While watching a recent episode of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”, I was struck by how surprised buyers are when they uncover problems that they never suspected, such as outdated wiring, mold and pest infestations. Really?

If the exterior of the run-down exterior is covered with ivy, the floor is uneven, and the home was built in the 1920s, why would you not expect to find issues that go beyond old paint and linoleum floors when tearing out a wall to create a dream kitchen?

I am speaking from experience.

When my husband and I purchased a fixer-upper several years ago, we had no idea that major problems existed, such as a rotted sill plate at the front of the house that involved thousands of dollars to repair, and jury-rigged headers along the back of the house the necessitated a complete rebuilding of that wall when we decided to install new windows and a new door.

When we first found the house, we were excited about the vaulted ceiling addition to the 1930s home, which created an open floor plan, loft, and opportunity for a dream kitchen. We brought in a contractor and interior designer to help us come up with an estimate of $60,000 for updating the bathrooms, tearing out the wall-to-wall carpet, refinishing the existing hardwood floors and a kitchen with custom cabinetry, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

New kitchen, windows, hardwood floors...totally worth it.

We subtracted that from the home’s likely market value after renovation, and what decided what would work within our budget. What we SHOULD have done was to then deduct at least another 5 to 10 percent for unforeseen problems.

Four and a half years and $145,000 dollars later, with 2 kids in college, and potential upgrades still to do, we decided that we were done with the house and would turn it over to a younger couple to finish what we had started. Luckily the homes in our area had retained their value, and we were able to get our money back out of the house when we sold it, and the new buyer got a home where all of the major problems had been solved and they needed only to do a few finishing touches.

So how DO you know if a fixer-upper in a great neighborhood IS something you want to undertake? I did a little research and came up with 6 tips that I had considered before purchasing our home.

1. Include an inspection clause in your contract. 
At best, the inspection will assure you that the house is a good investment; at worst, it will help you back out of the deal. Often with fixer-uppers, it’s something in between. The inspector will document a serious problem or two, (if they can see them) and you can use the findings to get the seller to pay for repairs or negotiate the sale price downward. Accompany your inspector and ask questions about anything you are unsure about.

2. Avoid a house that needs significant structural improvements. 
Major repairs — plumbing and electrical system overhauls, foundation upgrades, and extensive roof and wall work — are usually “invisible” and hardly ever raise the value of the house enough to offset the cost of the renovation.

3. Pick Projects That Pay
The ideal fixer-uppers are those that require mostly cosmetic improvements — paint touchups, drywall repairs, floor refinishing — which generally cost much less than what they return in market value. New lighting fixtures, doors, window shutters, and siding, as well as updated kitchens and bathrooms, are also lucrative improvements.

4. Don’t over improve. 
For maximum resale value, remodeling investments should not raise the value of your house more than 10 to15 percent above the median sale price of other houses in your area, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

5. Line Up The Money
One of the most challenging aspects of purchasing a fixer-upper is paying for the renovation. Understandably, most people don’t have much extra cash after making the down payment and paying closing costs, so coming up with additional money to cover repairs or remodeling can be difficult.

By far the most popular funding choice for a fixer-upper is a renovation loan, either through a home equity line of credit or a mortgage. Even more advantageous is a renovation loan tied to the first mortgage. Similar to equity lines, these loans can be borrowed against the house’s value after the work is finished, but like any mortgage, the interest is tax deductible up to $1 million.

6. Add at least 10% to what you think you will spend.
Even if you don’t encounter major problems, knowing that you have allowed 10% more in your budget will give you peace of mind when those unexpected expenses crop up, whether it is minor electrical work, or upgrading to better appliances.

When all is said and done, my husband and I are not sorry that we renovated our last home. It was rewarding being able to restore some of the 1930s details in the older part of the house, and satisfying to fix all of the structural damage, because we were able to install beautiful new walls of windows that filled the house with light. The kitchen was indeed my dream and we had many a great party centered around the granite island.

We were also delighted to move into a smaller home that only needed a little bit of paint to make it perfect. Now, of course, five years later, I am eyeing up the kitchen wall that I would like to take down, and thinking about creating a workshop in our garage.

Would I ever take on another fixer-upper? Ask my husband.

By Cathy Evans