When I first began to invest in real estate, I found a triplex that had been converted from a single family residence. The individual units were painted with at least six different paint colours. Think fluorescent, cheap and nasty!
In the main floor unit there were eight colours in the kitchen alone. And no, they didn’t match. Any of them. Needless to say, the vendor wasn’t getting much action on the property so I was able to get it for a great price. He tried to haggle a bit initially but in the end he realized that I was probably his best shot at a sale since I didn’t appear to be phased by his taste in paint. He relented.
From my perspective, I thought his paint job was a huge bonus. It scared other investors away – you know, the ones who like more conventional, pretty buildings – and I figured that I could easily fix an ugly paint job and flooring. I spent the next month renovating the interior to great effect. The problem, however, was that the place was also unattractive on the outside.
What’s the old saying, “An ugly house with a new paint job is still an ugly house”? After some reasonably simple renovations I made the inside of the place look good, but there was little to be done about the dismal exterior short of spending a fortune. That’s when I discovered some research through the Real Estate Investment Network: The #1 factor that influences potential tenants is not price but rather curb appeal.
If the place doesn’t look appealing from the outside, potential tenants will just keep on driving when they get there to take a look. Posting pretty pictures of the inside will help, but you still have to get them to walk inside. That’s not so easy if their first impression as they pull up is that the building is ugly.
Do yourself a big favour: Ensure that any building you buy has reasonable curb appeal. Imagine that you’re a tenant driving by. What would you think of the place? Will you care that the inside is attractive if the exterior is off-putting? Probably not. It’s much harder to find good tenants for an ugly building.
Yes you can put in a bunch of attractive plants, do some landscaping, perk up the tired paint job and perhaps update the door, but the fact remains that an ugly building may remain ugly despite your efforts. Even if you can make the changes necessary, do you want the hassles and the cost?
Patience is a virtue. Wait for the right property with reasonable curb appeal.
Check out the neighbours
In 1991 my husband and I went looking for a house in the west end of the city. If you remember those days, you’ll recall that houses sold in a matter of hours, particularly houses that were located in sought-after parts of the city. We found a house in an area that was growing rapidly. The house looked decent from the outside and met all of our check-list requirements on the inside. The only possible problem we spotted was the location.
The house backed onto a row of businesses that were zoned light industrial. Among them was a hot tub store, a mechanic’s shop and a stone mason. The day that we viewed the house, around 2 pm on a sunny July day, the stores appeared to be deserted. There wasn’t a sign of movement in their respective yards, each of which could be seen by the rear upstairs windows.
The vendor and his wife were in the house when we did our viewing, a fact which irritated our Realtor. The guy kept following us around the rooms, ‘helpfully’ pointing out the various features and upgrades he had made to the house in the years he had been there. I figured if he was going to be a nuisance and hang around, I would ask him a few questions.
– I see that your house backs onto a few businesses. Do you ever have any problems with noise or dust?
– Not at all. We hardly ever see them. The stone mason occasionally has trucks backing up to his doors but beyond that nothing really. It’s never been an issue.
– Do they ever leave their doors open?
– Oh sure but it’s never an issue. See how quiet it is right now? It’s pretty much like that all the time.
The guy was a Type A pain for following us around until our Realtor pulled him aside and asked him to leave so that we could view the property in private, but he seemed like a genuine fellow and his wife was very nice so we never suspected him of lying. When we had finished viewing the house his wife offered us a cup of coffee and said that they would be happy to answer any questions we had. We sat down at their kitchen table and I asked about the basement.
– Have you ever had any problems with water down there?
– Not a drop. That’s why we put carpet down.
Nine hours later we owned the house. We took possession in August and I proceeded to take some time off to paint the house. In early September, I tackled one of the upstairs bedrooms that overlooked the stone mason. It was a lovely, breezy day so I had all the windows opened. I painted one wall and then went into another room to wash my hands and reload the paint. Just as I was pouring the paint, I heard an ear-splitting, high-pitched wailing sound start up. That was my introduction to stone cutting.
By the time I figured out what was happening, the stone dust from the cutting operation that was taking place just outside my back yard had wafted into my house and covered my newly painted wall. That was just the beginning of the fun. The mason had just landed a very large contract and all of the stone for the project was being cut behind my back yard. The wailing sound continued every day for hours. In the evening, the mechanic’s shop would start up with the pneumatic drill. It turns out that they only closed their doors on very cold and very hot days. The rest of the time the door was open, and they seemed to do most of their business between 5 pm and 10 pm.
When I had my first child, she would often be awakened by the sound of a pneumatic drill at 10 o’clock at night. Complaints to the city went unanswered because the business was operating within its rights. Too bad for us.
So here’s what I’ve learned: Before you consider purchasing a property, look around for any negative site influences. Take the time to look and listen on different days and times. What’s the traffic like in the morning? At night? What noise is there and where is it coming from? If, as was the case in my situation, there are businesses nearby, you definitely want to do your homework very carefully. Businesses won’t necessarily care about your peaceful enjoyment of the property. They have a business to run and you may be in for many frustrations if you don’t know what you’re facing from the outset. This is a case of setting expectations for yourself.
If you don’t have the luxury of time, then see if you can speak to the neighbours. Knock on doors yourself and have a chat with them about the area: What do they like and what bugs them? When you ask people for their opinion you usually get an earful! Whatever you do, disregard anything the vendor has to say. This person has a house to sell. He may be as honest as the day is long, or not. The point is you don’t know and since he has a vested interest in selling the property his opinion is not reliable.
As for my basement, what do you think happened? You guessed it: Water everywhere when there was a month of heavy rain. When we ripped off the drywall to see if we could find cracks, we instead found a hole in the concrete that Mr. Reliable had simply parged over. When the house was built there was apparently supposed to be a beam going into the concrete at that particular spot. For whatever reason no beam went into the slot and instead of filling it up properly, our friend left the hole as-is with a think coat of parging on the outside and drywall on the inside.
Never trust a vendor.