Real Estate: Home Buyers Should Look for ‘Good’ Ugly

By HEATHER SITTIG Special to the Planet
Friday January 16, 2004

Many buyers want to buy a house that needs some work so they can quickly gain “sweat equity.” About half of the buyers I work with say this during our initial consultation, but many soon find that painting the interior walls is what they really meant. 

However, if you have a handy bone, and aren’t afraid of getting dirty, there are some keys to buying a good “fixer.” First you need to find the right kind of ugly. Some houses are just ugly to the core, with all the architectural charm of a box of saltines. This is the wrong kind of ugly. The right kind of ugly is a house that was originally lovely but has suffered the neglect of time, or in some cases, just plain bad taste. 

Certain projects may be too overwhelming to make it worth the sweat, such as replacing a crumbling foundation or 25 aluminum windows. Others are relatively simple like re-roofing, refinishing floors and installing new plumbing and electrical fixtures. (Don’t forget to get permits from the city when required.) 

When choosing an ugly house know your limits, both financial and emotional.  

When looking for a fixer, my motto is always the uglier the better. I love to find a house that hasn’t been painted for 40 years, has hardwood floors hidden beneath old pink carpet, and layers of dusty drapery that must house flocks of bats and moths. It is especially rewarding to find hideous furniture, piles of old newspapers, and a toilet moldy enough to stave off competitive bidding. 

• Look for a house with good bones. Hope to find the original floor plan unaltered. Berkeley is full of old bungalows that were perfectly designed with timeless elegance. Some things just can’t be improved upon! If the house still has single-pane windows, hope to find the original wood sashes. Sometimes you get lucky and there is little to no dry rot, just weathered paint. 

Frequently Berkeley homes have beautiful woodwork hidden beneath coats of paint. I have had so many clients say they want to strip the paint and reveal the original wood. While the result may be stunning, proceed with caution. Old paint almost certainly contains lead and should be handled very carefully. 

If the wood is painted it is not a crime to paint it again, which will brighten any room. (If you are lucky enough to find an ugly house with original wood exposed, please do not paint it!) 

• Get permission to look beneath carpet to see the condition of the floors. Painted wood floors can be easily sanded and refinished, producing a glowing result. Sometimes you find unexpected treasures such as mahogany inlays. Also look out for original hexagonal tile hidden beneath sheet vinyl in kitchens and baths. 

• Try to find an ugly house on a beautiful street. Check to see how the neighbors are maintaining their property, and hope they keep it up after you move in.  

• Go treasure hunting in the yard. Frequently wonderful mature plants are hidden behind walls of weeds and rusting lawn furniture. Almost any plot of earth can be transformed into a sanctuary, but it helps to have some trees and shrubs already settled in. You may also find that missing door knob or fireplace andirons hanging around outside. 

• Arrange inspections. Be sure to have a complete home inspection by a reputable inspector. Trust your agent to recommend a good one and be willing to pay top dollar for your inspection. Get a sewer inspection. Many Berkeley sewer lines are original clay and have cracks and root intrusions. It is also advisable to have the chimney inspected for safety. Chimney repairs can be costly, so it is good to know what you are dealing with. 

• Use the inspection period to get bids for the work you can’t complete on your own. The ugliest houses often need new roofs ($5,000-$7,000), new furnaces and ducts ($5,000-$6,000), new exterior paint ($5,000-$9,000), electrical upgrades ($3,000-$6,000), new pipes ($5,000-$10,000) and new sewer lines ($2,000-$3,000). Also you can start identifying replacement fixtures and appliances that will work with the vintage of the house. 

If you aren’t scared off after you have complied this data, then roll up your sleeves and go for it. Assume everything will cost more than you expected and will take twice as long as you predicted. Also keep in mind that you can always hire help. Good electricians and plumbers can make molehills out of mountains. 

Over time you will have a beautiful new home and the satisfaction of having restored a small piece of history. Your house and your neighbors will be thrilled. 


Heather Sittig is a Berkeley real estate broker.