Flipping Houses

How to Renovate a House—Whether You’re Renting, Flipping, or Moving In

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Whether you’re just diving into the world of fixer uppers or plan to rehab a run-down old home for your own personal use, a whole-home renovation can be a daunting prospect. Permits? Demolition? And what comes first—paint or flooring or windows? Plus, if you’re working in a rougher area, you’ll need to take precautions against theft or vandalism.

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Many new or aspiring investors—plus homeowners who may not even realize they're real estate investors yet!— could benefit from a simple rehab plan of action. Here is a very basic strategy for assessing and executing the renovation of a property to live in, flip, or rent.

Related: Here’s How to Increase the Value of Your Home or Investment Property

1. Secure the Property

The first order of business: Securing the house. That means new locks throughout—and paying attention to any other methods of ingress. (Ingress means entrance—in other words, are there obvious ways a thief or vandal could access the property, such as through a window?)

Start by either personally changing the locks or calling a locksmith. In some cases, you may need to board up or block off insecure windows and doors until you can change them out. If you do not take the time to check and double-check the home’s security, then vandalism, such as physical damage or theft of fixtures, appliances, or even AC units, could leave you with far more work than you had originally intended.

Contact your utilities company immediately. Get the electricity turned on and leave exterior lighting on at the property (after replacing any dead bulbs or floodlights). No exterior lighting? Prioritize this purchase. You may also consider leaving a light or two on in the interior to make it look like someone is there.

Consider putting up fabric or sheets of butcher paper over the windows to prevent passers-by from being able to see what you are doing. Keeping the outside world from peering in discourages vandals or thieves from breaking in. You don’t want brand-new light fixtures to go missing.

Working with local authorities

If you’re worried about theft or vandalism, consider contacting the local authorities. Tell them that you have purchased the property and are currently renovating. Ask them if they could have police patrols on the lookout when in the neighborhood.

They will likely be very happy that you are renovating a property in the neighborhood and will be fine with keeping an eye on things for you.

2. Create a Home Remodel Game Plan

Start with a list of problems, intended renovations, and any other minor to-dos that need completion before moving in, renting, or selling the property. Then create a logical order of attack, starting with major systems such as the roof, electrical, HVAC, and plumbing. Next, tackle floor plan changes. (If your floor plan or layout changes would affect the major systems, it may be best to do the work simultaneously.) Cosmetic items, like paint or new lighting, should come last.

Having a scheduled game plan that makes sense is always a good idea before starting the rehab.  Take some time to consider the property and what needs to be done.

Make a list

Here are some of the items that you should be looking at:

  • Mailbox
  • Landscaping and hardscaping, including retaining walls
  • Windows
  • Roof
  • Fencing
  • Siding
  • Chimney
  • Retaining walls
  • Exterior lighting
  • Patios or decking
  • Pool
  • Irrigation
  • Gutters
  • Paint and trim
  • Garage door
  • Exterior door
  • Flooring
  • Baseboards
  • Ceiling
  • Interior lighting
  • Interior doors, including handles and hinges
  • Outlets and plugs
  • Fixtures
  • Thermostat
  • Curtains
  • Kitchen cabinets, appliances, hardware, and counters
  • Bathrooms, including vanities and showers
  • Smoke and CO2 detectors
  • Hot water heater

This list may be overkill for many homes. Still, review each and every item so that you don’t miss anything.

Think about layout—and budget

Sit down and think about what your plans are. Be general at first. Do you want to move walls? Install a new bath? Does the kitchen need updating? As you layout your rehab project, it will begin to take shape, helping you firm up your budget estimates.

If you’re planning a major room remodel, like a kitchen addition or a master bathroom renovation, make sure to list to-dos for each element—and price out how much they’ll cost.

Consider budget while you're planning out your strategy. Hopefully, you've already considered potential costs—but if not, it's time to call contractors for quotes on every line item. Many investors hire a general contractor to manage the entire remodel. While that can add to your budget, it also removes a significant burden from your shoulders, especially if you're not DIY-inclined.

