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So, you want to buy a cheap, old house? (Are you sure?)

Those charming Victorian windows seem like a dream, but are you ready for the reality? Here's what you should know.
Collage of old house with renovation materials nearby
Those charming wraparound porches and vintage windows are enticing, but make sure you're aware of all the possible costs before you sign up. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Have you dreamed of buying a cheap, old house and reviving it? Maybe you’re one of the million and a half fans of the Instagram account that features amazing old houses in need of love (and elbow grease) for $150,000 or less. The couple behind the account recently landed their own HGTV show, where they’ll surely fuel the fever for these fixer-uppers.

But before you run to snag a bargain house, hit pause while you think about the true cost of these (undeniably enticing) homes. Take it from me, a serial renovator at work on a sprawling Queen Anne Victorian that I bought with a friend for $80,000 (a home that's definitely Insta-worthy, but so dilapidated that neighbors feared it would be torn down) with plenty of other renovations under my belt including my own home.

I know painfully well that the purchase price is just the beginning. Talk to anyone who’s given in to the romantic appeal of an old house with good bones and deferred maintenance, and they'll list the neverending expenses.

Just ask Amy Haimerl, a journalist who bought a 3,000-square-foot Georgian Revival for $35,000 in Detroit and chronicled the journey in her book "Detroit Hustle." By the time all was said and done, their total cost for the house and renovations was about $400,000, she told TMRW.

“I remind everybody that there's a reason why houses are cheap,” Haimerl said, sharing an example about the first house she rehabilitated where wires in the wall were held together with Scotch tape.

In my Victorian home, I found plumbing pipes held together with duct tape, among other delights and surprises.

Even if there’s no outright horror like that, the sheer scale of work needed on clearance houses ratchets up the rehab bill faster than you can say #saggingmansions.

“Things add up,” Haimerl said. “You don't think about, ‘Oh, you're probably going to need new windows,’ and these old houses, well, there’s 27 windows and at a thousand dollars apiece to buy new ones that are historically accurate because I'm in a historic district — and I have no problems with that, we knew that going in — that’s $27,000 right there.”

My current renovation needs gutters because someone roofed over the original box gutters, and the first quote I got was $14,000(!). It’s relentless from there. “Things (that) you walk into a normal house and they just turn on and work, you suddenly have to go, ‘Oh, I need to think about a light fixture in every place,’” Haimerl added.

Even if you DIY the work, “don't forget to factor in the cost of forgone wages and time,” Haimerl said. How much could you have been earning at work if you weren’t spending your time patching and painting, sanding and staining? And while there's often a presumption that you're supposed to do it yourself and if you don't DIY it somehow you're not really experiencing the full nature of these old houses, I’ve found that living in a construction zone can come with an emotional toll (if not a hospital bill!).

Haimerl didn’t have water for a long stretch during her first renovation. “I showered at the truck stop for months on end,” she said. That’s not exactly a lifestyle that everyone will be OK with. And DIYing it can add years to the rehab timeline, as both Haimerl and I have seen with friends toiling away on their cheap, old houses.

The costs aren’t even limited to the rehab itself. I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor from when I started getting quotes to insure my Victorian. Between the mammoth size and architectural details, like inlaid floors and eight fireplaces, the insurer wanted to cover it for five times what we paid for it in order to account for the cost to rebuild. (Even though it would be literally impossible to build such a home today!)

If it’s never been properly insulated (frankly, even if it has), if the windows are original and the ceilings high, the utility bills can also come as a blow. After my first $700+ heat bill I cranked down the heat, stocked up on heated blankets and resigned myself to being cold several months a year.

Old houses cost time, too; the cleaning never ends. All of those intricate details in the woodwork? Dust magnets. The acres of gleaming hardwood floor? To vacuum just my first two floors takes an hour. And there’s always maintenance, at best, or disaster triage, at worst. After three years of increasingly more expensive leak repairs on our home, my husband and I finally had to spring for a $20,000 new roof. I try not to look too closely at the cracks in the plaster walls because we can’t repair them until they’re actually a disaster — and for that matter, I try not to look too closely at anything for fear I’ll see something we have to fix.

Because no matter how much you love an old house and dream of bringing it back to life, things just cost what they cost. “Most contractors I know are just trying to feed their families and do good work," Haimerl said. “And it's not their job to make your dreams happen for you on the cheap.

“There's no discount at Home Depot because you're fixing up an old house.”