In late February, Matt Hill was scrolling through Instagram when he saw the house. It was a massive old Victorian with two turrets, three porches, and a carriage house. And it was derelict. Plaster crumbled from the walls, the wood under the porch was rotted through, and there was no insulation. “Lotsa work. But WOW!!!,” the caption read. Hill found the listing, contacted the agent, and purchased the thing for $15,000, sight unseen. Within two weeks, it was in escrow. Within four, he was on a plane from Riverside, California, where he’d spent all of his 34 years, to Mount Pulaski, Illinois, a snowy town with a population of 1,500 and a single bar, called the Lucky Lager.
Such is the power of Cheap Old Houses, an Instagram account with over 400,000 followers that functions as part ruin porn, part e-commerce site. The houses posted are all for sale, and most are priced under — some far under — $100,000. Captions provide brief descriptions of the properties: a Tudor in Dayton, Ohio, with beamed cathedral ceilings for $47,000; a former schoolhouse in Mansfield, Ohio, for $55,000; a neoclassical revival in Weldon, North Carolina, for $25,000.
The account is run by Elizabeth Finkelstein, a preservation expert who runs a real-estate-listings site called Circa. Finkelstein started Circa in 2013 after studying historic preservation at Pratt; she grew up in a fixer-upper in Queensbury, New York, and wanted to buy one of her own. Looking at Zillow and StreetEasy, she realized that there wasn’t a site that filtered for historic houses. She created Circa with her husband, who owns a Brooklyn-based digital-design agency, and the site now draws 2 million page views monthly. In 2016, she launched the Cheap Old Houses Instagram account as a place to publicize her bargain-bin finds.
“The account was this perfect storm,” says Finkelstein. “People can’t afford to buy a home; I’m posting affordable homes. People are tired of living on the internet; these houses offer them the chance to do something tactile, to work with their hands. People like things that aren’t cookie-cutter, that are one-of-a-kind; these houses have so much character.” And they go against the current mass trends: The peeling paint and cracked stained glass stand out on Instagram feeds clogged with Monstera plants, mid-century-modern furniture, and color-blocked rugs.
Hill, who moved in (an imprecise term for his current living situation: He’s relying on a general store’s bathroom a half-mile down the road) to his Victorian the second weekend in April, is one of dozens of people who’ve bought a beautiful disaster spotted on Cheap Old Houses — which isn’t entirely surprising, particularly for millennials. A recent study by the Federal Reserve concluded that 400,000 more young adults would have owned homes in 2014 if they didn’t have student debt. And as rents climb in big cities, some former Rust Belt towns’ populations are growing: Erie County, New York, for instance, has attracted more than 6,000 new residents since 2010. The appeal of Cheap Old Houses isn’t just the price, though. There’s the fantasy of trading crowded subways and rush-hour traffic for peaceful evening walks. “I think people are buying these houses for the same reason people are quitting their jobs and, you know, making artisanal pickles,” says Finkelstein. “For people who are sick of the city or sick of staring at their computers for ten hours a day, these houses offer a chance to live offline.”
When This Old House, hosted by a crabby craftsman named Bob Vila, premiered on WGBH in 1979, it was the first show of its kind to depict home makeovers from start to finish. Over the course of 13 half-hour episodes, Vila, with a team of tradesmen, restored a single home. They replaced bulkhead doors, blew cellulose into the walls, and discovered on-camera that the rafters supporting the roof were, as Vila might put it, “shot to hell.” The first season drew a quarter of a million viewers weekly; the show went on to win 18 Emmys. It also bred an entire genre of sleeker, less-technical imitators, like 2003’s Extreme Home Makeover: Home Edition, whose manic host-slash-carpenter (and former model) Ty Pennington made restoration look quick and delightful: in one episode, the team demolishes a bowling-themed bathroom by rolling a 500-pound bowling ball through the house. A genre exploded: pretty people revamping an old home in the time it takes a normal person to vacuum the living room.
