Remember metal detectors? When I was a kid, they were all the rage, holding the emotional rush of a game with
the a potential real-life treasure chest at the end. Fast forward a couple of decades, and what seems to be our
constant craving for a treasure hunt has shifted to a different medium, fed most prominently by PBS’ Antiques
Roadshow. Loyal viewers like myself watched “The Roadshow” with anxious anticipation for those twin appraisers
to come out, before they got their own show. When those guys showed up, it was usually a sign that someone’s
auntie’s hideous chest was about to be deemed worth six figures.
But there’s a real estate version of this treasure hunting phenomenon, too - and it’s not recreational. Rather, the
search for a home with hidden potential is most often undertaken in the very serious effort to stretch every ounce of
home-buying power out of a savvy buyer’s real estate dollar. Some buyers’ lifestyles require them to focus on home
they can move right into, with no work to be done - and their budgets allow them to do so. But others know that the
gap between the home they eventually want and the home they can afford right now is so wide that the only way
they’ll get their dream home is to buy it while it’s still a diamond in the rough. (Very rough, in some cases.)
So, what’s the real estate equivalent of the metal detector or the Keno twins? You are! With your team (agent and
mortgage pro), your tools (Trulia among them) and a touch of good timing (your wants must ultimately align with
what’s on the market), you can become a hidden-home-treasure-finding machine. Here to help are a handful of
clues that there might be hidden potential lurking in a home.
1. Significant discount compared to other homes in the neighborhood.
By definition, hidden potential is all about unrecognized and as-yet-untapped value - the gap between what you
pay for a home in its current state and what it can be, monetarily and otherwise, with your investment of time and
energy. If the discount is not significant, the potential is not hidden - it’s already being realized by the current owner
(i.e., not you)!
Don’t expect the homes with the most hidden potential to announce themselves and - their discounts - as such.
The discount you must ultimately be concerned with is the discount that is reflected in the ultimate sale price (not
the list price) vis-a-vis the comps (recently sold homes in the neighborhood). So, one way to manifest hidden
potential is to look for homes that are listed at only a slight discount (or no discount at all!) and have lagged on the
market a very long time compared with the average in their area, then negotiate a meaty discount from the seller.
The other critical discount to look for is a significant discount between what you can secure the home for and what
it will cost you, in total, after you put in the work necessary to manifest the property’s potential. Anyone can turn any
old hovel into a palatial estate if they’re willing and able to spend and spend and spend. True hidden potential is
about latent possibilities that can be unveiled, not created from scratch and at great expense. The only way to truly
know what this discount will be is to educate yourself about what the various needed improvements will actually
cost, by obtaining estimates from contractors and/or pricing DIY projects out.
2. Really, really bad cosmetics.
First, let’s be clear - many homes with bad cosmetics don’t have great potential, or are insufficiently discounted for
the home to truly reflect much potential at all. However, there are two flavors of bad cosmetics that can signal great
hidden potential. The first are homes that were almost overly loved by their previous owners - they are in excellent
shape inside and out, but they have been so heavily customized with terrible cosmetic choices and unattractive
finish materials that other buyers are completely turned off. I speak from experience: when I bought it, my first home
had wallpaper featuring kittens (no joke) on more than one wall - and it turned out to be a fantastic home and
These otherwise-lovely homes with taxidermy covering every single surface - even the bedroom walls? Same
deal: there’s gold in them thar homes. Bad cosmetics like these are very easy to unwind, but these types of homes
often be had at a discount, because they are such a huge turnoff to other, less potential-focused buyers.
The other flavor of bad cosmetics that can hide a home’s true potential are now-outdated “upgrades” that were
awesome and cutting edge in their era. It’s sort of like my Dad’s clothes when I was growing up. As a Tween (we
were called pre-teens back then) I thought my Dad was SO fashion backwards. (He had many other strengths,
though, including real estate. Can’t be perfect at everything.) Anyhoo, as a young adult, I realized that I’d been
totally wrong: my Dad’s ‘look,’ if you will, was not horrific for the 80’s - it was FANTASTIC for the 70’s. He simply
hadn’t moved on yet!
When a home’s previous owner made a major investment in upgrading the home 20 or 30 years ago, chances are
good that the outdated cosmetics can be replaced over the home’s still-sound innards, without extreme expense.
Hidden potential alert!
3. An unfortunate backstory.
Often, homes with hidden potential are those that have fundamental, structural integrity and well-functioning
systems (plumbing, heating, etc.), but have been less well-cared for on the surface. And in some cases, what
caused the surface neglect is an unfortunate set of circumstances affecting the previous owners/sellers. By no
means is spotting homes with this sign of hidden potential unethical or taking advantage of another’s misfortune, as
some might suggest. In fact, if that’s even a concern, rethink it: there’s not a single thing wrong with recognizing and
activating the potential the previous owners were unable to nurture due to their divorce, family dispute, age or
4. No photos.
To be completely fair, this one is more about finding hidden opportunity than hidden potential, per se. The vast
majority of home buyers start house hunting online and simply refuse to go homes whose listings lack photos.
Sometimes homes are listed without photos because of bad cosmetics or deeper condition issues; other times,
because of technical difficulties that have zero to do with the house, its look or its condition.
If your dream home has been elusive, consider taking the time to go check out a listing with the ‘just right’ specs, in
terms of square footage, beds, baths and neighborhood - even if it doesn’t have photos. If you’re house hunting in
an area or at a price point where there will undoubtedly be multiple offers on a great home, a home with no or only
one listing might offer you an opportunity for low or no competition on a great property - or one with great potential.
5. Great neighborhood, square footage and floor plan.
It can be relatively simple and inexpensive to manifest a home’s potential when it can be converted into your
‘dream’ home without having to move or add any walls. It’s also much more likely that you’ll hang in there through
the discomforts and uncertainty of the seemingly endless process of remodeling (rather than selling it in despair,
before you’re done) if the home is of ample size and optimal layout to house your family and your activities as they
evolve over time.
Also, many folks find that a fantastic home in a not-so-great neighborhood is less desirable than a not-so-great
home in an fantastic neighborhood; the latter can be easier to live in and stay committed to during the course of the
remodel as well. Accordingly, homes with the ‘just-right’ square footage and floor plan that also happen to be
located in the ‘just right’ neighborhood are the ultimate hidden potential triple threat.
All: What do you look for when you're scoping a house with hidden potential? In the past, what features have
drawn you to a particular home that others may have missed?