Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, founders of cheapoldhouses.com and Cheap Old Houses on Instagram and Facebook, at home in Nyack Sept. 16, 2020.
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Nyack couple, who live in a 1940s Cape, are behind the hugely popular site
If you have a thing for vintage real estate, you probably know all about the irresistible website cheapoldhouses.com and have it tagged as a daily favorite click.
If you’re not yet among its 1.3 million Instagram followers, be forewarned before you dive in – it’s a rabbit hole like no other.
Soon you’ll be delaying bedtime, burning dinner and turning to it whenever you have a few minutes – or hours – to spare. Surely there’s a cheap (under $100,000) and charming old house out there with your name on it?
Current listings include a four-bedroom partially furnished 1920 charmer with hardwood floors, stained glasswork and pocket doors in Jacksonville, Illinois, for $89,900; a sweet three-bedroom Victorian in Jamestown, New York, for $65,000; and in Auburn, there’s a six-bedroom, once home to the mayor in the 1800s, listed for $70,000.
Then there’s an 1880s Greek Revival, complete with a two-story columned front porch in Salamanca, New York, listed for $89,500.
Known as the Dowd Mansion, the listing mentions that back in the day, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were frequent overnight guests, but few guests could be lured to the home in its current condition. It is “in dire need of someone with the love & passion of restoring her to the beauty she once was.”
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Old house love
“I understand the attraction, the lure of these old houses,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, who founded the site in 2016 with her husband, Ethan. “Everybody has the experience of driving by an old house where they grew up and wondering what will happen to it.”
“I grew up in an old house (an 1850s Greek Revival in Queensbury, New York, near Saratoga Springs) and it’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I can’t envision anything but being in, and owning, an old house.”
For the last six years, that’s been a 1940s Cape in Nyack, New York. They were hoping for something older and more fixer-upper-ish, but she was about to give birth to their son, Everett, and they were eager to make the move from Brooklyn into a house of their own.
“We think Nyack is the greatest place ever,” Finkelstein says. “It’s a very hard place to leave.”
“First of all, obviously, we love the historic character of it,” she says. “We love the downtown, how walkable it is. It’s very creative, very progressive.”
For the previous 17 years, New York City had been her home, where she earned a master’s degree in historic preservation and then worked in the field as a professional preservation advocate, a licensed tour guide, and a professor and architectural historian. She is also Country Living Magazine‘s official real estate columnist.
So having the easy access to the city that Nyack allows is important to both Finkelsteins. While both work remotely now, Ethan’s creative/digital marketing company, Color + Information, is based in New York City.
In 2013, the couple founded another vintage real estate site, CIRCA Old Houses, which lists cool old homes at all price points and connects preservation-minded buyers with historic homes for sale. As she kept finding listings for killer old homes for less than $100,000, the decision to launch the Cheap Old Houses site grew organically from her work on CIRCA.
“I quickly came to realize that our audience was really attracted to fixer-uppers,” Finkelstein says. “I started to have a stockpile of them.”
She and Ethan have a pretty easy division of labor. “He’s the technical brains behind all this, and I’m the content,” she explains. “I’m the eye of everything,” meaning that she sees and approves everything for both sites and writes the clever, knowing and engaging copy. “I can’t drop that.”
“When you start something from scratch you know your audience so well,” Finkelstein says. “I know exactly what they’re looking for – I look at houses all day long.” (There are worse jobs, right?)
Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been very good for her business.
People have time on their hands, they’re cooped up and happy to dream about – and actually look for – a house that’s affordable and not necessarily in or even near a big city.
“People are really analyzing their lives and the opportunities available to them now,” Finkelstein says. They’re working remotely and they may never have to work in an office again. They want to be with their families and they’re wary of crowded places.
Before COVID-19, the Cheap Old Houses site was gaining about 10,000 new followers a week, she said. During the pandemic, that’s jumped to 20,000 or 25,000 a week.
“People who may have been less inclined to make a big change are now able to do that,” Finkelstein says. And that may even mean moving across the country to buy and rehab an old house they’ve fallen in love with.
Many of the fixer-uppers are in places that “are off most people’s radars and haven’t had a lot of financial investment,” she says. The houses haven’t been fixed up and sold over and over again, like so many old homes in major metropolitan areas. “They are these little time capsules.”
Millennials, not surprisingly, have been one of the main demographics driving traffic to the site.
Millennials make the perfect Cheap Old House buyer, Finkelstein says. “They have a lot of energy, they’re tech savvy, they may not have a family yet. They’re more intrepid, less risk averse. They’re a creative generation – they don’t want something cookie-cutter.”
It’s a generation that’s been shut out of home ownership, she says, perhaps because of immense student debt.
And yes, she and Ethan are always looking for what may be their next home, in an area that’s relatively close to New York City but not as expensive as the close-in suburbs.
“There are a whole host of houses I’m not allowed to put on the feed,” she says with a laugh. “We’re always, always looking. Literally, I’m my own audience – I am exactly that person.”
One of the most popular features on the Cheap Old House site are the testimonials from people who have swooped in and saved these wonderful houses and are now restoring them. Finkelstein posts a “I’ve Been Saved” ribbon on Instagram for those who have found a new owner.
“People love it when I post these saved stories,” Finkelstein says. And she loves that she and her site are part of the story, too.
“I’ve worked in historic preservation a long time,” she says. “It’s incredible to think I could make such a difference – it’s so empowering.”
What’s the attraction?
On people who take on these fixer-uppers that need so much TLC: “They are never going to get their money back. It’s about the love, the personal satisfaction of doing the work yourself, the sense of accomplishment, the personal growth.”
On where to find cheap old houses: “Western New York, the Midwest, the South and rural New England. It’s very hard to find anything on the West Coast or anything in the New York City area.”
On house flippers: “Oh, don’t get me going. I see no value in taking something that’s been there for 300 years and then walking in and wanting to make it modern.”
On her favorite old house era: “I love the really, really, really old ones. The walk-in cooking fireplace in the dining room, the super-old early American ones, the saltboxes. They really speak to my soul.”
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