With shocking renovation potential, the homes on this popular social media account have us channeling our inner Chip and Joanna. We spoke with the owner of Cheap Old Houses to hear how she discovers and saves unbelievable homes with historical charm.

By Hannah Bruneman
October 10, 2018

Restoration fanatics and fixer-upper dreamers, you are not alone.

While high-tech homes and modern design continue to grow in popularity, there is still a small but strong market for historic properties. You know the kind—a crippling Victorian with only a hint of its once vibrant color, or a forgotten home large enough to fit a family of six but long overdue for a makeover.

Lovers of historical homes, who see the crumbling brick walls as character and the worn hardwood floors as an opportunity, are far and few between. However, Elizabeth Finkelstein has created a destination for major fixer-upper eye candy. Her Instagram account Cheap Old Houses has almost 250,000 followers and counting.

“I always felt as if there was a missing link between targeting people who are young enough, are excited, and have the real energy to restore a historical house,” Elizabeth says about making the account. “I didn’t feel that that audience was being spoken to.” 

With help from her digital design-savvy husband, Elizabeth created Circa, a website dedicated to historical architecture across all income brackets. As the site increased in popularity, Elizabeth began a blog on Circa called 10 Under $50,000, which featured fixer-uppers in need of a little love. After receiving an overwhelmingly positive response to the blog, Elizabeth created the Cheap Old Houses Instagram account, filling the feed with fan-generated images and properties she found on her own. All homes on the account are $100,000 or less, with the exception of a few mini-mansions. Any home marked “Save This House” has a listing price above $100,000.

“I have a real soft spot for fixer-uppers,” Elizabeth says. “I think they’re my first love, as much as I love houses that are perfect and finished. I’ve always loved the before pictures that are in every renovation story and there’s something to be said about seeing the potential in things.”

Her followers agree. Jessica Phillips found a home on Cheap Old Houses that she couldn’t pass up—a 1930s family home near the place she grew up in Virginia. It would be perfect for a vacation home they could also list as a rental. It was listed at $98,000 and Jessica snagged it for $70,000.

After purchasing the home, Jessica dug up some history on the original owner, and it was almost too good to be true. The owner was a local well driller who dug his own well for the hand pump on the laundry porch. He was also the milkman, who provided milk for the neighborhood, including Jessica’s uncle. “I had no idea when we contracted, but I lived across the road as a toddler and likely spent time on this same porch swing.”

When Jessica bought the home, it was in serious need of cleaning and updating. The kitchen and bathroom needed the most work, and they had to resurface the hardwood floors, which were covered in sample-size carpet squares in some rooms. The kitchen now has beautiful patterned tile and painted cabinets with new hardware. The butcher-block countertop is another standout addition.

Elizabeth urges future home flippers to keep as much of the historical integrity as possible. “If you can restore instead of replace, you’ll be much better off,” she says. Windows, for example, are made to custom fit most old homes, so modern vinyl replacements just won’t cut it. A state historic preservation office or local historical society can be a good reference when making decisions on historical properties.

Restoring an old home is no easy feat, but the fans and followers brought together by Cheap Old Houses seem to understand. Elizabeth says there are two types of people: those who would spend a free weekend at the beach, and those who would rather spend free time knee-deep in house projects. "The right kind of person paired with the right fixer-upper can be magical," she says.

For Jessica, seeing her property on Cheap Old Houses was a right place at the right time kind of situation. Her house is almost done—of course with future projects planned. “This place is beautiful and simple as it was. Time moves slower here. We don’t want to change that.”


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