Whatever budget number you end up with, make sure to add extra for emergencies and surprises—we recommend 10 or 15%. This ensures your entire plan won’t be thrown off-course if opening the walls reveals major trouble.

Related: 7 Ways to Spend a $5,000 Renovation Budget for Max ROI

What if I don’t know what work is needed?

If you’re staring at a home and all you can think is, “Wow, it really needs a lot of work," it's time to call in the pros. Hopefully you had an inspection done during the closing process. If not, have one done now. That report will provide a great starting point. By reviewing the inspector's comments, you'll know if the roofing is solid, if the ceilings or drywall have evidence of mold or moisture, or if there are any other major problems that affect the whole house.

Next, consider bringing in an architect, contractor, engineer, and—if it interests you—an interior designer. They’ll be essential partners for your renovation project, especially if you plan to remove any existing walls. That’s typically not a DIY project: If the wall is load-bearing, you’ll need an engineer’s eyes, and you’ll likely need to install heavy beams to ensure the roof doesn’t come crashing down.

For every project on the list we made above, get two contractor quotes. The goal is to try and establish an apples-to-apples bid. If this is your first flip or renovation, it may be hard to find a contractor. Keep calling.

A special note on windows and doors

Take a really good look at the current condition of all of the windows and doors on the property. Ordering replacements may require waiting a number of weeks—or more!—for delivery. Getting that taken care of right away will keep your renovation timeline and budget on track.

3. Decide on “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe”s

At this point, you need to start narrowing the comprehensive bid sheet down. There should be two main factors: the budget and the economics of the deal. What makes sense for your end goal, whether it be rent, sell, or living in the house yourself? What makes sense for the neighborhood?

And most importantly: What can you afford?

Go through every to-do and label it “no,” “yes,” or “maybe.” After you are done doing this exercise, you need to total up the amounts of the bids for the line items where you put “Yes” and “Maybe.” Does that fit your budget (with allowance for surprises)? Then you’re set. If not, it’s time to keep culling.


4. Remove Debris

Before diving into your interiors to-do list—and we get that you’re impatient, because it’s probably massive!—take some time to tidy the exterior.

Start by removing loose debris in the yard and around the house and pulling any tall weeds. You’re not just doing this to please the neighbors: You also want to comply with local codes. The last thing you need are code enforcement citations when you are just getting to know the property.

There’s no need to do anything further on the exterior right now. Don’t worry about major landscaping renovations until you have tackled the interior changes.

If the home wasn’t empty when you bought it, now’s the time to clear everything out. Toss or donate old cabinetry, furniture, and any other debris found inside, so you have space to continue construction.

Cleanup and demolition can all take place the same day, but demo cannot start until the house is empty. Once the junk is gone, you will have a better look at the exact demolition required.

Also, be sure to have a plan for junk removal. Don’t pile it it in the front yard. If the property has a lot of trash and significant demolition work,  rent a “roll off” trash dumpster that can be dropped off in the morning and picked up that night or the next day.

5. Start the Interior

Unless you need to deal with some exterior leaks, we recommended starting all of the interior work first. One good reason: You want to utilize your budget on the inside—where people will be living!—before tackling curb appeal.

While you might have a rough idea of the costs, you never know what you will find in a building until you start the work. This is why it’s so important to budget extra for emergencies. Mold, leaking pipes, or rotted framing can easily put a major dent in the budget.

Have a contractor meeting

Before you begin, gather your contractors and make sure everyone’s on the same page. Review your plans, introduce everyone, and exchange phone numbers. Some of them, after all, will be working together and closely coordinating various aspects of the rehab project. Having such a meeting will help remove you from the “middleman” role.

Related: 6 Places to Find (Free!) Home Design Ideas

6. Begin Repair Work

The next phase of your rehab is locating the major systems that need work. Be sure to hire licensed electricians, plumbers, HVAC contractors, and more to evaluate and make needed repairs to these systems.

Once these systems have been fixed and are in working order, your property might be covered in holes. Repairing most major systems requires cutting through walls—how else can you replace a leaky pipe behind the drywall? If you added or removed walls, you likely also have exposed studs.

