Before we jump back into this series, I have to apologize for being away. I got a little wrapped up in writing the first part of this and researching it and sort of decided to go crawling around under my own house to deal with an annoying flaw that had been bugging me since we moved in last June. I have a fondness for the hidden places in houses, crawl spaces and attics in particular. For me, they tell stories. And a house like mine has a lot to say.
In that crawl, there were tales of old heating systems and floor repairs and new ductwork and even electrical upgrades. There were stories of rerouting drainage and working additions into the main systems and sorting everything out so it worked together as a cohesive whole. And so I got lost down there, exploring. The underside of a house can be a history, if you know how to read it. My house was built in 1949, it had a lot to tell.
But, I surfaced a few days ago and here I am, ready to get back to it.
We left off at part two, which was meant to address efficiency items. So, let’s talk about those. You might think that stuff like windows and doors and insulation will not cost that much, but they can add up.
The eyes, some people believe, are the windows to the soul. To a Realtor, the windows of a house are sort of the eyes of a home and allow a peek into the home’s overall condition. Are they hung straight? Do they seem to be finished properly? Do they have storm windows or screens in areas where that’s appropriate? Are their seals intact? If a homeowner isn’t taking care of their windows, it’s a good bet there are other problems. Be wary, approach with caution.
Rotting sills, flaking paint and missing screens can signal big problems, but they might also be signs of opportunity for the future homeowner willing to take on a few weekends’ worth of projects. Installing windows isn’t difficult, nor is it the most costly thing you’ll do for your home. Make sure you have a friend to help, though, because it’s definitely a two man job. You’ll know that the windows need to be replaced if they’re single pane models or several are broken or seem to be hazy on the inside (indicating broken seals).
What It Can Cost: Windows vary in cost dramatically, depending on what you want to put in and whether you’re willing to tackle the project yourself. There are vinyl double hung windows that start around $150 and the sky’s the limit from there. But those vinyl double hung windows are pretty good windows, there’s nothing wrong with them. The windows I’ve chosen for my home run about $250 each. According to HomeAdvisor, if you’re installing five to ten windows, you’ll be looking at a cost average of about $4,917. I feel this is pretty high, but that price does include professional installation.
Ultimately, the cost of your new windows will come down to several factors: materials, number of glass panes, size of the windows, insulation factor and features. Believe it or not, windows do have features. Some windows, called double-hung, allow you to open both the top and the bottom, as well as flip them in for cleaning. Others, like casements, give you the ability to open the window more fully. You also get to choose between windows meant to nail on the outside of a home, under the siding (new construction windows), or those that will simply replace existing windows without removing the existing frames (replacement windows).
What to Do: Before you make an offer, count and measure the windows in a house that needs windows. I don’t care if it needs one or it needs them all, measure every window. Then go to Lowes or Home Depot and get some quotes. DO NOT buy one window, I don’t care how tight your budget is. Buy them all or don’t buy any. Get a single broken window fixed. Buy a set of windows. I can’t tell you how many sad, neglected houses I’ve seen that have mismatched windows. This makes a house near impossible to sell down the line, so listen to me very closely. Buy a set of windows or don’t buy any.
Also, don’t expect this to give you negotiating power. I’ve only ever managed to even get one window fixed ever during a real estate transaction. Broken windows are obvious things that you should see right away, sellers expect you to accept them or reject them on sight. Offer a lower price, but don’t ask for a credit for windows, it won’t help your case. Broken windows and missing storm windows will complicate an FHA deal, however, so if you’re taking out an FHA mortgage, best to pass on a house with window problems.
Most of the time, you’ll come to a house and the doors are lovely and fine. Maybe they need a bit of paint or the hinges need adjusting, but basically they’re ok. That goes for both interiors and exteriors. So, this is rarely going to be a “must have” issue — it’ll usually be on your remodeling list. But every once in a while you’ll be looking at a house that’s been a rental and the renters have just… they’ve just been awful. You’ll walk in and it literally looks like they’ve shot a cannon down the hallway, hitting every door as they went. This kind of damage is solvable, even money-saving in its own way.
The exteriors sometimes suffer the same sort of damage. This is where I want to caution you. If you’re a first time homebuyer and the exterior doors look like someone has tried to open the door with a battering ram, keep shopping. This is actually a minor repair, but that particular bit of damage speaks to a sordid history that you don’t want to be a part of. I made that mistake once, I bought a house that had a rich and, let’s say — interesting — history. It continued to be the scene of rich and interesting happenings until I invested in a very large, very powerful indoor dog to deter intruders. She slept on my bed and ate strangers in two bites. These were not people anyone would have missed, you have my word on that.
I’m telling you this now because unless you already own an Alaskan malamute or two, they’re a lot to take on with a new home that needs repairs, as well. Akitas, I’m told, would have also done the job. Anyway, if the front door or the back door aren’t intact, please, I beg of you, don’t make that your first home. Don’t do what Kristi Don’t does. I want you to have a good first home experience… these are homes for experienced buyers.
What It Can Cost: Assuming we’re talking about replacing an exterior door because you want to go from wood to fiberglass or you’ve got to deal with all those cannonball splinters in the hallway, the price can vary widely because we’re talking about wildly different kinds of doors. A door is not just a door, you know?
