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House Flipping: 11 Signs of a Botched Fixer-Upper

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Written By Adeyemi Adetilewa

Housing flipping — the practice of buying fixer-uppers, renovating them, and selling them for a profit — is one of the most popular and fastest-growing real estate investment methods around. 

And it is not just an end. It is also a means of rehabbing older housing stock and getting it back on the market, providing much-needed property to everyone from first-time millennial home buyers to investors looking for a profitable rental

However, the downside of the house-flipping market is that sometimes profit-hungry renovators might cut corners and produce a home that looks nice on the surface but has serious problems underneath.

How does a home buyer avoid getting stuck with one of these poorly-renovated fixer-uppers? Well, one of the best protections is to always have a home inspection done before sealing the deal.

Here are a few tips and things to look out for when evaluating a property’s quality.

Bad kitchen layout

1. Bad kitchen layout

There’s a design rule called “the kitchen triangle.” It states that the refrigerator, sink, and stove should be laid out in a rough triangle, with each side of the triangle longer than 4 feet but shorter than 9 feet, with a total perimeter of at least 13 feet but no more than 26 feet.

That may sound confusingly exact, but it is really common sense when you see it in action. The point of the kitchen triangle is that the three main focal points of the kitchen — the sink, the fridge, and the stove — should be close enough to be accessible, but not close enough that your space is crowded.

In a shabby renovation, the kitchen layout is often one of the first things compromised. First, check to see if the kitchen triangle is intact, and check to see if the spacing is right.

The triangle isn’t a hard and fast rule, especially now that islands, second sinks, and concealed fridges are becoming more popular, but it is a good general rule to use to quickly evaluate a potential investment.

2. Poor kitchen detailing

Check all the locations of the kitchen where two areas come together, like sections of the counter or the edges of the backsplash. Are they sealed and plumb? If there are gaps or they are offset, it is a good indication that the work was rushed and is of poor quality. 

This isn’t just an aesthetic issue, either; gaps in the kitchen will admit moisture, which can lead to mould, rot, or pest infestations.

3. Appliance quality and uniformity

While you are in the kitchen, take a close look at the appliances. Do they match, or are some appliances high-end while others are of lesser quality? If you write down the model and serial numbers of each appliance, you can look up how much they cost. 

While uneven (or even low) appliance quality doesn’t necessarily mean a renovation was botched, it can give you an idea of how much attention to detail was paid to the renovation. And high-end appliances make a home a lot more attractive — and easier to rent.

4. Low-quality bathroom tiling and potential water damage

Similar to how we advised checking on where the kitchen counters and backsplash meet, look at the edges of the bathroom tiling. If the edges are clean, with orderly cuts where they meet the walls or other surfaces, this is a sign of good craftsmanship. 

On the other hand, if the edges are sloppy and uneven, this is a sure sign of a poor-quality rush job — and you might be dealing with a risky investment.

While you are in the bathroom, carefully examine the walls for any faint staining or changes in the colour of the paint. Many times, a rushed or low-quality renovation will involve simply painting over signs of water damage without actually fixing the leaks, and that painted-over staining will often subtly show through the paint job. 

It may also show up unsubtly if there has been further leaking since the painting. Look for bubbled or warped surfaces, which are strong signs of underlying water damage.

Low-quality bathroom tiling and potential water damage

5. Sloping, bumpy, or sloppy floors

In a proper renovation, door jambs and base moulding are removed before the flooring is put down, to ensure a precise, snug fit. In many rushed renovations, however, the renovator doesn’t bother removing the door jambs and base moulding and simply tries to cut or form the flooring around it. 

When this is done, the signs are obvious — the flooring simply isn’t flat, and there are unsightly gaps and offsets where it meets the walls and doorways. 

If you see this in a renovated fixer-upper, pay close attention to the rest of the house, as it may have been renovated in a rush.

6. Sloppy doors

While you are examining the intersection of the flooring and the door jambs, check out the doors, too. A properly installed door should swing easily and fully close and latch (and stay closed). 

A sloppily installed door may not latch properly, could stick, and may swing open or closed by itself due to poor balancing.

The door jambs are often the cause here. In a thorough renovation, the door jambs will be replaced along with the doors, while a low-quality renovation often involves just hanging new doors in the old door jambs — and the new doors usually don’t fit properly.

Another red flag to look for here is a hollow core door. Hollow core doors are extremely cheap and low quality, and they are usually a sign of a poor-quality renovation. You can check for a hollow core door by trying to slam it — if it is stopped by the air, it is a hollow core.

7. Leaks from the plumbing and fixtures

Turn on the kitchen and bathroom taps. Is the water pressure constant, and does the water flow smooth? Look to see if the water is clean and clear of sediment, or if it is cloudy. 

Pay special attention to the base of the fixtures. Is there water coming out from where the faucet meets the sink? If the answer is yes, they haven’t been properly installed, and the integrity of the plumbing has to come into question. 

Also, look under the sink to see if there are any leaks from the pipes down there. Look for water staining under the pipes, and feel them carefully to detect any moisture.

While you are looking at the fixtures for signs of leaks, check out their quality too. High-end finishes don’t necessarily always mean that the deeper work was done right, but it does show that the renovator was willing to invest a lot in the project.

8. Check out the permits

Ask the seller who performed the work, and then contact them for copies of any permits they acquired before renovating. If they can’t furnish copies, you can sometimes go through a local government website — or visit the physical office — to look up the permits. 

If you decide to go this route, try to find out when the permits were issued, as it is sometimes easier to look up building permits by date than by address.

Skipping permits can have serious consequences, but that doesn’t mean some unethical renovators don’t do it. After all, permits often cost a lot of money, and they may require inspections that take weeks. 

But unpermitted work could sink the entire sale, as lenders are very reluctant to issue a loan for work that underwent illegal renovation. And that’s not even getting into the potential safety issues!

Substandard materials

9. Substandard materials

One very common way that renovators cut corners is to use low-quality materials for the renovation. This can include cheap and prefabricated cabinets, laminate counters that resemble quartz or granite, textured wallpaper to fake a kitchen backsplash, or vinyl flooring. 

Although it is possible for a contractor to do a high-quality, thorough renovation on a budget, if there are a lot of low-quality materials used, it’s fair to say you may want to dig into the overall quality of the project. 

10. Excessive smells or sounds

A new home has a smell just like a new car, but you should be sensitive to unpleasant undertones. If you smell anything that resembles mould, decay, or rot, that’s a major red flag. Any odours that suggest the home lacks basic cleanliness should also raise some questions.

The same rule applies to sounds. This could mean sounds that are coming from the home itself — squeaky floors and stairs, creaky door hinges, rumbles in the plumbing, and buzzing in light or electrical fixtures could all be signs of substandard work.

This could also mean sounds coming from outside the home. If outside noise seems to be coming through very clearly, that’s a sign of thin walls and low-quality windows. A good double-pane window should significantly mute outdoor sounds. 

11. To avoid buying a flawed home, look at it multiple times

It is easy to fall in love with a home — even a flawed home — the first time you see it. Everything about it is novel, the showing is probably set up to show it off in the best possible light, and it is easy to rationalize little shortcomings as no big deal. 

That’s why you should always view a home multiple times before you make an offer. The first time, just take in a general impression. Wait a while, and then view it again. 

The second time, look closely at the details, including the things we mentioned on this list. Form a tentative opinion, but don’t come to any firm conclusions yet.

The third time you view it, the novelty should have worn off, and you’ll be able to see the home for what it is. Look at it objectively, and weigh the pros and cons. It is okay to be positive and hopeful, but don’t ignore red flags!

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