The trouble is, like the couple in Bless This Mess, a new ABC sitcom in which Dax Shepard and Lake Bell leave their Manhattan apartment for a ramshackle house in Nebraska, many buyers find life more difficult than they’d imagined. A typical renovation can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and drag on for years. Keeping original wavy 1800s glass means drafts: a problem in towns like Hill’s, where winter temperatures can reach 20 below zero. Fixing an 1800s fireplace can cost upwards of $12,000 per chimney.
And the reality of day-to-day life in former mill towns or farm villages can be jolting. David Howell and his wife, Randi, left Denver last year for Towanda, Illinois, a 466-person village composed of a single restaurant (called Kicks), a small library, an elementary school, a grain-silo complex, and, for entertainment, a once-a-year spaghetti supper held at the Towanda American Legion. “There’s no anonymity in Towanda,” says Howell. “Most everyone is a farmer, or retired. Last year, when we found out my wife was pregnant, we only told two people. Then we went into town, and several people congratulated us on our pregnancy. Half the town knew. Probably half of Normal, too — that’s the town over.”
Here’s what it’s like to buy a Cheap Old House.
The Bargain Victorian in Mount Pulaski, Illinois (pictured above)
Purchased for $15,000
Renovation costs $4,000 (so far)
It had been on the market 180 days when I saw it on Cheap Old Houses. I bought it 15 days later and started work a month after that. The town has 1,500 people, and I know none of them. I’d never been to Illinois or anywhere close to there, really. I just wanted the project. I’m a contractor, so I know how to do that kind of stuff. I’ve been here for a month now, sleeping on an air mattress on the floor in one of the parlors. I wake up every day at 5 a.m. and get to work till it gets too dark to see anymore.
There’s no service in the house — I have to prop my phone on top of my toolbox in the corner of the parlor just to get a text. And it’s been freezing cold — there are holes in the walls, so I’ve been sleeping in my jacket and pants. I can’t watch TV, so the first few nights, under a lightbulb I set up on an extension cord, I read some magazines about the area that I found in a shop.
My neighbors are cool. There’s a guy also named Matt next door; he’s come over for beers a couple times. Across the street is the town historian. People stop by to tell me little facts about the house. The place where I worked as a contractor back in California donated a lot of materials: electrical, mostly, some outlets. I haven’t needed new materials yet, but when I do, I know I’ll have to call the guy who owns the hardware store in town. He’s only open very infrequently, according to my neighbor, so when you need something, you call.
The Supersized Retirement Home in Logansport, Indiana
Purchased for $70,000
Renovation costs $100,000 (so far)
I was browsing Cheap Old Houses and saw this old Victorian. It was crumbling. I decided to go look at it because it was only a two-hour drive from where I live in Indianapolis. When I got there, I thought, No way. It had a leak in the roof, the 20-foot columns were starting to bend in half and collapse, the upstairs walls were down to the studs. I drove back and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Three weeks later, it was mine.
The house is a big deal in town, we’ve deduced. It used to belong to the family of General John Tipton, whom Tipton, Indiana, was named after. Every time we want to do something, we have to go before the historic-preservation board. And people actually show up to hear about each development. Everything is more expensive than I thought — by a lot. We’re replacing all the columns on the front of the house, which we thought would be about $30,000. It’s going to be about $100,000, and I’m already about $100,000 in. But this is my retirement home. This is it for me, and this is it for my mother, who’s moving with me. There’s a lot the town doesn’t have. I wear plus-size clothes, and the nearest plus-size store is about 45 minutes away. And there’s not a single decent organic-grocery store. We’re going to have to drive to Whole Foods, which is three hours round trip.
The 1865 Love Nest in Bristol, Connecticut
Purchased for $175,000
Renovation costs $20,000 (so far)
I lived in Bristol a couple of years ago while I was working at ESPN, which has its headquarters there. I’d see this house all the time. I always admired the shutters, which were Barney purple and hung off their hinges. ventually, I left ESPN, moved back to New York, and rented an apartment in midtown east. And soon after that, my partner David and I — we had been together for six years — broke up. He was still living in Bristol, and it wasn’t working out. In December, I got a DM from David on Instagram: It was the house, which he’d spotted on the Cheap Old Houses Instagram and which he knew I loved. And suddenly, we were reconnected.
