Flipping Houses

8 Things to Look for When Rehabbing Older Homes

Expertise: Landlording & Rental Properties, Real Estate Investing Basics, Flipping Houses, Business Management, Personal Development, Mortgages & Creative Financing, Real Estate News & Commentary
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Exterior street view of cute bungalow home decorated for fall wi

In addition to being a landlord, I also rehab houses for the retail market. I like bringing faded homes back. And the chunks of cash I collect when I sell are not bad either. Most of the properties that I work with are older, historic homes (built in the 1920’s or earlier) in need of lots of love. They are often very unique and offer lots of historic charm that just can’t be found in the homes built today, which many home buyers appreciate.

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On the flip side, these homes lack many of the features and conveniences that modern buyers want. Some of these items can be quite obvious, like central heating and cooling. But others are much more subtle and take an experienced eye to see. Knowing about these items, and planning for them in your rehab budget, can make your project much more appealing when you put it on the market.

Here are eight subtle and not-so subtle items that rehabbers should think about when working on older homes.

1. Where Does The Big-Screen TV Go?

They simply did not have big screen TVs back in the 1920s, so family living areas were not designed to accommodate them. In fact, living areas in these older homes are often smaller and more segregated—men and women may have even had separate parlors. Today’s modern buyers do not want that. They want big living areas for big-screen TVs and theater seating. Plan in your rehab where the big-screen TV will go. It may take moving walls, or it could even take building a family-room addition. Doing so may seem expensive now, but you will wish you had done it when everyone at your first open house is wondering where to put the TV.

2. Where Do You Plug In The Big-Screen TV?

Not only were large TVs not a thing in the 1920s, many other modern household appliances were not either. They simply did not have all of the electronics that we do today. So you have to think about where your buyers are going to plug in all of their stuff.  Do not just think about the TV, but think also about the hair dryer in the bathroom and the microwave in the kitchen. When figuring out your rehab budget, be sure you include a plan to have enough outlets.

Related: 3 Tips to Greatly Reduce Risk When Buying, Fixing, & Flipping Properties

3. How Do They Get Cable or NetFlix to the Big Screen TV?

You also have to plan how your buyer is going to get content to their TV.  Yes, I know I’m talking a lot about TVs in this post, but American’s love their home entertainment. So not only does the TV have to be plugged in, it has to get the content that people want. Very few today are satisfied to just get content over the air. Older houses simply were not wired for cable, the internet, or even phones. Develop a plan for your home to be wired for these items, especially as we move closer and closer to the internet of things.

4. Where Will Madam Put Her Shoes?

Older homes often lack closet space. America was just not as prosperous in the 1920s as it is today. Lots of people only had one or two pairs of shoes and a few changes of clothes. So closets were not a thing. In fact, it is rumored that homes with closets were taxed at higher rates than those without. I’m not sure if that is true, but the fact is older homes do not have large amounts of closet space, and Americans today have a lot more stuff that needs to go in closets. Be sure to look at all closets. If they are small, expand them, and if they do not exist, add them.

5. Where Does Madam Bathe?

Today, she does not do it where the rest of the family does. Instead ensuite baths are all the rage. The master bedroom simply has to have a bath attached to it. The days of being happy that you had even one bathroom inside are long gone. A master bath is simply a must. I have even sacrificed bedroom space to create a master bath and closet suite to meet modern demands. Yes, this bathroom and closet space is often much more valuable then bedroom space. If you have money to spend (and you had better), spend it here. Bathroom suites are one thing that will make your house stand out from the rest.

Related: How to NOT Over-Improve Your Properties: 3 Key Levels of Rehab Finish

6. Where Are the Washer and Dryer?

Washers and dryers are appliances that were just beginning to come into widespread use in the 1920s. These modern conveniences were often hastily added wherever they could go. They were placed in dark utility basements, or kitchen counter space was sacrificed. Today, if they do not have their own space near the bedroom, you need to make a space for them.  No one wants to go downstairs into a dark basement to do laundry. Nor do they want the washer/dryer standing out in the kitchen. Now is the time to move them and make a dedicated space for them.

7. Bet That the Sewer Line is Broken

If it isn’t, it will have roots in it. Sewer lines back in the day were made of terra cotta pipes. Those pipes just do not hold up after 100 years. They collapse. Plus, trees mature a lot in that time span, and their roots seek out water. Guess where the water is? And guess where the roots go? Nine out of 10 homes I have done have had collapsed sewer lines. Thing is, it may not show up while you are rehabbing because you won’t be fully using the home. But once your buyer and their kids start taking showers every day, bam! (Your buyer’s home inspector may also send a camera down the line before their purchase only to find a several thousand dollar problem you never knew existed.) Trust me, budget to fix the sewer line on the front end when dealing with older homes.