If you need to add new drywall, make sure to get references for a good drywall person and mudder—these skills can look deceptively simple. Otherwise, you’ll want a good handyman to make sheetrock repairs and prepare for paint.

Be specific

Your contractors will need to know specifics in order to get the job done. Just saying that the stove will be “about here” or the bathroom will be “over here” won’t work.

Tell them exactly where and how you want things. Draw out what you would like—to scale if possible. It does not have to be fancy; a pencil drawing will often do. Have a product list for tile, fixtures, carpet, etc. The more specific you can be on the front end, the better off you will be on the back end. Plus, fewer mistakes will be made throughout the process.

7. Paint

A new coat of paint always noticeably changes the interior aesthetics—and it’s a must-do for any renovation, especially if you’re adding or repairing drywall.

Once the major systems have been fixed and sheetrock has been installed or mudded, prep the interior for paint. If you are painting kitchen or bathroom cabinets, then be sure they have been sanded so that a new coat of paint can be correctly and easily applied. Cover everything you don’t want painted in plastic or painter’s tape.

If you are painting the entire interior, then consider working a painting subcontractor into the budget. The time they save will make it well worth the additional cost. For amateurs, a DIY paint job can take significantly longer than expected.

8. Replace or Repair Flooring

When deciding which flooring to install in your home or rental, consider cost, durability, and overall appeal. New carpeting always makes a property look nice, but doesn’t necessarily stand up over time. If you plan to rent out the home, it might not be the best pick. You may also consider refinishing original hardwoods or even installing durable laminate floors.

Look at the current kitchen and bathroom flooring. Does it look old and dirty? Is there broken tile? You’re probably better off replacing. New tile or linoleum always adds to the appeal of the property and will likely help you justify top dollar if you’re planning to sell or rent.

While flooring installation is technically a DIY-able task, hiring a professional is generally a good idea. Flooring mistakes are highly visible.

9. Tackle Exterior Needs

Once you have completed the interior rehab, take a look at the essentials needed outside. This includes siding, porches, railings, shutters, screens, garage doors, and gutters. If the exterior is in bad shape, you’ll want to consider painting.

However, if the property is intended as a rental, you can touch up or paint the front of the house exclusively to add curb appeal—but not break your budget. You’ll also need to be conscious of any items that may pose a danger to a potential tenant (i.e. broken handrails, falling retaining walls, etc.). Be sure to pay careful attention to any items that might become a liability.

Take some time to make the landscape attractive, with pops of color from flowers and a clean look for the yard. Hiring a landscaper may be worth the money. Other things that might seem minor, like a nice mailbox and proper numbering on the building, can improve your home’s value. If you can affordably make changes, do so. You could even hire some local high school students for a day of hard outdoor labor to tackle the simple tasks, like mulching. These items will make your property feel like home.

Following these steps to a quality renovation will help you attract the right tenants, earn more in a sale, or just love the home you live in.

