So you'd like to...

learn the zen of repairing fix-up houses

A guide by Terry W. Sprouse "Investor, Author, Lincolnologist" (Tucson, Arizona)

Products sampled from this guide:
There is no need to run outside
For better seeing,
Nor to peer from a window. Rather abide
At the center of your being;
For the more you leave it, the less you learn.

-Lao Tzu



Inner Growth and Making Repairs

Beyond the economic side of the fix-up business, there is a spiritual side to repairing houses. Its not just about making money or repairing houses. Its also about growing as a person.

In the above quote from the book The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu author Lao Tzu points the way to a fulfilling life. The phrase "abide at the center of your being," to me means to focus on doing the things in life that are most important to our core self, who we really are underneath it all. At a basic level we all desire to learn, grow and create. Applied to our work with fix-up properties, we desire to humbly fix things and by small gradations create a better world both inside and outside of ourselves. When we abide at the center of our being we recognize that we are on the right path through the feeling of satisfaction that we have.

There is a deep satisfaction that I receive whenever I am able to repair something at a property I have purchased. I often get an inner glow that lasts for hours, sometimes days. This is especially true when I have made a repair that I have never done before. After I finish the project, I bask in the warmth of satisfaction and the overwhelming feeling of confidence that "anything is possible".

Before I began doing fix-up properties, many times my attempts at even minor repairs ended up in failure. I thought that it was just beyond my abilities to understand the complexities of this type of repair work. (I admit that I didnít do that much physical labor around the house. In fact, about the only exercise I got was in jumping to conclusions, dangling participles and splitting infinitives.) I often felt that in any confrontation between myself and the mysterious electrical system, the Byzantine plumbing system or perplexing carpentry work, that I would always be the loser.

There is also an inherent fear of failure that often saps our energy and forces us to not even attempt what we may fear is a difficult repair. By charging ahead in spite of our fears we often realize that, after removing a cover or digging into a project, the solution is self-evident. I've often found that the problem is solved fairly easily by attaching a loose wire or unclogging a pipe. The worst case scenario is that I just have to replace something that is broken, which isn't so difficult when you have a book to refer to or can discuss it with an "expert" at a hardware store.

On the first property that I purchased, I hired out almost all of the technical repairs and focused my efforts on landscaping and painting. On the second property that I purchased I began diving into the technical repairs more. I wired the front porch light myself after having hired someone else to do it on the first property. The installation went slowly, since I was just learning, but the satisfaction I received was a big boost to my confidence. Beyond the satisfaction, I was surprised at how easy it was. Before starting, I had images of causing irreparable damage to the house. From that inauspicious start, I went on to other wiring projects. I put ceiling fans in all the rooms. Then I put a hall light in and installed a doorbell. I put electrical receptacles in the bathroom and installed new switches. Each accomplishment gave me more confidence and wet my appetite for more. Now, I donít think twice about doing almost any electrical repair that comes up.Fix 'em Up, Rent 'em Out: How to Start Your Own House Fix-up & Rental Business in Your Spare Time; or, Investing in Real Estate and Creating Wealth with Fixer-Upper Houses

The great inner truths of repairing houses are, like learning all great truth and wisdom, only revealed gradually. Some of the skills that must be learned and exercised in the course of fixing up a house include:

Patience
Strength
Persistence
Creativity
Self-knowledge
Overcoming fears
Openness to learning

One of the greatest feelings of satisfaction is looking at your house after you have spent countless hours fixing it up. I sometimes think, ďWow, its hard to believe that I have returned the house to its original condition.Ē Its almost magical. Before getting started in fix-up houses, I could never have imagined being able to do something like that. Over the years of having to put the same houses back together again after tenants have beat them up, you find it gets easier and faster to repair them each time. You feel like a doctor who brings a patient back to health.


Work Like Dogs, Eat Like Hogs, Sleep Like Logs

As Lincoln said, some people will try to convince that ďa horse chestnut is the same as a chestnut horse.Ē Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years And some self-proclaimed ďexpertsĒ will try to convince you that operating a real estate business is a piece of cake. Donít believe them. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Fixing up is hard work. Donít expect it to be easy. Many a day my wife and I work for long hours after our regular jobs. Then, we work early the next morning before the kids are up, until it is time to go to our day jobs. My brother, my wife and I spent full weekends painting until our arms are so tired that we couldnít hold a brush. We worked like dogs, we ate like hogs, and we slept like logs.

I donít need to tell you that life is not always fair. We donít always get rewarded for the things we do, like working overtime and weekends at our 9-5 job. But in the case of the fix-up business, hard work and dedication are rewarded through the new skills that we learn and when the rental checks come in.


