Living in a Fixer Upper: What's It Like?

The high drama and speedy transformation seen on the 30 minute makeover shows on TV are nothing like our experience of rehabbing a worn and weary house. Here's how to cope with living in a fixer-upper.

By Gene And Katie Hamilton

Living in a Fixer Upper: What's It Like?

Is living under construction worth the hassles and inconveniences? Only you can decide, but it’s always worked for us through various stages of our lives, whether we were a young married couple teaching school, self-employed writers and entrepreneurs, employees of a large corporation, or a couple phasing into semi-retirement.

Our first properties were small, and we learned by doing, either tackling home improvement projects ourselves or looking over the shoulder of the plumber or electrician that we hired. When we had stopped teaching and were working on houses full-time, our permanent residence was usually in the process of being renovated, and we usually had a project house under way. Yes, this could get very complicated and unsettling at times, but as long as we had a few rooms that were complete and livable, we seemed to take it in stride.

In retrospect, we were often more concerned about the condition and storage of our tools and equipment, which became considerable when we started working on houses full time. A garage became a key feature when we looked at houses to occupy, because we needed a safe, dry storage space for the tools and gear we were accumulating.

Kids Are a Real Concern

Living with children in a house that is under construction is another issue completely. It can be daunting and even dangerous to have little ones scampering around unfinished floors and playing in less-than-ideal circumstances. And, of course, there are real dangers of lead poisoning and asbestos in an older houses that is being remodeled.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a pamphlet called "Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home" and others available through the National Lead Information Center (800-424-LEAD). The agency’s Web site,, includes information about lead, asbestos, and mold in the home, where it may be found, and what should be done about it. If you’re considering a major rehab and you have children, do some research before you make a decision.

All children and most adults appreciate structure in their lives, and the unpredictable nature of rehabbing can be very stressful. If rehabbing takes you from one house to another, consider the effects on kids changing schools - this can be unsettling. Many families get around this by narrowing their scope of investment properties to houses within a particular school district so that their kids don’t have to change schools.

A Second Job

We think of a house that we are living in and working on as a second job that costs us money in the short term, but in the long run generates a substantial profit. It provides a place for us to hang our hats (and store our tools), and at the same time requires either our time or our money or both. But if we choose the property wisely and improve it with care, our investment will pay off. That’s true for a single owner or two married wage earners who have full time jobs that can support the cost of improvements when they are required. If you’re considering buying a house to renovate but are strapped for time, consider buying the house with a long term plan and letting the value of the property rise over time. When writing about home improvements led us to building an online business, we stayed where we were and turned all our time and energy to the business instead of completing the house and buying another one. We converted bedrooms to workstations and worked at home until we found an office, all the while letting the home slowly grow in value. If the economy is strong, that’s a strategy that works. But if the real estate market cools off as all markets eventually do and, during this time your job forces you to move, you’re vulnerable – not a good position to be in. Experience has taught us that you’re in control if you don’t have to sell and can wait out adverse conditions so that you can take advantage of a seller’s market that will eventually return.

Excerpt from Fix It and Flip It by Gene and Katie Hamilton, McGraw-Hill

Related Articles:

Living in a Fixer Upper - 5 Takeaways

Coping Strategies for Living in a Fixer Upper

Prioritizing Improvements With a Plan

Seeing the Positive Side of Renovation