Ken Corsini is a seasoned real estate investor and business owner based in Woodstock, Georgia. Ken is best known for his role on HGTV’s hit show “Flip or Flop Atlanta,” and has flipped over 800 hou...
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    Kevin Andrews Investor from Seekonk, Massachusetts
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Great article Ken, especially for a beginner. This is step by step process that is so helpful and I definitely got a lot out of it. And it just makes sense, the order in which you wrote to do the work. Thanks so much!
    Maggie Tasseron Investor from Palm Desert, California
    Replied about 5 years ago
    This is all good advice but depending on the neighborhood, even the best precautions may not work. When flipping was good here in CA, I bought a property in an area that wasn’t even what I would call “rough”. As I did with the other properties I had flipped there, I first made sure to introduce myself to the neighbors whenever I ran into them on the street. Then I changed the locks and put alarms on all the doors and windows. I also put signs up with my name and number, asking if any trouble, would people please contact me. I had not yet started the rehab so had nothing of value in the property but arrived several times to find it had been broken into anyway; the alarms had been ripped off and thrown on the floor and several windows had been broken into. The apex was when I arrived one day to find someone had thrown a huge boulder through a glass slider. One can imagine what a racket that must have made but not one person called the me or the police, not then nor when the alarms went off on other occasions. I had asked the City to allow me to put up temporary wire fencing but they refused and as a result, people in the neighborhood parked all over the property which resulted in my also having to pay some hefty fines. I could probably have hired a security company but even that would not have made me feel safe to be there alone while doing the rehab. I’ve always lived in a neighborhood where if any of that kind of high-decibel vandalism had taken place, 15 people would have called the police. It was an expensive lesson and one I won’t repeat.
    Replied about 5 years ago
    sorry to hear about that Maggie, what city were you in?
    Replied about 5 years ago
    sorry to hear about that Maggie, what city were you in? Reply Report comment
    Replied about 5 years ago
    sorry to hear about that Maggie, what city were you in? Reply Report comment
    Replied about 5 years ago
    sorry to hear about that Maggie, what city were you in? Reply Report comment
    Vishal Gadhia Investor & Rehabber from Bartlett, Illinois
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Great step by step article. Good for first time rental rehabbers. One thing, for big jobs like roof, siding, electrical and plumbing, try and get licensed contractors they will be a little expensive, but you won’t have middle of the night phone calls.
    Michael S. Helton Real Estate Redeveloper from Reno, NV
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Ken, are these steps meant to be completed in the order laid out in the post? If so, why do you save the exterior for last?
    Robert Leonard Investor from Lafayette/Baton Rouge, LA
    Replied about 5 years ago
    This is generally good basic information, but I take issue with two ideas. HIDE THE WORK – I disagree with that. I always leave blinds open and forbid contractors from leaving tools in my property. When work is being done, people in the neighborhood know it. If you close the blinds or cover the windows, thieves are looking for tools as their high payoff items to steal and pawn or sell on the street for quick cash. Leave the blinds open/windows uncovered and leave some lights on inside and outside to show everyone that there’s nothing in there to break-in for. Since following this practice, I haven’t had a break-in. “THIS IS JUST A RENTAL PROPERTY” This is the motto of every corner cutting half @$$ contractor who does substandard work when you hire them for the rehab of a rental. I always tell them, “this property is one I haven’t decided whether or not to flip or rent.” That’s not a lie. I always have two exit strategies for my investments and when the situation calls for it, I will flip a property instead of holding it. You also need to be aware that you are rehabbing the property to get a good appraisal if you intend to refinance. So you shouldn’t think you only have to satisfy renters who don’t care if it’s professionally renovated. An appraiser will recognize when you cut corners on your rehab and that’s the last thing I want an appraiser to think about my property.
    Replied about 5 years ago
    I usually bring the house up as if I were going to sell it. Being an absentee owner, I want to do all that needs doing while I am there. That will better allow me to know what needs to be done if something breaks later, because I have carnal knowledge of what went on before. Always put window coverings, that a renter would use, up before turning it over to a PM. At least put them in the front of the house. If you put them everywhere, the renter will not see themselves having to \”decorate\” your house, when things they put up may not go well or fit in their next rental. Renters look at window coverings as an expense they do not need/want to make. You will rent quicker with window coverings, no matter how spartan. I use the one inch blinds that can be had at Walmart, Kmart, Lowe\’s or Home Depot. Leave them down, but open, where folks can see it has coverings, but can also see inside. If the cabinets are marginal, you might take all the faces off, and have them sanded and stained, or new ones made from the measurements of the old ones. Replace all the knobs/pulls will dress up cabinets also. Avoid painting the cabinets until it is the only