8. Energy Efficiency

Homes built in the 1920s were not built to be energy efficient. There is no insulation in the walls. There are no storm windows. Gaps and cracks that let air in and out can be anywhere. Insulation can be a tough addition in the walls unless you are ripping them out anyway. But, you can easily add some to the attic for a minimal cost. Storm windows can also be a nice selling feature.  Keeping energy costs down is going to be more and more of a concern as buyers become more energy conscious.

The Sum Up

Well, there you have them: eight items that I have had to learn to deal with over my career of rehabbing older homes. You may not find all of these items in every house you look at, but you need to go in with an eye for noticing them.

What other subtle problems have you run across in rehabbing older homes? How did you handle them?

Share your experiences in the comments below!

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in ...
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    Ruth Lyons Realtor from Highland, MD
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great article. Thanks. The part about the sewer line has been true for my experience with older homes.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Ruth, So True! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Kevin
    Charles Borrelli Investor from Palm Bay, Florida
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Dont forget AC ducts
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Chris, You know, sometimes the old homes have some pretty good ducts in them. Of course they were hooked up to an old boiler. But yes, you are right. At least there is often plenty of space to work in the attic and basement. Especially once you remove the old boiler and attic fan :). Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin
    Rachel Luoto Rental Property Investor from Bremerton, WA
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great article! Would love to see some follow ups such as cost for renovating older homes, grandfathering, etc. Currently have a 114 year old rehab and many of the homes in my area are the same age 🙂
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Rachel, Food for thought for the future. Thanks for the suggestion and for reading, Kevin
    Dave Rav from Summerville, SC
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Good stuff. Great points on stuff like the living room size (ie, where to put the TV) and the lack of closets. Something else is the electrical system wiring. Is it so outdated like knob and tube, and /or does it come off a low-amp service panel. Today’s gadgets, appliances, and such require quite a bit of juice. Be sure to check out the panel and, if applicable, budget for a re-wire upgrade.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Dave, You’re right. I’ve updated more services than I can count. It just has to be done for modern living, especially the HVAC. And any time you open the walls, the old wiring has to go as per code. That can get expensive quick. Good points and thanks for taking the time to share them, Kevin
    Christopher Smith Investor from brentwood, california
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Amen to that, I’ve never bought a home older than 5 years.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Christopher, Try it, you’ll like it! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin
    Douglas Larson Rental Property Investor from Salt Lake City, UT
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great article! Many of these things are true of all houses up through the 70s and even 80s. Houses are now bigger, more open and have larger closets, while families are smaller. I’ve only had 2 collapsed main sewer lines in the many remodels I’ve done but the floorplan issues you describe are right on!
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Douglas, Good points. Thanks for sharing, Kevin
    John Murray from Portland, Oregon
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    1.Lathe and plaster 2. Knob and tube 3. Asbestos (Transite and insulation) 4. Cast iron and galvanized 5. Foundation 6. Lead This old house is for TV not for me.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    John, All good points and all manageable if you know what to look for and buy it right. Putting the old houses back together can be quite fun. It is for sure always interesting. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin
    Julie Anderson
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great post, now ad the other 95 things , seriously.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Just 95? 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, Kevin
    Jovan Hardwick Flipper from Saint Petersburg, Florida
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great Post Kevin! Love how you talked about forgotten things like; where the TV and Plugs go in the older homes. Also, like how you talk about always budgeting for plumbing. Also, you could add checking and/or replace the water box (most older homes don’t have them), the house main water line, faucets and toilets. Huge savings that are missed most of the time.
    Jake Jones from Logan, Utah
    Replied almost 2 years ago
    Great post, enjoyed reading
    William Clark
    Replied about 1 year ago
    Wow. Awesome post. I took some really great notes for future reference. I’m looking for my first property and many (particularly in my area) are older homes. Thanks.
    Gordon Olson
    Replied 2 months ago
    Hi Kevin, Just read this today. A lot of great ideas here! Some stuff I wouldn't know as a new investor considering some older properties because of the amount my loan is approved for. I'll be saving this article!
    Billy Smith from Shawnee Mission, KS
    Replied about 2 months ago
    So true about the sewer lines ,I always send a camera in the sewer line .
    Lynda Agresti
    Replied about 1 month ago
    NIce article. Thank you. Just for giggles it's important to observe the lighting in each room. Older homes just don't have enough. Usually there is only 1 ceiling light per room. In today's homes, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms, lighting is more geared to task lighting and working stations in the kitchen. Don't skimp on lighting or outlets and switches. Think convenience and logic. Run thru it in your head then on paper and recheck.