BUYING: “The Big Five”


When I am evaluating a property with buyers I pay special attention to what I call “The Big Five” and you should too. Cosmetic changes to a duplex are fairly inexpensive. The Big Five are items that are not only the most expensive they also require immediate attention when they need repair or replacements. Cosmetic changes can often be done over time. The Big Five usually cannot be delayed without causing angst for your tenant or further damage to your property.

1. The Roof

The roof is the most important of these items. First and foremost it is generally the most expensive to fix, and if you delay fixing it you will have bigger issues with water damage and or crumbling walls and ceilings. A roof will cost anywhere from $6000 to $15000 depending on the size and number of dormers, porches, variations and steepness of the roof.

One secret I have to spot water damage that an owner generally doesn’t notice (and often cover-up) is to bring a flashlight and look at the ceiling in the closets. You may spot damage there where the owner hasn’t noticed it.


HVAC is the second of The Big Five. The cost to replace a boiler can be in the $7000 range per unit. It an become more expensive when it is wrapped in asbestos.  Forced air furnaces will range anywhere form $3000 to $5000 per unit. The big expense on forced air furnaces is the duct work. New duct work is around $4k per unit and can be more if you are removing old asbestos-wrapped pipes. Air conditioning units start around $2k and are more expensive depending on the space you are cooling.

Another trick here is to check the water pressure on a boiler. If it is under10 p.s.i. The boiler may have been neglected. With forced air furnaces pull out the air filter and see how dirty it is. If it is filthy that is another sign the owner is neglecting it. The less pressured boiler has or the more clogged the furnace filters are signs that the units will have a shortened life span.

3. Plumbing and Electric

The third item that I consider of high importance is the plumbing and electrical. I lump them together because The Big Five sounds better than the big six. I warn my clients of the issues that come with galvanized plumbing. Galvanized plumbing is problematic in that overtime the pipes will fill up with minerals and eventually the water pressure will become a trickle. With the advent of plastic plumbing supply lines (Pex is a brand that people often to generically refer to it) the cost to replace the lines has went down significantly due to the ability to navigate the lines around like a hose. You no longer need to cut copper pipes and solder them together. Even the plumbers save money because they don’t have to drive a big van around to carry the lengths of copper in it.

The big cost in replacing the pipes often remains, you still need to break open the walls to get at the fixtures, like the back of a tub or sink. Then you need to replace the portion of the wall you broke open and mud and sand it and then prime and paint. It’s a dusty mess and its expensive too.

If you are buying a duplex or fourplex in  Saint Paul or Minneapolis you may want to have a plumbing company inspect the main sewer line going to the street. The cost is about $200, and it can show whether you have tree roots in  the line or a damaged pipe going to the street. Without this test you won’t know if you have an issue. The cost to fix the issue is in the $3-4k range.

Electrical seems to be less of an issue, as you can often fix a small portion of the wiring to fix an issue. I guide buyers to avoid fuse boxes or plan on replacing them because insurance companies often won’t insure properties that don’t have breakers.

4. Flooring

Item four of The Big Five is flooring. I always look for hardwood floors in rental properties. It will outlast carpet anywhere from four to one basis to twelve to one. I find that carpet will last somewhere between one to three years in a rental. Generally, the only time it lasts longer is because the tenant has stayed in the property longer. For some reason tenants often wear there shoes in the property regardless of what’s on the bottom of them.  I have a duplex that the floors were sanded in 2001 and will likely need to be done again in the next few years. In another property the carpet was replaced after two years with a tenant. Avoid carpet if you can.

Ceramic flooring is also a great investment the longevity is at least three times that of vinyl and it looks better and adds value to the property. Vinyl is much more difficult to clean and tends to get torn when tenants move in or out.

5. Siding

Item five is the siding. I know people will argue that I left out the windows or the kitchens and baths. I find small improvements go a long way in kitchens and baths, and windows can be replaced as needed and not all at once. Generally, you the owner, are not paying for the heat anyway. Siding or a requirement to paint is something that can’t be delayed without consequence.  Brick can require expensive tuck-pointing (replacing the mortar).

If you were going to compare surfaces stucco and brick add more value and usually require much less maintenance then other surfaces. If you see some rotten siding there is likely more that is not evident but may have been concealed by the owner.

As always get an inspector when it comes to make an offer and use a trusted and experienced Realtor. As you can see there is a lot that can go wrong with a property. Investing in an excellent inspector will help you find problems or assure you of your investment.

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