option to replacing the whole cabinets. Cabinets are expensive. Verify this, but I have a house that faces the wind, so it gets damaged on one side a couple of times a year. I have to replace shingles here and there often. Can you replace half of the roof (that faces the wind) in one tax year, as a repair, and fix the other half, in some subsequent tax year, and not have to depreciate it (as opposed to expense it in the tax year the money was spent)? I would like to hear some opinions from knowledgeable people on that. Some PMs are lazy, ok, most are. Get a For Rent yard and window sign, and put the PMs phone number on it. That ten bucks may get your property rented quicker than folks going by the PMs office and looking at a list of properties. Put them out as soon as the house is presentable, but it does not have to be complete. Calculate the daily rent you expect to receive. Use that to help you get the property ready for rent quicker. You MAY save money in the long run by paying more, but getting things done faster. You can make some repairs, a Painter can do others, and a flooring guy can do others. Try to make them work at the same time, as much as possible, and where logical. A week saved is a weeks worth of rent.
    James Green Wholesaler from Waldorf, Maryland
    Replied about 5 years ago
    This is a great article. I like the steps.
    Amilia Bargues from Paris, Île-de-France
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Really helpful article, thanks! Especially part regarding Local Authorities. But my question is how to calculate the budget, even approximately. If you purchased this property abroad and do not know the prices. Please share some experience if somebody faced with it.
    Jason Conferido
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Great Tips. I’m a newbie in real estate investment and is interested in rehabbing, this guide will be really helpful. I really appreciate the way you tackled every details. Thank you for sharing this guide. I will surely use this and it with my investor friends. Jason
    John Kai Investor from Las Vegas, NV
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Terrific article. I agree with the de-cluttering steps for both interior and exterior prior to starting renovations. Expose the bones first and understand what can be salvaged and rehabbed before complete demolition. I like the steps and suggestions to deter vandals from targeting your property. Lighting always is a good deterrent as is window coverings.
    Ulrike Koehler Property Manager from Frederick, Maryland
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Thank you Ken, great article. Not sure if this was already mentioned but it is very important as well to have your “team” together before you start any rehabbing effort. I just learnt the hard way by doing my first very extensive rehab as an investor newbie. I had to let go the GC I hired to oversee the project and coordinate the work after I found out that he was having some serious financial issues and was not doing what was agreed upon. Yes, I know I know, I should have checked his references. But as newbie I was excited to start the project and the years of experience, glossy business card and Web page seemed to be prove enough to hire him. So all of the sudden I saw myself in the middle of a construction site and needed mason, plumber, electrician, expert for woodwork and someone to hang dry wall, all insured and able to perform the work per the the original GC quote. What a fool I have been. I was meeting with contractor after contractor for weeks, tried to seed the bad from the good, the reliable from the unreliable, checking references…this was a full time job until I finally had my team together. This were the worst and most stressful weeks of my life I believe. I guess i don’t need to mention that I will get way over budget to finish the work, so far 5K. I am able to paint, mudd dry wall and do landscaping and I guess I will spend the next 4-6 weeks doing that after work and on weekends to limit the financial damage. I learnt a lot in those last month, build your team before you start a project, have a back up plan/team and always check references.
    Isaac Rothermel Rental Property Investor from Malvern, PA
    Replied about 5 years ago
    Hey Ken, thanks for this thought-provoking article. I’m just starting out as an REI, but I’ve worked as a property manager and a general/skilled laborer on high end apartments in my area. One thing that surprised me while working construction was that the two guys I worked for never made comprehensive check off lists/strategies for renovating, despite the fact that they were taking old manufacturing buildings and converting them to apartments. Because of that lack of strategy, a lot of inefficiencies (like daily runs to Home Depot) and last minute changes resulted, but they kept track of construction needs in their head. It wasn’t quite as bad as I’m making it sound, since it was only 10-30 units at any time, but I tend to be very systems-based, so it frustrated me haha. Do you normally plan out renovations in depth?
    Jacqueline Sapp Investor from Washington, District of Columbia
    Replied over 4 years ago
    I realize this is an older post but the article — and the comments — are timely. I hope to close on and begin refurbishing a new rental shortly. Breaking down the process step by step is a big help.
    Net Oden
    Replied almost 3 years ago
    This will be my first rehabber and it’s a personal rehab i want to live in this home and its in a decent neighborhood, Ive lived in this area before so i feel comfortable there. Bathrooms and kitchens are a sensitive area for me, what would be your advice for this home in terms of what goes first. Keep in mind I work full time and a law student.
    Dave Kapsack
    Replied 8 days ago
    Great article. Little late to the game, I know, thank you.