Cheap Old Houses

Cheap Old Houses

Why Young Buyers are in the Market for Historic Fixer-Uppers

Words by Christine Van Dyk

Photos by Kelly Marshall

The stately Victorian house looked down on Nick Weith from a dramatic widow’s peak. More than 150 years old, the grande dame was full of history and even more obstacles—a crumbling slate roof, a cracked sewer drain, a century of peeling paint. The potential was there, but was it worth the effort?

Unconvinced, the 26-year-old educator turned his car around and left the aging beauty for another homebuyer. It was all in the rearview—or so he thought. Then in March of 2020 the world shut down and COVID changed his idea of what was possible. 

With unexpected time and an address that was now flexible, Nick and his partner, Damian Mordecai, revisited the home in Gowanda, New York. The property was back on the market and back on the table.

“We were part of the great resignation,” Damian said, referring to people leaving jobs in the city and going remote. We decided to sell both our homes and move into the Kimble House.”

Well … not right away.

“I guess it was technically possible to live there,” Nick joked, “but the cracked sewer meant if you ran the water it dripped into the dining room.”

The couple tackled the bedrooms first before turning their attention to the mansard roof. Unable to find skilled slate workers to come to their town at a price they could afford, Nick took classes to learn the trade himself.

With all the inconvenience and sweat equity needed to resurrect the Kimble House, why consider the undertaking?

“We were looking for an older home like this with its plaster crown molding, original windows, and spiral staircase,” Damian said, “but either we couldn’t find it where we lived or we couldn’t afford it.”

They weren’t alone. According to Bankrate, three-quarters of Gen Zers and 69 percent of millennials said they would consider relocating to a different state, moving to a more affordable but less desirable area, or taking on a fixer-upper in order to own a home. That’s because even though young homebuyers want to buy, most can’t afford to due to low incomes, high home prices, and a lack of down payments and closing costs.

For Nick and Damian, the pandemic created the perfect storm. It offered them the flexibility to relocate and the time to do the work themselves. Their dream was realized through an Instagram account called Cheap Old Houses that featured their future home.

Affordable Mansions

“People were stuck at home scrolling real estate posts," Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of the Cheap Old Houses feed, said. “There was an escapism to discovering a beautiful old mansion in a forgotten city and realizing you could have it because it was affordable.”

Elizabeth and her husband, Ethan, started a movement with a feed broadcasting listings for old properties across the nation. Today it boasts 2.4 million followers. Mid-century moderns, salt boxes, dogtrots—all historic and under $100,000. It struck a chord with younger buyers who were design-savvy, passionate about preserving history, and no longer bound by geography.

“It showed the world doesn’t end at the border of a major city,” Elizabeth said. “If we’ve learned anything from the past years, it’s that ‘location, location, location’ is not the only thing that matters.”

According to Elizabeth, many young people can’t get in the door of today’s real estate market, but with a cheap old house, there’s a chance “as long as you have patience and are willing to do the work yourself.”

How? Join online communities for advice, save for labor outside your skillset, and turn to YouTube for the rest. Want to know how to return a home to its original glory? Elizabeth recommends old magazines and vintage advertisements. For example, appliance ads are a “great way to see kitchen styles of a certain time period.”

“Historic homes speak a common language,” she says. “They follow trends of the day that lasted for decades. Those common themes make it possible to replicate period designs.”

Elizabeth has a background in historic preservation but was drawn to old homes long before her degree because she knew “the magic of old houses as a two-year-old growing up in one.”

In addition to their Instagram site, the Finkelsteins have a new book and a television show called Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? set to premiere on HGTV this spring. The brand celebrates the magic of old homes in a way that doesn’t make people feel alienated from them.

“There are purists who believe restoring an old home means everything has to be exact,” Elizabeth says, “but that’s not always possible. If you live in a 200-year-old home, you don’t have to cook over an open flame, but you should try hard to respond to the aesthetic and the materials so it doesn’t feel like you’ve taken a giant leap.”

This movement is not only making home-ownership possible for new buyers, it’s also breathing life into forgotten places. Rust belt cities, small rural areas, and company towns are experiencing a reawakening.

“Detroit is a fascinating example of a city built around one industry,” Elizabeth says. “The whiskey town of Peoria, Illinois is another. When industries failed, many cities lost identity and people left. Those industries may be gone but the homes are still there.”

This architectural legacy reimagined in the eyes of a creative generation has led to a revival.

“Everyone in our town is grateful we’re working on a home that sat untouched for 60-70 years,” Nick says. “Some neighbors have even started to work on their homes; maybe it’s a coincidence but I think beautification grows.”

Nick and Damian are still hard at work on Kimble House. They’ve turned their attention to the bathrooms, kitchen, and laundry; indoor projects for when the weather turns cold. What began with an initial investment of $52,000, is slowly turning into their dream.

“There’s a space midway up the spiral staircase where light streams in through a wavy glass window,” Nick says. “You can see the original woodwork climbing up through the second floor and into the tower. If you stand in the middle of the staircase it’s as if the whole house is surrounding you, and it’s magical.”

The Costs of Buying a Historic Home

A home is considered historic based on age, original character, and significance. They’re charming and often have a story to tell, but they aren’t for everyone! A historic house needs care and upkeep. Here are some things to consider before buying a cheap old house:

  • Check with your city or county to determine if there are re-modeling restrictions in the area.
  • Consider the cost of materials and labor. Don’t forget you may need to hire skilled craftsmen.
  • Include a 20 percent contingency for unforeseen issues.
  • The good news is there are often federal or state tax credits such as low-interest home improvement loans for historic properties.
  • You may also quality for a federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit (HTC). This credit, taken over five years, allows you to deduct 20 percent of qualifying costs on a historic project.
  • Since qualifying for a historic home has challenges, make sure to talk with a mortgage lender.