Learning the Skills

Just as when you are leaning other aspects about buying a house, you should be gathering information about house repairs everywhere you go. Never let an opportunity pass to learn. Buy books and videos on house repair. I like to scour the fix-up book areas at used book stores for good buys. I buy a book as soon as I see it, if I know that it has valuable information. In the past, I have waited to purchase the book only to return later and find that the book I had wanted was gone. The price you pay will literally be a drop in the bucket compared to the money you will save. Some of my favorite repair books include New Fix-It-Yourself Manual: How to Repair, Clean, and Maintain Anything and Everything In and Around Your Home, Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide To Home Repair & Improvement, Complete Fix-It-Yourself Manual, Wiring 1-2-3 (Home Depot ... 1-2-3), Plumbing 1-2-3, Flooring 1-2-3: Expert Advice on Design, Installation, and Repair (Home Depot ... 1-2-3), 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home NOW and For More Money Than You Thought: How to Inexpensively Reorganize, Stage, and Prepare Your Home.

Go to free classes on household projects at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Loews. Sometimes you'll get personalized attention. Once I attended a class on installation of ceiling fans at Home Depot and I was the only person to show up. I was able to learn everything I needed to know and I installed the demonstration model during the class while the instructors talked me through it. In another class I watched a demonstration on how to install floor tiles in a bathroom floor and then went to my house and did it myself. I also learned to install floor and wall tile by reading a book and watching a video.

My brother and I installed our first tiling project in a small bathroom. It couldn't be described as "perfect," but it was a pretty good start. And, I got better each time I do it. My wife and I have since tiled larger rooms, learning to be more efficient each time, and savings hundreds of dollars on each job.

Community colleges usually offer courses in the building trades, with both classroom and hands-on experience. You can take courses at night, while still working your day job. I have learned much from classes in electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry.

Since you should be regularly visiting open houses, take note of repairs and improvements done in their houses. Don't be afraid to copy what others have done or adapt it to your house. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


Draw on the Past

After I got more involved in the repair work of our houses, I thought back about how my father had taught me a lot by example. I recall seeing him construct screened-in porches on various houses that we had lived in. I was too young to help out much at the time, or to appreciate what he was doing, but looking back I realize that it required a strong desire to learn the basic principals, and a sense of self-confidence to build it. He had no formal training in construction, and didn't have reference books like I do, but he learned by observing other porches that had been built in the neighborhood.

My mother is also quite adept at making household repairs, and quite willing to involve me in the process as well. Her specialty is making repairs with only the materials she has at hand. I've lost count of how many things are held together at her house with essentially just thin wire and thumb tacks. You too may have family members that you can draw inspiration from when it comes to making repairs.


What to Fix-up

A key to fixing up a house is to know when to stop fixing up. You want the house to look good, yet you know that people are not going to care for your house the same way that you would. For rental properties, I replace things at the lowest cost possible, yet so that it still looks good. If I know that I am going to sell the house I will install higher grade of materials, especially where it really counts, like the kitchens and bathrooms. As Lawrence Dworin says in Profits in Buying and Renovating Homes:

"Itís easy to get carried away on renovation project Ė wasting time and money on repairs that buyers wonít pay extra for. I assume you like to do good work. We all do. And weíd like every finished project to be a showplace. But you canít make money that way. Your buyers have a limit on what theyíre willing to pay. Thatís why youíve got to limit repair costs. I call that cost control. In this business, cost control means concentrating on fixing code violations and creating a clean, safe, livable house."

Just as in learning the other skills in the fix-up hobby, it can take time to develop your skills. I didnít begin this hobby with a background in construction, so like everything else, I picked it up as I went along. For the first property that my wife and I bought we relied on a great handyman to do much of the work. Some of the additional work was also contracted out such as some electrical wiring and repair of broken windows. What my wife and I focused on in the first house was caulking holes and cracks in the walls, painting inside and out, and landscaping. Fortunately, our handyman was willing to coach us so that we picked up a many new skills along the way.

What should you focus on repairing in a fix-up house? Of course it depends upon what kind of shape the house is in. In general, for many fix-up houses, caulking holes and giving the whole house a good coat of paint goes a long ways to make it look good. As mentioned, key parts of the house to focus on when deciding what to repair are bathrooms and kitchens. Bathrooms and kitchens are what we men often overlook. But if you want to appeal to the women, you'd better have the bathrooms and kitchens in great shape.

