installing durable laminate floors.
Look at the current kitchen and bathroom flooring. Does it look old and dirty? Is there broken tile? You’re probably better off replacing. New tile or linoleum always adds to the appeal of the property and will likely help you justify top dollar if you’re planning to sell or rent.
While flooring installation is technically a DIY-able task, hiring a professional is generally a good idea. Flooring mistakes are highly visible.
9. Tackle exterior needs
Once you have completed the interior rehab, take a look at the essentials needed outside. This includes siding, porches, railings, shutters, screens, garage doors, and gutters. If the exterior is in bad shape, you’ll want to consider painting.
However, if the property is intended as a rental, you can touch up or paint the front of the house exclusively to add curb appeal—but not break your budget. You’ll also need to be conscious of any items that may pose a danger to a potential tenant (i.e. broken handrails, falling retaining walls, etc.). Be sure to pay careful attention to any items that might become a liability.
Take some time to make the landscape attractive, with pops of color from flowers and a clean look for the yard. Hiring a landscaper may be worth the money. Other things that might seem minor, like a nice mailbox and proper numbering on the building, can improve your home’s value. If you can affordably make changes, do so. You could even hire some local high school students for a day of hard outdoor labor to tackle the simple tasks, like mulching. These items will make your property feel like home.
Following these steps to a quality renovation will help you attract the right tenants, earn more in a sale, or just love the home you live in.