@CheapOldHouses founders start their own old home renovation

Ashley S. Crofoot

For Hudson Valley’s Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, “Save All The Old Houses” isn’t just a cheeky slogan to slap on crewneck sweatshirts, pennant flags and canvas totes (though they’ve done that too) — it’s a rallying cry. The duo behind the wildly popular Instagram feeds @CheapOldHouses and @CircaHouses have amassed a staggering 1.7 million followers, but they’re not stopping there.

This summer, they’ll take to television with a namesake show on HGTV, scoping out old homes around the country and checking in on some of their past listings that have been saved. The opportunity evolved, in part, thanks to their following’s insatiable hunger for the “house porn” they showcase on their feeds weekly and that powers a public real estate obsession via Zillow and other real estate sites.

“The story of Cheap Old Houses is kind of crazy,” Ethan says. “We didn’t even know the impact the feed was having until maybe two years ago, and now we have over 100 stories of people who bought houses they saw us list, and it really has just inspired us right back. We see the good that it’s doing and the community that it’s built. It’s easy to look at designers on television and be inspired, but the most important story is the neighbor that has restored an old building, and what’s happening at ground-level in communities across the country.”

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

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

Ethan and Elizabeth Finkelstein

“I watched my parents love on their house all the time — they invested a lot into it,” she says. “I think some people grow up in a situation where they either move a lot or their house is just kind of just a place they live in and they can lock the door and not really think about it. That wasn’t the case for my parents. I always knew that our house was different than everyone else’s, and I remember growing up with a lot of pride in it.”

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

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

When price point + home age = Instagram gold

The price for his grandmother’s house was a bit out of reach, but the rural pipe dream remained — until something even bigger bloomed for the couple.

In 2016, after years of peeping online listings and hitting up open houses together on the weekends just for fun, Elizabeth started Circa Old Houses, a site and namesake Instagram feed that allowed her to further fuel her love for old homes outside of her 9-to-5 as a historical preservationist in New York City. [Disclosure: Elizabeth also is a real estate columnist for Country Living, a Hearst magazine. The Times Union is also owned by Hearst.]

There initially wasn’t a 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 scouring real estate sites like Zillow, Redfin, and more — many of which were listed at less than $50,000. Thus, an additional social profile and site, Cheap Old Houses, was born, with the goal of connecting the showcased properties with buyers who wanted to care for them.

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

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

“We started Cheap Old Houses, in a sense, a little selfishly,” she continues. “We were living in a place that was so expensive and unsustainable, and I think we fit the mold of a lot of our followers — homeownership was a pipe dream. We’ve been looking for our own ‘cheap old house’ for even longer than we’ve been running this feed.”

From Instagram feed to renovation reality

Almost five years after starting @CheapOldHouses, the pair finally got the chance to participate in the old home community they fostered. They looked extensively for a home under $100,000 and hit the jackpot on a federal-style farmhouse built in the late 1700s, nestled on 10.5 bucolic acres in upstate New York between the Adirondacks and Vermont’s Green Mountains.

The home’s first floor had been completely gutted, but echoes of the past — including plaster walls, original wood siding and tons of historical windows — still remain intact. For Elizabeth and Ethan, the chance to walk the walk they’ve built their social empire on is the thrill of a lifetime.

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

“With old houses, you need to live with them a while to understand their worth, and let things grow on you,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, shown 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 taken on the brunt of the historical reconnaissance for their property, while Ethan helms the gritty-but-necessary work of making sure walls will stand and pipes will function.


“Digging into who has lived in your house and when it was built can lead to a better understanding for how the house should function and be brought back to life,” says Elizabeth, who suggests combing through resources like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, as well as your location historical society, to glean further information on a new-to-you property.

From there, the ambitious pair plans to follow the golden rule they suggest that all old homeowners abide by: Do your absolute best to save anything original.

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

“Old windows have been here for 200 years and are made of materials that are 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’s also a bit of a slow renovation that needs to happen with old houses. Everybody expects their house to look like an Instagram feed immediately, and the concept of walking in and gutting a place is popular,” she says. “With old houses, you need to live with them a while to understand their worth, and let things grow on you.”

True to their dichotomous relationship, Elizabeth and Ethan are both looking forward to different parts of restoring their forever home. He stresses the importance of working with contractors who appreciate the value of historical architecture and can’t wait to see if the septic works, while she daydreams of fixtures and finishes that will allow the home’s age to sing.

Still, the pair have been aligned on many things from the start, including one big truth: This home is not “theirs.”

“I think a lot of old house owners, us included, would describe themselves as stewards of their homes,” says Elizabeth. “The house doesn’t belong to you — it’s its own living thing, and it goes beyond you. You take care of the past, but you also make sure that the next person that lives there has something that’s been well-maintained and cared for.”

Adds Ethan, “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’s renovating an 1820s colonial alongside her husband and son, Liam. 

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