“Some of these houses have been abandoned, some are short sales and need renovations, and some are in perfectly good shape and the regional prices are just very low,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of the popular property listing Instagram account Cheap Old Houses.
An historical preservationist by profession, Finkelstein started Cheap Old Houses in 2016 as an extension of Circa Old Houses, a property website she founded to showcase regional historic homes. Part real estate listing, part history lesson, and part full-on escapism, Cheap Old Houses now has 1.2 million followers “who are mostly dreamers like me,” according to Finkelstein, but also include real estate professionals and homebuyers who are inspired by the lower barrier to entry presented in her feed.
“At its core this entire feed is mission driven,” Finkelstein says. “I want to save historic homes. A disproportionate number of historic houses only speak to one type of person. I want to save the houses that tell the story of everyday people. I can’t save these houses by myself, but I can inspire others to save them.”
When asked whether followers really do purchase the homes featured on her feed, Finkelstein responds with an emphatic, “Yes! Scores of people have bought these homes.” She notes that some of the buyers have a background in home renovations, but many are simply “DIYers taking a leap of faith.” Finkelstein goes on to say that a number of her followers are millennials who “love real estate” but find the cost of homeownership prohibitive; they see opportunity for financial independence in these listings, even if it means moving. “I’ve definitely had people move to buy one of these houses,” she says. “Someone recently uprooted from Oakland to buy a church in rural Maine, and one couple moved from New Orleans to buy an old house in Ohio.” As all of Finkelstein’s featured houses are verified property listings, interested buyers are able to proceed through standard home buying channels once they link out from her account.
Regarding the “cheap” part of a “cheap old house,” Finkelstein says that $100,000-$110,000 is typically her cap for a property. And when it comes to “old,” Finkelstein notes that she considers any property built before the 1960s, but adds, “sometimes I’ll find a mid-century home that is just so good and it’s a really great time capsule.” In terms of the condition of a house, Finkelstein curates her account from an historical preservation perspective. “I don’t really care about the condition of a house, but it needs to be original. I live outside of New York City, and most of the old houses here are fixed up over and over again. The houses I feature tend to have the most history because they haven’t been touched.”
When it comes to advice for people who are inspired to explore buying a cheap old house, Finkelstein says with a laugh,“Realize that everyone is going to tell you not to do it. It is a lot of work, but it’s also going to be the most satisfying thing that you ever do…and it’s amazing what you can learn from watching YouTube tutorials.”
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