Kitchens need to look bright and should be painted with a light color of paint, like white. In fact my preference is to use white, or an off-white like Swiss Coffee, throughout the house. But if the kitchen is a dark color, I would repaint it in white. If they are not completely worn out, you can usually just paint the cabinets and change the handles and hinges. If the cabinets are too far gone, check the second-hand building materials stores for inexpensive used cabinets and put them in. I usually put used refrigerators into my rentals. Vinyl tiles are a good choice to use in rental properties for dining rooms and kitchens. Individual vinyl tiles are easier to replace than is one large piece of vinyl.

Bathrooms also need a newer appearance. Tubs should always be sparkling clean. I usually put in a new medicine cabinet, re-caulk the tub since the old caulk is black and brittle. If itís a cement floor, think about putting in tile. Toilets and sinks are fairly easy to replace. I have gotten good toilets at the second-hand building materials stores also.

Naturally, anything that is broken must be repaired or replaced, preferably the former. I like to replace the electrical outlets and switches in the house if they are old or outdated. I usually put ceiling fans in all of the rooms and replace old-fashioned ceiling, or hall, lights with newer, yet inexpensive, ones. These are all relatively inexpensive improvements that can greatly improve the overall appearance of a house.

I prefer to cover rather than replace old flooring. For example, you can buy left-over pieces of carpet from a carpet store cheaply, to cover old-fashioned tile on a bedroom floor. And, you can buy inexpensive laminate flooring to cover old tile, or bad-looking cement, floors. Watch for sales of laminate flooring at home improvement stores and buy it when it is cheap.


Safety First

When repairing homes, always remember to put your safety first. If you havenít done so, I recommend taking an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) class J. J. Keller's Official OSHA Construction Safety Handbook, Fifth Edition (201-ORS-5). I took that class in connection with my building trades classes at the junior college. You can take a 10 hour course and get it over with one-day. If you donít have the background in the building trades, as I didnít, it will make you aware of many unforeseeably dangers and show you how to establish a safe work environment.

It is also important to comply with building codes. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you install plumbing, electrical wiring, or walls that are not up to code, you may wind up tearing them out again and having it done correctly. Refer to code books found in public libraries, or buy your own copy. NEC 2005 Handbook: NFPA 70: National Electric Code; International Electrical Code Series If work is not done to code, not only is it a violation of the law, but it can also be dangerous to the people living in your house.


Avoid Perfectionism

Where safety is an issue where you donít want to cut corners, for other areas you should look for ways to cut corners and save money. Donít let ďperfectĒ be the enemy of ďgoodĒ when making repairs. You donít need to repair everything that is wrong with a house. Donít be a perfectionist. Dworin points out:

"Buyers donít scrutinize each item in a house. The look at the whole package. They evaluate the overall condition of the house and compare it others they can afford. They wonít notice little flaws in the cabinets, floor tile, paint job or woodwork. Youíre probably the only one who will notice defects like these."

If it comes to a choice between spending excessive money to make the house perfect, and on the other hand taking the profits and running, then I, for one, could do with the exercise (to paraphrase Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).


Tools of the trade - "Give me a lever ... and I shall move the world"

In 400 B.C. Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum upon which to place it, and I shall move the world." Your tools and books are your lever and fulcrum. Once you have them there will be no stopping you.

You need a set of tools to do all the fix-up required for a house. I advocate gradually building up your tool arsenal. Buy the tools as the need arises. That way you spread the cost out and you don't have tools sitting around that you never use. Some tools that you will need at minimum (beyond the basic hammer, saw, nails, etc.) are listed in below. The list below could be pretty long, but I list just a few to give you an idea.

Recommended Tools to Have on Hand

Battery operated drill. The uses you will find for a good drill are limitless; drilling holes, and driving screws. Make sure you get a least one extra rechargeable battery so that work doesn't grind to a halt when the first battery goes dead. It is also good to have a cord powered drill as a backup.
cord powered drill to stir mortar and cement.

Storage case of screws and bolts & nuts of various sizes. You can often buy the case, screws and all, at a hardware store. It will save you from making excessive trips to the hardware store.

Mmiter box for cutting the corners on trim work.

Electric saw.

Tile saw.

Electric current tester for outlets.

Pipe wrench.

Electrical multitester, for testing volts, amps and continuity.

Level, to assure that boards are straight up and down.

Adjustable square for marking straight lines.

For both rental fix-ups, as well as fix-up of new properties, I like to group my tools into tool boxes. This way, when I have to go to a rental property to make a repair I just grab the appropriate tool box without having to scrounge around for tools. The tool boxes I have pre-loaded include:

Electrical tool box - contains wire stripper, voltage detector, pliers, screw drivers, electrical tape, multi-tester, stud finder, continuity tester, needle nose pliers, linesman's pliers and wire nuts.

Plumbing tool box - contains, pipe wrenches, sink washers, adjustable wrench, box wrenches, PVC cutting tool, and PVC glue.

