USA TODAY US Edition

Why so many are ob­sessed with ‘Cheap Old Houses’

Ny­ack couple, who live in a 1940s Cape, are be­hind the hugely pop­u­lar site

- Bill Cary

Couple in love with vintage real es­tate amasses 1.3 mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers.

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, New York, 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.”

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-up­per­ish, 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 (New York) 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. 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 also is Coun­try Liv­ing Mag­a­zine‘s of­fi­cial real es­tate colum­nist.

So hav­ing 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 old homes at all price points and con­nects preser­va­tion­minded 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 from 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.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, the COVID-19 pan­demic has been good for her busi­ness.

Peo­ple have time on their hands, they’re cooped up and happy to dream about – and look for – a house that’s af­ford­able.

“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,” she says. “They’re more in­trepid, less risk averse. They’re a cre­ative gen­er­a­tion.”

It’s a gen­er­a­tion that’s been shut out of home­own­er­ship, she says, per­haps be­cause of 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.”

 ?? CROCKER TEAM AT HUNT ERA REAL ES­TATE ?? The home at 43 Grover Street in Auburn, N.Y., once was owned by the mayor in the 1800s. It is on the mar­ket for $70,000, but there is an of­fer.
CROCKER TEAM AT HUNT ERA REAL ES­TATE The home at 43 Grover Street in Auburn, N.Y., once was owned by the mayor in the 1800s. It is on the mar­ket for $70,000, but there is an of­fer.
 ?? TA­NIA SAVAYAN/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK ?? Elizabeth and Ethan Finkel­stein, founders of cheap­old­houses.com at home in Ny­ack, N.Y. Their In­sta­gram @Cheap­Old­Houses has over 1.2 mil­lion fol­low­ers.
TA­NIA SAVAYAN/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK Elizabeth and Ethan Finkel­stein, founders of cheap­old­houses.com at home in Ny­ack, N.Y. Their In­sta­gram @Cheap­Old­Houses has over 1.2 mil­lion fol­low­ers.
 ?? TA­NIA SAVAYAN/THE JOUR­NAL NEWS ?? Elizabeth and Ethan Finkel­stein with their son, Everett, 6, at home in Ny­ack on Sept. 16. Cheap Old Houses features charm­ing old houses across Amer­ica for un­der $100,000.
TA­NIA SAVAYAN/THE JOUR­NAL NEWS Elizabeth and Ethan Finkel­stein with their son, Everett, 6, at home in Ny­ack on Sept. 16. Cheap Old Houses features charm­ing old houses across Amer­ica for un­der $100,000.

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