Home renovation

@CheapOldHouses founders start their own old house renovation

For Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein of the Hudson Valley, “Save All The Old Houses” isn’t just a cheeky slogan to stick on crewneck sweatshirts, pennant flags and tote bags (although that they did too) – it’s a rallying cry. The duo behind wildly popular Instagram feeds @CheapOldHouses and @CircaHouses have amassed 1.7 million followers, but they’re not stopping there.

This summer, they’ll be on TV with a namesake show on HGTV, scouring old homes across the country and checking out some of their past listings that have been taped. Opportunity has evolved, in part, thanks to their subscribers’ insatiable thirst for the “homemade porn” they feature weekly on their feeds and which fuels a public real estate obsession through Zillow and other real estate sites.

“The story of Cheap Old Houses is kind of crazy,” says Ethan. “We didn’t even know the impact the stream was having until maybe two years ago, and now we have over 100 stories of people who have bought homes that they’ve seen us list, and that really inspired us right away. We see the good he does and the community he’s built. It’s easy to watch designers on TV and be inspired, but the most important story is that from the neighbor who restored an old building and what is happening at ground level in communities across the country.

Elizabeth and Ethan may have met as city dwellers in New York, but it was a love for old homes and a penchant for nostalgia that brought them together (“We’re both really old souls,” explains Elizabeth). Growing up, Elizabeth was, as she puts it, “totally spoiled” by her childhood home, an 1850s Greek Revival near Saratoga Springs.

“Some of our first dates were I was asking Elizabeth if she wanted to leave Brooklyn and go and move to the country and buy this farm with me,” says Ethan Finkelstein of the couple’s early relationship — and love. old real estate. The duo live in the Hudson Valley but are renovating an old house upstate.

Ethan and Elizabeth Finkelstein

“I watched my parents love their house the whole time – they invested a lot in it,” she says. “I think some people grow up in a situation where they move around a lot or their house is just a place they live and they can lock the door without really thinking about it. This was not the case with my parents. I always knew that our house was different from everyone else’s, and I remember growing up with great pride.

Ethan came to the table with a totally different perspective on home permanence, having moved around a lot due to his father’s career in the Navy. Yet the digital marketing professional has felt the undeniable tug that historic real estate can hold, dreaming of one day buying and restoring a beloved century-old farmhouse that had been in his family for decades.

“As soon as Elizabeth and I started dating, my grandmother’s house went up for sale,” he explains. “Some of our first dates were I was asking Elizabeth if she wanted to leave Brooklyn and go and move to the country and buy this farm with me – I don’t even know if we were ‘official’ at the time.”

When price + house age = Instagram gold

The price of her grandmother’s house was a little out of reach, but the rural dream remained – until something even bigger blossomed for the couple.

In 2016, after years of checking online listings and hosting weekend open houses just for fun, Elizabeth launched Circa Old Houses, a namesake site and Instagram feed that allowed her to power further his love for old houses outside of his 9-to-5 as a historic curator in New York. [Disclosure: Elizabeth also is a real estate columnist for Country Living, a Hearst magazine. The Times Union also is owned by Hearst.]

Initially, there was no price cap on the homes featured, but Elizabeth soon found herself with a veritable buffet of excess old homes on her radar – thanks to hours spent browsing real estate sites like Zillow, Redfin, and more – many of which were listed for less than $50,000. Thus, an additional social profile and site, Cheap Old Houses, was born, with the aim of connecting featured properties with buyers who wanted to take care of them.

It quickly gained followers, surpassing 100,000 fans in just over a year and generating buzz (and up to thousands of social shares) for single listings like a Swedish converted church in Michigan for 57,900. $ and a 1906 home in Syracuse, NY listed for just $1,000.

“The homes that end up on @CheapOldHouses are interesting in so many ways,” says Elizabeth. “We live just outside New York [in Nyack], and each time a house is on the market, the kitchen is redone, the bathroom redone, everything is turned around. But in some of the places where I’m posting homes, they haven’t had that kind of economic investment, and [the houses] are kind of vulnerable because they’re not shown to people and given that chance.

“We started Cheap Old Houses, in a way, a bit selfishly,” she continues. “We lived in a place that was so expensive and unsustainable, and I think we fit the mold of a lot of our followers – home ownership was a pipe dream. We’ve been looking for our own “cheap old house” for even longer than we’ve used this feed. »

From Instagram Feed to Renovation Reality

Nearly five years after starting @CheapOldHouses, the couple finally had a chance to participate in the Old Home community they fostered. They searched long and hard for a home under $100,000 and hit the jackpot at a Federal-style farmhouse built in the late 1700s, nestled on 10.5 bucolic acres in upstate New York between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont.

The first floor of the house had been completely gutted, but echoes of the past – including plaster walls, original wood siding, and tons of historic windows – remain intact. For Elizabeth and Ethan, the chance to follow the path on which they built their social empire is the thrill of a lifetime.

“I once heard someone say that the more you give to something, the more you love it,” says Elizabeth. “Once we fix this house – and it needs so much repair – I can’t imagine giving it up. It feels like we’ve found our piece of heaven.

“With old houses, you have to live with them for a while to understand their value and let things grow within you,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, pictured here with Ethan, her husband and co-founder of Cheap Old Houses.

Ethan and Elizabeth Finkelstein

For renovators in the same boat, the duo can’t stress enough the importance of research. Elizabeth has shouldered the weight of historic recognition of their property, while Ethan leads the difficult but necessary work of ensuring the walls will hold and the pipes will work.


“Digging to find out who lived in your house and when it was built can lead to a better understanding of how the house should function and be brought back to life,” says Elizabeth, who suggests combing through resources such as Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, as well as your location history society, to glean further information about a new property.

From there, the ambitious couple plan to follow the golden rule they suggest all previous owners follow: do your best to keep everything original.

“We live in a country where newer and fresher is seen as easier and better, and we have a lot of marketing pushing that,” says Elizabeth, who playfully names the “spooky window industry” as one of the most guilty. guilty of a buy-and-replace mindset. Rehabilitating historic windows is always better than replacing them with cheaper vinyl versions, she says.

“The old windows have been there for 200 years and are made of materials meant to be repaired, unlike vinyl, which will last 10 years and end up in a landfill.”

Taking your time to preserve an old home should be part of the process, she advocates. “There is also a somewhat slow renovation that has to be done with the old houses. Everyone expects their home to immediately look like an Instagram feed, and the concept of walking in and clearing out a place is popular,” she says. “With old houses, you have to live with them for a while to understand their value and let things grow within you.”

True to their dichotomous relationship, Elizabeth and Ethan both look forward to different parts of restoring their forever home. He stresses the importance of working with contractors who appreciate the value of historic architecture and are eager to see if the septic tank works, as she dreams of fittings and finishes that will allow the age of home to sing.

Still, the pair have aligned on many points from the start, including one big truth: This house isn’t “theirs.”

“I think a lot of owners of older homes, us included, would describe themselves as stewards of their homes,” Elizabeth says. “The house isn’t yours – it’s its own living thing, and it’s beyond you. You’re dealing with the past, but you’re also making sure the next person to live in it has something that’s been well maintained and cared for.

Ethan adds, “We’ll never be bored in this house, that’s for sure.”

Alyssa Longobucco is a freelance writer, editor, and interior design enthusiast. She lives in the Hudson Valley, where she renovates an 1820s colonial alongside her husband and son, Liam.

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