Roofing tool box - joint trowel, screw driver, steel-toothed hand-broom, plenty of cloth and towels. In a plastic grocery bag I also carry plastic mesh and tools with roofing cement on them. I also carry cans of roofing cement separately.

I also carry the basic tools such as the drill, screwdriver, nuts & bolts box, to any job. As you get more proficient and take on bigger repair tasks, eventually you will need more powerful tools, like the table saw. I bought a table saw to make the cuts on laminate flooring. A word of warning, table saws can be very dangerous to use, as can other tools, when not operated properly. Be sure to follow all safety precautions. Table saws are particularly dangerous because the motor is so powerful that it can pull your hand into the blade. The saw can also kick pieces of wood at you at high speeds. Even people with years of experience using the table saw have suffered serious injuries. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you. Take your time and observe all safety precautions. Always put safety first.

Other useful general books are Be a Real Estate Millionaire: Secret Strategies To Lifetime Wealth Today, Home Buying For Dummies, 3rd editionRich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money--That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, Investing in Duplexes, Triplexes, and Quads: The Fastest and Safest Way to Real Estate Wealth, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It.Siddhartha The Complete Guide to Home Carpentry : Carpentry Skills & Projects for Homeowners (Black & Decker Home Improvement Library)

Products mentioned include:
Inner Growth and Making Repairs
1.  The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu  by Witter ( Trans. by) Bynner
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2.  Fix 'em Up, Rent 'em Out: How to Start Your Own House Fix-up & Rental Business in Your Spare Time; or, Investing in Real Estate and Creating Wealth with Fixer-Upper Houses  by Terry W. Sprouse
$13.30 Used & New from: $9.95
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Work Like Dogs, Eat Like Hogs, Sleep Like Logs
3.  Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years  by Carl Sandburg
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Learning the Skills
4.  New Fix-It-Yourself Manual: How to Repair, Clean, and Maintain Anything and Everything In and Around Your Home [Lay Flat]  by Reader's Digest
$22.33 Used & New from: $0.01
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5.  Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide To Home Repair & Improvement  by Charles Wing
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6.  Complete Fix-It-Yourself Manual  by Time-Life Books
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7.  Wiring 1-2-3 (Home Depot ... 1-2-3)  by Steve Cory
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8.  Plumbing 1-2-3  by Steve Cory
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9.  Flooring 1-2-3: Expert Advice on Design, Installation, and Repair (Home Depot ... 1-2-3)  by The Home Depot
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10.  301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home NOW and For More Money Than You Thought: How to Inexpensively Reorganize, Stage, and Prepare Your Home  by Teri B. Clark
$18.03 Used & New from: $4.49
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What to Fix-up
11.  Profits in Buying and Renovating Homes  by Lawrence Dworin
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Safety First
12.  J. J. Keller's Official OSHA Construction Safety Handbook, Fifth Edition (201-ORS-5)  by J. J. Keller & Associates
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13.  NEC 2005 Handbook: NFPA 70: National Electric Code; International Electrical Code Series  by Mark W. Earley
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Avoid Perfectionism
14.  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy  by Douglas Adams
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Tools of the trade - "Give me a lever ... and I shall move the world"
15.  Be a Real Estate Millionaire: Secret Strategies To Lifetime Wealth Today  by Dean Graziosi
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16.  Home Buying For Dummies, 3rd edition  by Eric Tyson
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4.5 out of 5 stars   (108)
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17.  Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money--That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!  by Robert T. Kiyosaki
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4.0 out of 5 stars   (3,477) | 13 customer discussions
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18.  Investing in Duplexes, Triplexes, and Quads: The Fastest and Safest Way to Real Estate Wealth  by Larry B. Loftis
$13.44 Used & New from: $8.78
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19.  The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It  by Michael E. Gerber
$11.30 Used & New from: $0.24
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20.  Siddhartha  by Hermann Hesse
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21.  The Complete Guide to Home Carpentry : Carpentry Skills & Projects for Homeowners (Black & Decker Home Improvement Library)  by Chris Marshall
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Is this the best book out there? 0 Apr 23, 2014
Help on the further details of the actual boxset. What do the 5 books look like? 0 Feb 11, 2014
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The prairie years seperate from the war years 0 Aug 14, 2013
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"Fix em Up, Rent em Out" comments by the author 2 Jul 4, 2012
This book turned my 12-hour boring flight time into the most valuable time of my life! 2 Apr 16, 2011
 
   

About this Guide

 

Author

Terry W. Sprouse "Investor, Author, Lincolnologist" (Tucson, Arizona)
Qualifications: Real Estate Investor and Author
Last updated: 5/28/12
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