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March 10, 2008

The San Jose Mercury News was a Realtor’s close friend in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was more current than the multiple listing book (which at that time was updated about once a week with tearout or replaceable pages) and scanning the ads was crucially important to know what was going on back then. Each morning, my mother, Pat Pope (a Realtor from ’56 to ’96) would pour over the Merc with her morning coffee to stay current on the market.

The "El Dumpo" ad ran in the San Jose Mercury News for years in the 60s or 70sMost of the ads were pretty plain.  One stood out for its frank humor – and it ran for what felt like years. The “old timers” in the industry may remember it. In large letters, this San Jose fixer-upper was listed boldly as “EL DUMPO”. It eventually did sell but while being marketed, gave a lot of folks the chuckles.


So what makes a home a “fixer”?

In my real estate practice, I find that buyers, sellers and agents can all have a different idea of what constitutes a “fixer”. It comes down to a matter of degree.

Simply put, a fixer is a home that needs a lot of work.

At one end of the spectrum, there are homes that have been updated now and then over the years – perhaps with a kitchen remodel that’s now 20 or 25 years old – but not recently. The carpet and paint need replacing and the look could be newer, but the home is well maintained and clean. Is it a fixer? The sellers won’t think so and may be offended if that label is applied to their home. The agents may view it as borderline. Buyers may view it as “liveable but needing work”. Or maybe not – perhaps they will wonder how the current owners could live in a home with that condition. They may consider it a fixer.

Orange formica countertop in a Milpitas house that was full of needed "fixes"At the other end of the range is the “bulldozer”. These are homes that have not been kept up at all: not updated, not even cleaned. They may have dysfunctional floorplans, illegal additions. They may need more than fixing; they may need replacing.

Once when my kids were out of school (vacation or inservice day) on a real estate board tour day, I took them along with me to see a few homes. We pulled up to one in Monte Sereno. The structure was sitting on a perflectly flat view lot close to Daves Avenue. The house was the kind of thing that makes a person say “ewww” when opening doors and seeing unpleasant, moldy surprises. My daughter, then about age seven, saw it and proclaimed wisely “Mommy, it’s a ‘dozer'”.

Here are the types of things that will make virtually all buyers and Realtors view a home as a “fixer” (not just one of these, but multiple issues):

  • major systems in need of being replaced, such as the roof, electrical system, plumbing, heating
  • floors badly out of level (foundation work needed, drainage work needed)
  • baths and kitchens that are 40 years old
  • fireplaces and chimneys that need rebuilding or extensive repairs

And here are a few more that may invoke the “fixer” label (or the milder “cosmetic fixer”) among homebuyers and real estate agents:

  • Textured or popcorn ceilings may contain asbestos. This one actually has gold sparkles with the texturing too - a popular look a few decades ago!popcorn or textured ceilings
  • paneling or (most older) wallpaper on the walls
  • single pane windows
  • cracked and stained concrete – driveways, walkways, patios
  • lack of in-ground sprinklers
  • ugly landscaping (obviously a little subjective)
  • baths and kitchens more than 20 to 25 years old or in out-of-date colors
  • old (or stained) carpeting or other floorcovering

For agents, it’s helpful to clarify with buyers what they mean when they say “I want to buy a fixer”. They may mean “replacing carpet and paint is OK” but nothing else. Or they may be willing to tear down a house and rebuild a new one for the right lot and location.

Kitchen with a pink countertop, stained sink and floral wallpaper - this is a fixer upper house in San Jose.For buyers, it’s important to be clear with your agent what kinds of things you’d be willing to do for the right price, and how much is too much.

For homeowners who may be thinking of selling, don’t worry about completely updating your house because someone may view it as a fixer upper. You won’t get your money back in the short term if you replace your kitchen cabinets, for instance. But it’s a mistake to take the stance that “the buyer can fix it” for everything extreme. Many buyers cannot envision how nice your kitchen would be without the brown and white flowered wallpaper and without the brown vinyl or linoleum flooring. Some fixes will make you money when you sell and some won’t. Floorcoverings and paint are often a good investment.

Please call me if you’d like to discuss your particular situation and how to maximize buying or selling a home that may be a fixer.

Mary Pope-Handy, Realtor, CRS, ABR, e-PRO, SRES, ASP, RECS, CNHS, ACRE
Helping Nice Folks to Buy & Sell Homes Since 1993
Co-Author: “Get The Best Deal When Selling Your Home In Silicon Valley”
408 204-7673 (Cell)