Who doesn’t love cheap old houses—or perhaps we should say, charming homes with a past at a great price? Whether you’re a fan of architecture, history, or just a great home-shopping bargain, preservationist Elizabeth Finkelstein has rolled all these fascinating topics into one Instagram account called, simply enough, @cheapoldhouses.
Finkelstein started the account—which showcases lovely photos of historic homes for sale at jaw-droppingly low prices—two years ago. It has gained an ardent following for good reason: Instagram is packed to the gills with pictures of gorgeous new homes, but cheap old homes have their own special allure. Here, Finkelstein shares what makes these homes so special, and her advice on how to shine them up to their original luster.
Elizabeth Finkelstein outside a home in Nyack, NY
How did you become interested in old homes?
I have a master’s degree in historic preservation. After I got my degree, I worked at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, where I split my time between researching the histories of houses in downtown New York City, and working with homeowners and architects to advise them on how to make appropriate and sensitive alterations to historic buildings.
That’s my professional background, but I really believe old houses are something you don’t need to have a master’s degree to appreciate.
How did @cheapoldhouses begin?
My husband and I were looking to buy our own historic home. He runs a digital design agency in Brooklyn. We wanted to figure out a way to combine his tech expertise with my background in historical preservation, so he and I created CIRCAOldHouses.com, a curated online marketplace of beautiful historic homes for sale across the country in 2013. Our Instagram account is an extension of that.
What’s your goal in showcasing these homes? Do you hope they end up sold and restored?
Yes, that’s 100% of my motivation! I want to see them sold, loved, and restored by the right people—people who understand what gems they are. A lot of these homes are diamonds in the rough.
Some of them are inexpensive because they’re in neighborhoods that don’t have a strong base of homeowners working hard to advocate for their neighborhoods. These homes are especially vulnerable to being either torn down or flipped by people who don’t necessarily understand or care about their unique architectural features. I have worked hard to create a large community of people who love and care about these homes, people who get it.
There’s something about looking at a big, old house somewhere crying out for help, something you might actually be able to afford, and imagining, “What if?” It’s the feeling that you could actually start your life all over, and do it with a strong sense of purpose. Because fixing up a house—working with your hands—is immensely purposeful.
802 NE Perry Ave, Peoria, IL — I've seen a lot of old houses in my life, but I have NEVER seen anything like this foyer 💛 It's so amazing that I couldn't even capture it all in the square photo crop. Plus, mantels, stained glass, and ALL THE GOOD THINGS. This house just keeps getting more and more spectacular with every single photo!!! — link in profile
A post shared by Cheap Old Houses (@cheapoldhouses) on Feb 25, 2018 at 7:00am PST
What’s the cheapest old home you’ve posted in Instagram?
I’ve posted some free ones that need to be moved off their existing lots.
I just died and went to FREE OLD HOUSE HEAVEN. "Italianate style, two story house, on property purchased for expansion of the Public Library, looking for new owner to relocate off of the property. City also has vacant residential lot, available to an interested owner willing to move this house to a new home site." Contact Mark at email@example.com — link in profile
A post shared by Cheap Old Houses (@cheapoldhouses) on Mar 20, 2018 at 6:14pm PDT
A post shared by Cheap Old Houses (@cheapoldhouses) on Mar 4, 2018 at 3:35pm PST
What’s the oldest home you’ve posted?
A home in Gaylordsville, CT, from 1740 might be the oldest. They tend to be in New England.
A post shared by Cheap Old Houses (@cheapoldhouses) on Feb 2, 2018 at 4:58pm PST
What’s your favorite cheap old home you’ve posted?
Seriously? That’s like picking a favorite child. I posted a beauty in Darlington, SC, that people went wild for. I ended up writing about it for Country Living Magazine and taking some video footage of it when my husband and I were nearby on vacation. The real estate agency told me that they got hundreds of calls in one weekend about this place. The broker told me that his agents started complaining, and he said to them, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been trying for years to get the phones to ring off the hook!”
A post shared by Cheap Old Houses (@cheapoldhouses) on Feb 17, 2017 at 11:21am PST
What kind of home did you grow up in?
I was born and raised in an 1850s Greek Revival in Queensbury, NY, that my parents restored with their own hands. When they bought it, it was in such bad shape that the real estate agent told my parents they were the first people who even get out of the car to look at it when he showed it to them. My mother was always scouring auctions and antiques shops for things for the house, and rearranging rooms over and over. I guess I’ve really become my mother!
I think growing up in an old house really shaped my version of what a home should be. It’s so much fun to be a kid in an old house! There are so many fun nooks and crannies. The back of the house was the original farmhouse built in the 1700s, and the front Greek Revival portion was added in the 1850s. The two parts were connected by a passageway that you accessed through a miniature door. We called the passageway “the secret room,” and my brother, sister, and I spent so much time in there as kids. Magical!
What kind of house do you currently own?
I live in a 1940s Cape Revival in Nyack, NY. I had a baby two months later, so besides lots of aesthetic changes, which I’m always dabbling in, we haven’t done too much serious work on it.
What advice do you have for people buying and restoring cheap historic homes?
You need to really love working with your hands and truly be a “house person.” There are people who would choose to spend every summer weekend at the beach, and people who would choose to spend every summer weekend doing house projects. Which camp do you fall into?
Stay true to the house whenever possible. In most cases, elements in historical homes were custom-made to fit that particular place. Nothing will work better than the original piece. Rebuild when absolutely necessary, but restore whenever you can.
Try to avoid relying too heavily on current trends. Nothing is worse than walking into a very 1850s house with a very 1980s kitchen. Trends come and go, [so] try to make sure that whatever you’re doing assimilates well with the rest of the house.
Also, don’t be afraid to take your time. Half the fun of owning an old house is that it’s always a work in progress, always a project to keep you busy. Try to live in the space for a while before making any hefty decisions. Sometimes after living in a place for a while, you come to appreciate certain quirks that you once couldn’t wait to get rid of.
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Source: Housing Trends Feed