Home Renovation

Love Spotting a Reno Challenge? This Instagram Account Is a Must.

The allure of "cheap, old houses"—and why preservation expert, Elizabeth Finkelstein, thinks we should save them.

January 14, 2021
Photo by Dave Rademacher

One of my favorite quarantine pastimes is walking around my neighborhood. Though I live in a rather plain 550-square-foot apartment, my little nook of Denver is comprised of red brick Tudors and bungalows built in the ’40s and ’50s. But I’ve noticed an increasing and troubling trend: these old structures are being torn down, with brand new homes popping up in their place.

These contemporary homes, defined by boxy shapes that make them look like artsy storage units, are bigger and flashier than the single-story homes that originally lined the streets. But they don’t elicit the same daydream-y feeling I get when strolling past an older house with a quaint porch and overlapping gables.

To disconnect from this spread of modern homes, I’ve found solace (perhaps ironically, on a modern platform) in Cheap Old Houses, an Instagram account that celebrates what I call “the velveteen rabbit houses” of rural America.

Building a Passion

Scrolling through Cheap Old Houses’ feed is like going back in time. It’s filled with gems like a cute colonial outside Cleveland built in 1900, a 1913 American Foursquare between Dallas and Houston, and a stunning Victorian in a small (population under 5,000) Maine town.

The account is preservation expert Elizabeth Finkelstein’s passion project. She herself grew up in a Greek Revival from the 1850s in Glens Falls, New York, and says the restored historic home “became part of my identity.”

“It’s a historical part of the country, but our town still had a lot of newer homes in it,” Finkelstein says. “This house, it was different. It had a majesty about it that the other houses around it didn’t, and I felt that. I was a 2-year-old in that house and I knew it was special.”

Finkelstein has fostered that love throughout her life. She earned a Master’s in Historic Preservation from Pratt Institute and later launched Circa Old Houses, a site that showcases historic homes for sale across the U.S.

This is where the first iteration of Cheap Old Houses began: as a monthly column for Circa that featured homes under $50,000. The column went viral, and every month Finkelstein found more houses than she was able to feature.

“[The houses] are windows into an older way of life, and for that reason they were just so interesting,” Finkelstein says. “I just had to start showing these to people. I felt this personal responsibility to make sure that they were saved.”

So in 2016 she created the @cheapoldhouses Instagram handle and started posting historic homes for sale under $100,000. The account, which she operates alongside her husband, blew up—it now has 1.4 million followers and an upcoming HGTV show.

“People love to use their imaginations and envision what things could be,” Finkelstein says. “There is such an escapism in dreaming about making a big life change for a purpose. Buying one of these places that desperately needs your love and giving it, I think that’s very alluring to a lot of people.”

A Story of Restoration

People like Dave and Brittany Rademacher who purchased an 1894 Italianate farmhouse featured on Cheap Old Houses last fall. Located southwest of Lansing, Michigan, it’s the third historic home they’ve owned and restored together.

When purchased, the previous owner hadn’t lived there for a couple years. The property was overgrown, ivy was growing into the attic and a family of raccoons had moved in.

“You just know that the house needs some love or it just kind of continues to diminish,” Brittany Rademacher says. “It’s been awesome just being able to be a part of that, coming in [at] the point where we did when we bought it last year and even just seeing it now. Being able to love on it, and it actually seeming like it likes us back in some weird way.”

The couple has worked to make the structure livable and appear period-correct since getting occupancy last February. They pulled up carpet and linoleum to uncover the original wood floors, built closets in the bedrooms, expanded the bathroom and added new mouldings and doors that match the originals. They moved in with their two young children in October and are continuing to restore the home over time.

“When you walk into an old house, everything about it is a piece of art,” Dave Rademacher says. “I was drawn to that as a creative person who works with [my] hands, and then it became apparent how much we were drawn to the history of old houses. As you research an old house and find out who the inhabitants were and what it was used for over the years, you feel like you’re a part of its story.”

A Mission to Inspire

With each house she shares, Finkelstein hopes to inspire people like the Rademachers to take a leap and lend their love to an old, historic house—especially right now.

Cheap Old Houses’ followership doubled throughout the first months of the pandemic, earning around 20,000 new followers each week. Finkelstein has a few theories as to why interest piqued: one, so many people are working from home that the “location, location, location” mantra of real estate has been thrown out the door and many people are able to consider life outside a big city. Another theory: because these houses are so inexpensive, a homebuyer can be spared of immense debt and instead put their money into fixing it up.

Whatever the reason, Finkelstein is excited about where Cheap Old Houses has gone in just five years.

“I hope that it’s inspired a lot of people to consider doing this,” she says. “I think when you see that real people have taken a leap and done this [and that] they’re people who like to figure things out by themselves and are enjoying the work and enjoying the process and the project … it’s just really inspiring.”

Where do you go for virtual inspiration? Tell us in the comments below.


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Claudia Guthrie

Written by: Claudia Guthrie

Freelance writer and editor

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