Culture Scan

At the intersection of real estate, media, and pop culture.

The Addictive and Hopeful World of 'Cheap Old Houses'

How the couple behind a massively popular Instagram account featuring affordable, historic homes for sale has inspired people to move far and wide for the chance to painstakingly restore a fixer-upper.

We’re all guilty of it: If you have an Instagram account, chances are you’ve caught yourself scrolling through beautifully curated—and often heavily edited—images of luxury vacation spots, destination weddings, vineyard tours, and other daydream-inducing sights. We lose ourselves in fantasies that we have no intention of acting upon. But what happens when living through a pandemic takes away the ability to travel, try the most buzzed-about restaurant, or even socialize with friends while wearing your trendiest outfit?

It seems that many social media users have turned to browsing real estate photos to fuel their latest daydreams, a trend so ubiquitous among millennials that it was recently parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Daydreams may not become reality. But what if, even during a historic housing shortage, your nightly social media rabbit hole led you to the house of your dreams—and you could actually afford it? Welcome to the world of Cheap Old Houses, an Instagram account and website that highlight listings for historic homes across the country.

The @cheapoldhouses Instagram account, which has more than 1.5 million followers, was started in 2016 by Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, a married couple from New York. The couple, though not real estate agents themselves, turned their love of old houses into a full-time job. Elizabeth and Ethan also run an “old house real estate marketplace” called CIRCA, which includes a directory of agents specializing in historical homes.

What exactly makes a cheap old house, you ask? According to their website, the houses featured on their account are “architecturally intact cheap old houses for under $100K,” though they sometimes include houses listed for up to the $150,000. Many of these homes are located in smaller, more affordable towns, hence their low price point. Elizabeth, who holds a master’s degree in historic preservation, analyzes architecturally significant features and original craftsmanship when deciding which homes to feature.

The homes are often in need of rehabilitation, but don’t whip out the sledgehammer just yet. Unlike many popular social media accounts and television shows, Cheap Old Houses is not necessarily a home renovation account. The term “fixer-upper” has become synonymous with the HGTV show of the same name, which features powerhouse Texas renovation duo Chip and Joanna Gaines. While the Gaineses transform dated or dilapidated houses with the couple’s signature modern farmhouse style—always open-concept, neutral, and full of shiplap—the Finkelsteins are decidedly in favor of helping find buyers committed to restoring homes to their original glory.

Historic preservation is the bedrock of Cheap Old Houses’ mission and the soul of what is commonly referred to as the “old-house community” on Instagram. At Cheap Old Houses, brightly colored, tiled kitchens and bathrooms are prized, and retro wallpaper is celebrated. Original hardwood floors, built-ins, woodwork, windows, and any other historic features are often the main selling points for Cheap Old Houses’ followers. The couple has such a dedicated fanbase that the Finkelsteins now offer an online shop selling not-so-cheap swag such as T-shirts with their signature taglines, including “Save all the Old Houses” ($32), “Fear No Fixer” ($32), and “The Peeling Wallpaper Preservation League” ($34). They also publish four newsletters featuring specialized collections: cheap farmhouses, cheap houses abroad, “ultra-cheap” houses selling for under $25,000, and “cheap(ish)” houses going for up to $250,000.

Followers sometimes scope out featured houses near them and post about it. Perhaps the most rewarding part of following the account is when a fellow follower actually purchases one of the featured homes, and starts a renovation Instagram account of their own. As a follower of @cheapoldhouses myself, it has been impossible not to notice its recent explosion onto the feeds and pages of many of my peers who have not previously expressed an interest in historic preservation. Thousands of users comment on each post, often joking with friends about quitting their jobs, buying one of the featured homes, and opening a bed and breakfast.

While the account has been massively popular since its inception—and people purchasing homes they find on social media is not a new phenomenon—the pandemic has had an effect on followers of the Cheap Old Houses account and their reasons for moving. A recent article in The New York Times quoted Chief Economist Danielle Hale, saying “in January 2020, the median days on market for [homes over 100 years old and less than $100,000] was 86 days, eight days slower than the same time in 2019.” However, by December 2020, “these homes were selling in 79 days, 10 days faster than last year.” An article in the New York Post also suggested demand for the types of homes Cheap Old Houses features is increasing: “Since the onset of the pandemic, its audience has only grown: It’s hit the 1 million-follower milestone on Instagram, and Finkelstein has watched her audience grow at nearly twice the typical rate from week to week.”

It's hardly a surprise, particularly during the pandemic, that people are drawn to affordable homes where they can work remotely and dedicate their time to making a property not only livable but beautiful. Cheap Old Houses provides hope for many would-be homeowners who feel priced out of the market and inspiration for those of us who simply follow their journeys online. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, you can explore the larger old-house community on Instagram using hashtags like #oldhouselove, #oldhousesofinstagram, or #thisoldhouse. Happy scrolling!

Cheap Old Houses Coming to TV

For those who can’t get enough #oldhouselove, fear not! Cheap Old Houses has become so popular that it’s getting its own HGTV series, slated to premiere this summer. The eight-episode series will follow Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein as they explore old homes, consider their historical relevance, and imagine renovations—eventually choosing homes to showcase on their feed.


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