In December, when Amanda Barbarello and Erik Larson bought a beautiful, 105-year-old Arts & Crafts home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., they were thrilled by the deal they got: $799,000 for the four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house—almost $100,000 off its original listing price. The catch—it needed updating.
The couple felt prepared. Ms. Barbarello, a 31-year-old social worker, had watched hundreds of episodes of PBS’s “This Old House,” while Mr. Larson, also 31 and in finance, was confident he could draw on his Eagle Scout skills.
Their first task was to tear out the carpet. “How hard could that be?,” figured Ms. Barbarello. It was a nightmare, taking two days of almost nonstop labor. Nevertheless, she says they are still eager—it will just go “more slowly than originally planned.” The couple believes the work will definitely pay off financially.
While many young buyers avoid purchasing fixer-uppers, a brave few are diving in, lured by the promise of a great deal. Though they are often not looking for renovation projects, they soon realize that they stand to get a great house for a lot less money, says Carolyn Joy, an agent with the Tishelman Joy Team at Houlihan Lawrence.
One area with a large supply of old homes with beautiful detail and large rooms is the New York county of Westchester. Due to construction of a railway network in the 1840s, earlier than many parts of the region, the villages here became suburbs for wealthy urban workers who built stately homes, says Field Horne, a historian and author of “Westchester County: A History.” In the past couple of years, many of these old houses have gone up for sale, as their longtime, baby boomer owners downsize or move to warmer climes.
Unless they have been thoroughly renovated, these older homes tend to sit on the market, real-estate agents say, as many buyers don’t want to do any renovation work. “They want to walk in with a suitcase and a toothbrush,” says Lori Hoffman, an agent with the Usha Subramaniam team at Compass.
This attitude is changing as prices continue to rise: The median sales price of homes in Westchester increased 6.4% to $500,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to a report released in January by appraiser Miller Samuel and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate, which estimates that some 61% of the homes in Westchester were built before 1960.
Annie Qadir, 32, and her husband, Ahsaan Qadir, 34, spent more than two years searching for a home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where Mr. Qadir grew up as a teenager and where his parents still live. They wanted a renovated house but “the numbers just didn’t make sense,” says Ms. Qadir.
Mr. Qadir first balked when real-estate agent Lindsay Rothman with Compass introduced them to a four-bedroom, 3,776-square-foot ranch built in 1953. But when Ms. Rothman showed them the neighborhood comps the couple, both pharmacists, decided to go for it, paying $799,000 this past December—significantly less than the original list price of $1.395 million in 2017.
Mr. Qadir has been watching DIY videos on YouTube, and has already bought items for the upstairs bathrooms. “He tells me it’s easy to change out the toilet and vanity. I’m a little nervous about that,” says his wife. The couple have spent about $5,000 and expect to spend a total of $25,000 on renovations when they are done. Ms. Rothman estimates the finished home will be worth over $1 million.
Jackie Newman, 39, and her husband Mark Newman, 40, had been living for eight years in a circa-1900 house in Irvington, N.Y., that they’d bought for $540,000. Ms. Newman, who is in digital advertising, and Mr. Newman, an attorney, loved the area, but with three children and a nanny, they “were busting at the seams,” she says.
Last June, Ms. Newman was attracted to a five-bedroom Colonial on a large lot with a swimming pool asking $975,000, but worried it would be too much work. Every room required something: The floors would need refinishing, the wallpaper would have to go, there was a wall between the kitchen and the fireplace she didn’t like, and the bathrooms were outdated.
What she did like was that the house, built in 1965, had been the home of one family who had raised their five children there. “I know its history. I have friends who swam in that pool,” she says.
The Newmans bought the house for $932,000. They think they got such a deal because the ad said “as is,” scaring off others.
So far they have only taken down the wallpaper and painted the walls, but they expect to eventually spend around $200,000 overall. “We know we will get more for our money than by buying something already done,” says Ms. Newman.
Jenn Whittem, a 38-year-old executive assistant, ran into a hornet’s nest—literally—while working on her living room in her four-bedroom fixer upper in Croton-on-Hudson. She says her fingers went through what had looked like drywall but had been turned into a gaping hole by hornets. After some time panicking, she looked up how to pack a hole on YouTube and finished painting the room, saving thousands of dollars. She says she and her husband Lior Galanti eat dinner on the workbench that is in their dining room and spend all of their free time working on the house. He recently read much of the National Electrical Code, a guide of over 800 pages, to do electrical work.
The couple, who paid $700,000 for the home in September, says they have no regrets. They looked at over 70 homes, almost all of them renovated, and found that even when something was nicely done, it wasn’t exactly what they wanted, and they’d rather take a discount and spend the money they saved on their own projects.
On the other side are the owners, who can find it difficult to get their homes to move. Michael DeMarco has taken a Nyack, N.Y., home, which he had gutted after he bought and had listed for $732,000, off the market and plans to do the renovations himself before trying to sell again.
Jeff Edelman didn’t think it would take so long to sell the Colonial where his parents lived for 60 years. The three-bedroom house in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., has original wood floors with inlaid mahogany, Palladian windows and views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge.
Mr. Edelman listed the house in March for $1.095 million. He is now on his fifth reduction, with the current price at $849,000. He says the house is in great shape except for the porch, which needs to be redone—something his real-estate agent told him has deterred buyers from even looking at it.
“It’s in decent condition. People just don’t want to update,” he says.