TV’s ‘Worst to First’ hosts share what to avoid when buying a fixer-upper home

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With real estate prices through the roof, many potential buyers may be considering a fixer-upper so that they can afford a home in their preferred location. Adding your own “sweat equity” can be a great way to build value – and it also means you get to make your home just the way you want it. But this strategy is not without risks.

We’ve all seen the TV reno shows where opening up the walls or floors reveals a horror story that just isn’t accounted for in the budget. Glacier Media caught up with the hosts of one such show, HGTV Canada’s Worst to First, between filming sets, to ask their advice for potential buyers of fixer-uppers.

Professional renovators Sebastian Sevallo and Mickey Fabbiano are the best-friend duo who host the show, which takes the worst house on the block and guides its new owners through a radical renovation process. The guys are also set to offer more advice from the 2019 BCBC Home + Garden Show at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, which runs from Wednesday Feb. 20 through Sunday Feb. 24.

Sebastian Sevallo (left) and Mickey Fabbiano are the stars of HGTV Canada’s Worst to First home renovation reality show, and presenters at the 2019 B.C. Home + Garden Show. Image supplied.

Q: What are some key pieces of advice you’d give potential buyers considering purchasing a fixer-upper?

Sebastian: First and foremost, the most important part of any renovation project is to have a plan. A well-rounded plan, where not only do you know the size and scope of what you’d be doing, but also how you’re going to be living during the renovation. Are you going to be renting, or living in the home while the reno is happening? If you’re doing the work yourself, are you doing it when you get home from work? There are lots of different avenues you can take.

Mickey: When you’re going to renovate, there are certain things to look for. Look into the age of the home, so you’re aware what kind of plumbing and electrical they used, if it contains hazardous materials like asbestos, because those are the things that will bring up the cost. If you’re spending money on remediation or structural repair, you won’t have that money to put into your finishes or appliances – and in the end, that’s what everyone wants. They don’t care about the beam that you can’t see – they care about the beautiful tile or the stainless-steel appliances.

Q: Do you find that buyers bite off more than they can chew in terms of how much work needs doing? How can that be avoided?

Mickey: Everyone bites off more than they can chew – 100 per cent of the time. It’s never as simple as it seems. So make sure you know, beginning to end what it will entail. So do your research and look into the jobs, or hire a contractor to guide you through the process.

Sebastian: Even before buying, you can get a contractor in to assess the work and give you a quote on the work you’d need to do, that’s always a good idea. Doing your homework is always the best course of action. Like, a lot of people want to remove walls, everyone wants open concept, and they think they can knock out walls arbitrarily without knowing if they’re load-bearing, and what that will do. There’s a lot to consider before you even get started.

Mickey: But remember that before purchase, a contractor can’t put any holes in walls, or look into something specific like removing a load-bearing wall, so there’s still risk. But a good contractor can be like a detective, they can go into the house, and you have the blueprints, and you have the age, and so on. But pre-purchase, you can only make educated guesses, and figure out the worst-case scenario, best-case scenario, and make sure you’re ready for either of those.

Q: What are some of the worst-case scenarios that you’ve come across?

Sebastian: Something we encounter a lot is renos and additions that were done in the past and turn out to be illegal. It might be finished nicely, but when the reno starts, you find out it wasn’t done to code or it was illegal with no permits. So that has to be either pulled down or remediated, which isn’t in the budget.

Mickey: Something for buyers to look out for, which we see a lot, is moisture issues that turn into mold, rot and infestations. If it’s left for years it can become a huge problem, and the structure is rotting. You don’t want to be dumping all of your money just into fixing the house so it’s safe, instead of that beautiful ensuite you wanted.

Q: Is there an advantage in the current, slower housing market, because there is time for buyers to do their due diligence – put subjects on the purchase, and bring in the inspector and the contractor?

Mickey: Yeah, a couple of years ago, if you didn’t buy the day of, you didn’t get the house. I think we’re in a market now, particularly the detached sector in Metro Vancouver, where you’re able to do your due diligence. You don’t need to make that impulse buy – you can make sure it is the right home for you and that you have the funds to make it have everything you need.

Q: So I guess that makes it a less advantageous market for those looking to do a flip, and sell the home once it’s renovated?

Sebastian: The returns we’re seeing on homes are not what they used to be. The amount of money you’re putting into a home, you’re not seeing the same amount of money coming out of it as a few years ago. That’s not to say that flipping homes can’t still be profitable. It can be, in the right situation.

Mickey: Just like a fixer-upper to live in, doing a flip comes down to doing your homework and due diligence. If you know what you’re going to buy it for, what you’ll put in, and what you will likely be able to sell it for, then you can make that educated guess as to whether you’ll make a profit. And hey, if the market downturns and you can’t make a profit, rent it. We’ve also got a huge rental shortage here. But again, it’s down to the person, whether you can hold onto the property.

Mickey Fabbiano and Sebastian Sevallo will be hitting the B.C. Home + Garden Show’s TELUS Main Stage on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. and again on Sunday, Feb. 24 at noon. More show information and tickets here.

Mickey and Sebastian are currently filming a new season of Worst to First, which is slated to air on HGTV Canada in late spring 2019. Updates can be found here.