We closed on the house in March; last weekend, we moved our things in. I wanted to work on the shutters, which required I go to Home Depot and buy a 32-foot extension ladder. Which, apparently, costs $400. A $400 ladder! I’m hoping the renovation will cost somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000, but things could, of course, go terribly wrong. For instance, we have to dig out the old oil tank in the backyard. And only once that’s out will we find out if there’s been contamination — if oil has leached into the ground. If it has, that could be up to $600,000. It’s a risk.
—Miguel Pantoja and David Farineau
The Cannon-Fire Survivor in Lexington, Missouri
Purchased for $60,000
Renovation costs $100,000 (estimated)
We raised our daughter in Blue Springs, a community in the Kansas City metro area. We were 100 percent suburbanites at that time: We lived in a new-construction home, which we picked for the school district. Around the time my daughter graduated, we saw this house pop up on Cheap Old Houses, which we’d been following for years. I went and saw it, and oh boy, was it a mess. It was part of the Wentworth Military complex, and after Wentworth closed and sold, it sat vacant for years with a hole in the roof. Water damage like crazy, the foundation was a wreck, and I was in love. She was just so regal and austere, and we decided to buy her. My husband got his real-estate license, and I’ve been a housewife.
The ticket has been hiring a preservationist to help us remodel the home. He’s keeping us under budget, and he’s helping us find folks who know how to renovate old homes — how to work with 1800s brick, for instance, and old glass. We believe the foundation is going to hold the most amount of secrets. Troubling secrets. And we have a bunch of lead, so we can’t have people over, which is making me a little sad. But there’s so much to discover in the house every day. My husband has a metal detector, and last week he found unfired musket balls and all sorts of musket-ball damage on the bricks on one side of the house. Then someone stopped by and told us the house was rumored to have been struck by a cannon. It does look rather concave.
—Mary and Larry Thomas
The Antique Airbnb in Bergton, Virginia
Renovation costs $16,000 (so far)
I’m a realtor, and I’d been searching for a vacation home about two hours from where I live, in northern Virginia. Then one day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw this house. The crazy thing was that it was located in the town where I spent time as a kid. We have so much history with this house, which we didn’t even know when we bought it. We found out that the man who built it was the local well driller and the local milkman; my uncle, who was also a milkman, used to go pick up bottles of milk from his milking parlor.
Buying the house was a pretty easy decision. It had original shiplap and walnut floors harvested from the land, an old cast-iron tub, an old well pump that you have to crank to use — you rarely see working ones anymore. The renovations, once we bought it, didn’t cost much, because the foundation was in good shape; so were the roof and the floors. We decided right from the start that we’d Airbnb this thing out, so our biggest expense was actually the furnishings. We spent something like $8,000 on new linens, a couch, those sorts of purchases. Last weekend, to get things ready for our first guests, we hauled off about 6,000 pounds of metal from the yard ourselves: old chicken coops, old boilers. We’re charging about $225 a night, and it’s already rented out for the first five weeks.
The Farmhouse Fashion Studio in Towanda, Illinois
Purchased for $150,000
Renovation costs $100,000 (so far)
My wife and I were living in Denver in a 720-square-foot house with a small yard. We saw this place on Cheap Old Houses and went to go see it when we were in Bloomington, Illinois, for a funeral and a wedding. It’s dramatic: almost 6,000 square feet, surrounded by some 300 acres of soybean fields. Hardly any trees. The place was a mess. No heating, no electric, no plumbing; the plaster was crumbling off the walls and the ceilings. For the first four months, we slept on an air mattress outside, on one of the house’s two balconies. We set up a makeshift kitchen on the other balcony: a fridge, running on temporary electric. Then there’s the winter. The whole place looks like Fargo. Everyone, I think, gets seasonal depression and goes to the local bars and just drinks and drinks.
Employment is hard for us: My background is in design, and there’s nothing to do with that here. So I’ve been working construction jobs to make money. And my wife went to school for fashion design — she’s working in town as a clerk at the post office. You know what’s funny? My wife and I lose each other in the house. I’ll be in the kitchen and call her on the phone to ask where she is. Usually I find her up in her sewing studio in one of the third-floor towers.
—David and Randi Howell
*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!