New exterior doors are heavy duty monstrous things that offer impressive amounts of insulation and protection from whatever might be outside. An exterior door itself can cost a few hundred dollars, but it’ll need to be painted and hung as well. All said, HomeAdvisor says you’ll spend an average of $863 to have someone do it, but between you and me, you can replace your front door in a weekend with the help of a friend for the cost of your door ($200 to $300 for a basic model) and a can of paint.
Interior doors are another thing entirely. Like windows, you can’t just replace one interior door unless you can figure out exactly where the rest came from down to the grain pattern. They never match just right and it’ll drive future buyers nuts. It’ll also leave them with a feeling of unease, so it’s “get a set or get nothing.” They’re really easy to replace, so at least there’s that — you can absolutely do this job yourself. Look for prehung doors to save yourself all sorts of headaches and your price point will start around $100 a door.
What to Do: Well, I already sort of went over that, I guess. Don’t buy a house with major exterior door problems. If the exterior doors don’t latch or the house can’t be secured, don’t buy that house. Don’t buy a house that has history with a capital “H.” You can tell if the door’s been forced open. Look closely at the door frame. Just don’t set yourself up for a future disaster.
If you’ve found a place with door problems that you’re willing and able to take on, you may be able to get the seller to pay for new doors, especially if you’re using an FHA mortgage. However, understand that they’re going to go the cheap route and will buy the cheapest doors humanly possible unless you specify otherwise. If you don’t care, then that’ll save you a chore. You’ll have to ask for this with your initial offer, this is an obvious defect, you can’t wait for the inspection no matter what your agent says.
Unless it’s a particularly cold, hot or windy day, you’re probably not going to notice if the insulation is thin in a home. This is something you’ll more than likely learn about from an inspection report. However, if you happen to have a chance to peek in the attic, do it. Pull down the pull down attic ladder and climb up, no one’s going to mind, I promise. There are a ton of rules of thumbs about how much insulation you need, and it’s really different for every area, so I can’t give you much really great advice here on depth. This is an area for your inspector.
When you pop up there, you’ll likely find one of two types of insulation. One will be loose fill insulation, made of different types of stuff — from paper to fiberglass and everything in between. This stuff looks like someone threw a bunch of confetti and garbage in your attic, but it actually works really, really well and is super flexible for repairs and making changes down the road. It’s nice to have. However, if you can see the ceiling joists sticking up above the loose fill, there’s probably not enough insulation for almost anywhere in the US.
Now, sometimes there won’t be loose fill insulation, instead you’ll find pink or yellow stuff that sort of looks like it could be the inside of a blanket. This is roll insulation. Roll insulation isn’t better or worse than loose fill, it’s just different. You might see a mix. It’s not up to you to determine how much insulation is in the attic, this is something you can let the inspector do — and you should wait for his report, really. Insulation is a really complicated issue and he’ll be able to advise you better than some random person on the internet.
What it Can Cost: I’m not even going to toy with any of these so-called cost estimating sites when it comes to cost-estimating insulation installation for the same reason I didn’t want to tell you how much you’d need. This stuff is so highly variable that I will, undoubtedly, steer you wrong. And we can’t have that. So, instead I’m going to share this information from the US Department of Energy. They tell us that an R-30 value’s worth of rolled insulation can cost $.60 to $1.00 per square foot (that’s in attic square feet). Loose fill with an R-30 will cost $.45 to $1.35 per square foot, R-50 is $.75 to $2.25.
What to Do: Generally, most houses have some amount of insulation. Rely on your inspection to tell you how much insulation is in the house you’re interested in and if it’s adequate for your area. If you’d like to see the actual effect of that insulation, ask your Realtor for an energy disclosure. Sometimes you can get your own from the local power companies, but often this information is gated to Realtors and other professionals.
If the inspector believes that the insulation is thin and the energy disclosure shows magnificently high bills, you need to address this on your post-inspection list. Ask for your insulation level to be brought to a specific R-value (based on your inspector’s recommendation). Although it’s not a common request, it’s a minimum expectation that you’ll be able to heat and cool your home, and some FHA appraisers will look at this when they’re considering how fit the home is for an FHA mortgage.
However, let me caution you against going insulation-crazy. Yes, that’s a thing. Sometimes people get the idea that the best way to cure their problems in life is to overstuff their little 1930s bungalow with insulation that wasn’t invented until the Space Age. The problem with this is how these little houses were built — they don’t take readily to being sealed all the way up. Most houses, in fact, don’t take to it well. They need a little room to breathe. So before you go all nuts insulating and sealing, have a proper energy audit performed. Your utility company may offer the service or will be able to refer to you to someone who can perform one.
The Bottom Line: Energy Efficiency is Important, But It’s Also Minor Stuff
For the most part, anything that falls under the header of energy efficiency is pretty minor stuff. So don’t sweat it if a potentially good place needs new windows, insulation or doors. I mean, freak out in the instances I outlined, run away in some situations, but for the most part, these are easy repairs you can handle or hire cheaply. So before you turn down a perfectly good house because you wanted a place with new double hung vinyl windows, compare the price of a good house with old windows and an old place with new windows. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
Now, go straight to YouTube, watch some videos about how to replace windows (it’s super easy as long as you’re sticking to the exact same sizes — that part is really important), or swapping out doors, or even laying down extra insulation, and do the math. Can you spend a weekend or two doing that stuff to save $10k or $20k or even $50k in the right market? I thought you could!