When my husband and I set out to buy our first home, there was one item that quickly made its way to the top of our must-have list: green shag carpeting. Preferably faded green shag carpeting. Well, it didn’t have to be green. Blue or red or chartreuse would be fine too.
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It’s not that I have a penchant for someone else’s wall-to-wall wonder. In fact, I don’t like shag at all. That’s precisely the point. No one likes horrible carpet, which is why I knew I could save thousands of dollars if I bought a house that needed a modest makeover.
I didn’t always know that shag would become my gold standard. We started our hunt looking at move-in-ready houses. After years in horrible rentals, I wanted a rainfall showerhead and jets in my tub. But we also wanted a home large enough for our family of four. And that does not come cheap within 25 miles of New York City.
We started our quest by looking at houses at the top of our price range, listings that bragged about stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. It would be kind to say the houses were small. Standing in the painfully miniscule kitchen of one option, my broker suggested (with a straight face) that I enlarge it by ripping out the back wall of the house. I suppose I could build another house and attach it to my impeccably updated micro home, but that defeated the purpose of move-in ready.
It didn’t take long to realize that we would pay a premium for an already-renovated place—and would probably pay a lot more to a seller than what that rainfall showerhead actually cost. If we could let go of our dreams of ceramic tile and instead look for a well-made home that had been lovingly updated in 1983, we could get a lot more space for our money.
In Search of a Perfect Wreck
But there’s a fine line between a dowdy diamond-in-the-rough and a true fixer-upper. I’d seen "Property Brothers." I knew what renovating a kitchen involved—and I knew I was not up for it. My husband and I had lived our entire adult lives in Brooklyn and New Jersey apartments. In other words: The closest thing we owned to a power tool was a mini espresso maker. We also have two small children, and we both work full-time. If the repairs involved more than a screwdriver, they were not going to happen.
So we started looking for a new kind of perfect house, one that gave a terrible first impression, but on closer inspection was a good egg. After all, we reasoned, a house that doesn't show well won’t command the same price as one that has been updated. We knew we could get more for our money if we sought out cosmetic blemishes like bad wallpaper and ugly carpet.
I began scouring listings for ugly houses. Anything with new shiny floors I ignored.
The quest wasn’t easy. I began scouring listings for ugly houses. Anything with new shiny floors I ignored. With each house I visited, I started with the basement. If the foundation was in trouble, so was the rest of the house.
Once, my broker and I walked into an enormous Victorian that was priced well below market. A drop tile ceiling covered whatever disaster lurked above it. The owner was home, and I asked her if the fireplace worked. “How would I know?” she barked. “I haven’t touched that thing in 30 years.” With that bit of valuable information in hand, we made our way to the basement and nearly stumbled over pieces of crumbling foundation walls. “Do you want to see the rest of this house?” my broker whispered. I didn’t, actually.
I started to fear we’d never find our house. Maybe it didn’t exist. And then, one afternoon my husband rushed home from a house-hunting escapade with the broker. He was over the moon. It was perfect, he said. Just perfect.
Our True Blue New Home
I rushed over the next day. From the curb, the house looked just right. It was a white colonial with black shutters located on a quiet street in a prime neighborhood. The roof and exterior appeared to be in good shape, and the landscaping was mature. But the grass on the front lawn was patchy, and one of the bushes was propped up with a two-by-four. What did this mean? It meant that the house looked shabby from the outside, but aside from a single dying bush, we wouldn’t have to replace anything.
Then I walked inside and there it was, in all its glory: bright blue shag carpeting climbing all the way up the staircase. The living room was awash in faded white carpeting. Upstairs, each bedroom room had its own shag! There was brown, mauve ... green. But lift a corner in any room and beneath it lay pristine oak floors.
There’s a special place in heaven for the person who selected the wallpaper in our bathrooms. It's a wild place with a lot of gold floral decor. But that wallpaper distracted other would-be buyers from the fact that the tub and sinks were original cast iron and in magnificent condition. So too was the original tile from the 1930s. The wallpaper we could remove, but, blissfully, we would never have to replace tile or bathroom fixtures. And the master bedroom might have been mint green, but it was enormous and had its own bath.
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Frankly, it was the basement that sold me. It was immaculate. The owner had installed rows of hooks for all his tools. This was a home that had been loved by a single family for the last 55 years. Yes, it needed the rugs pulled up and the wallpaper replaced. But it was a solid house, with good bones, bones that would hold.
It sat on the market for a year in a down economy because buyers walked in and couldn’t see past that shag. By the time we saw it, the seller had lowered the price by $50,000 and still had no bidders. We bid $20,000 less than the reduced asking price and met the seller in the middle.
The inspection uncovered what we’d suspected: The house could use a fresh coat of paint, but was in otherwise solid condition.
And we'd learned a valuable lesson: When you buy a house that is completely "done," it's already maxed-out in value, but buy one that could use a little love, and you can put equity in with very little investment.
Before we moved in, we spent $3,500 refinishing the floors, and the house was transformed. I've even come to love that gold wallpaper. The shag carpet, however, I put out on the curb.
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Ronda Kaysen, a freelance writer, contributes regularly to The New York Times. Her articles and essays have also appeared in The Chicago Tribune, MSNBC.com, Architectural Record, Habitat Magazine, Parenting magazine, The Washington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Thomson Reuters and the Huffington Post. She lives in New Jersey with her family.