If you never quite got round to adopting that puppy during lockdown, why not adopt an unloved home now instead?
You’ll get the same buzz, promises Elizabeth Finkelstein, who alongside her husband Ethan, runs the Instagram phenom @cheapoldhouses — an account that shows off lusty listings from across the country that are more than 100 years old with asks under $100,000.
House adoption also gives life “immense purpose,” the 41-year-old told The Post. “We’re the Sarah MacLachlan of old houses,” added Ethan, 37, of the SPCA fundraising staple.
It’s a mission that has resonated with the Finkelsteins’ 1.6 million real estate-obsessed followers, who include Blake Lively, Jennifer Garner, SJP, Drew Barrymore and Miranda Lambert (but not MacLachlan, unfortunately – “I wish” laughs Elizabeth).
Now, their social media clout has earned the couple a brand new reality show, “Cheap Old Houses,” premiering today on HGTV and streaming on Discovery+.
In each episode, the elfin, giggle-prone Elizabeth and her low-key, can-do husband scout out two cheap old houses for sale, aiming to decide which they’d buy.
Their recs are a guide for would-be buyers — “always eyeball the original details” (dumb waiters or pocket doors, e.g. — a pair of those costs at least $2,400 to replace) and “the more you find, the better the bargain.” It’s a promising sign of long-time care if the kitchen or bathroom haven’t been modernized, they said.
“When a home is flipped, they’re the first thing to get updated, so if they survive, that’s very special,” Elizabeth explained.
In second half of the show, the Finkelsteins give their stamp of approval to a cheap old house owner who has given their century home a tasteful and historically respectful rehab.
The Nyack, New York-based couple are accidental TV stars. Elizabeth, who grew up upstate, attended NYU and worked in historic preservation. Former navy brat Ethan works in digital marketing.
At first, the couple combined their skills on a startup, Circa Old Homes — a real estate eBay, spotlighting historic houses from around the country. On a whim, the Finkelsteins started an Insta account, part promo for their main biz and part chance to indulge their dreams of saving historic homes.
Almost immediately, their followers got in on the fun, bombarding them with suggestions of dirt-cheap historic properties ready to be rescued. If someone DM’d about a historic home they’d purchased, the Finkelsteins would regram it with an “I’ve Been Saved!” sticker, generating new followers on both sides.
That was five years ago — now the pandemic has also helped fuel their follower count.
“If anything, this feed is about nostalgia,” Elizabeth explained. “It’s for the same reason people are leaving their jobs in finance to go create artisanal pickles — the satisfaction we feel completing a project with our hands. This is a subculture of people who want to do something slow, steady and sustainable.”
Old buildings that can be repurposed are always catnip for likes, including ready-to-convert churches, mills, courthouses, lighthouses and schoolhouses.
“Whenever we post those, gosh, people love them,” Elizabeth said.
They even spotlighted Nina Simone’s childhood home, in Tryon, North Carolina. Simone’s barely 700-square-foot, shack-like house, which lacked plumbing and electricity, sold for just over $25,000 in 2017 in part thanks to the Finkelsteins’ efforts.
The buyers were a quartet of preservation-minded African-American artists, including Julie Mehretu and Rashid Johnson; it’s now protected as a national treasure.
But their favorite find is the seven-bedroom Duncan Manor, a 1860s mansion in rural Illinois. After spying it online, they snapped it up and moved to the small town of Towanda to restore it. For a while, they even camped out on the porch until a room was ready for them to live in.
The full scoop on that reno will be featured later in the season of their show, which was filmed throughout last winter, during cold snaps and even a 2-foot blizzard (cue Elizabeth’s assortment of bobble hats).
“Next time we’re filming a show called ‘Expensive Old Houses with Heat and Bathrooms,’ ” she laughed.
Elizabeth and Ethan are evangelical in their enthusiasm for these neglected beauties and they see their new show more like a tent revival than another exercise in real estate porn.
“We hope to inspire people to think about alternative ways to live, [and to create] a different vision of the American dream,” she said. “The average home in America costs $350,000. How does anyone afford a house at a young age? You know, people living in cubicles, paying too much rent in expensive cities — they can buy a mansion in a field in Illinois that they can actually afford — and that needs them. That’s escapism in the greatest sense of the word.”
Elizabeth said that at least 100 of the properties they’ve featured have been rescued and rebooted by their followers.
For their own experiment in living an alternative American dream, the pair and their now 6-year-old son Everett, settled on a love shack far upstate: a 1700s farmhouse sitting on more than 10 acres, which they bought last November for less than $100,000.
“It was the neediest one out there,” Elizabeth joked of their runty, puppy-like choice. A scant few original details remained — wood siding, historic windows — but it was largely a blank canvas, primed to be revived.
“It needed a rescue,” added Ethan, “Omigosh, this thing needs so much love. It’s a gut job at this point.”
The duo confides that far upstate New York is one of the best patches in the country to scour bargains like this, especially around the Finger Lakes, in cities like Rochester and Buffalo.
“New York has had so many different periods of growth, so there’s houses from the 1700s to amazing craftsman bungalows — all types of houses in this state,” Elizabeth said.
To find your own in the wild (without the Instagram competition), they suggest starting in Vermont. It has a $10,000 incentive for folks moving full-time to work remotely there, as well as an excess of ready-to-rescue historic fixer-uppers. Scope outland banks, too, in places like Kingston and Syracuse — these are non-profits that buy up abandoned homes and resell them for peanuts with provisos in places.
For instance, buyers must live there, full-time, and can’t flip them.
“On TV, it has become about doing a big transformation — you know, demo, demo, demo and then a quick flip,” Elizabeth said, momentarily stern. “Flipping is my F word. I cannot stand the idea that people come in and take a house that has had meaning to a community for 200 years, and quickly put stock stuff in there to make a buck on it.”
That might sound like a strange attitude from the newest star of the network that virtually trademarked the buy-fix-flip formula. The couple was approached multiple times about TV shows along those lines but turned them down; they refused to endorse turbocharged payoffs. They compare flipping to McDonald’s, and the “Old House movement” like Slow Food.
“It took a long time before we could find a production company willing to pitch something outside the box of a typical home renovation show,” she said. “We’re not going to get a show shot in three months.”
They hope that the show will further bolster their growing movement and they even encourage viewers to enquire about the homes they see on the show. Ethan estimates around half the homes they feature are still on the market.
“Not everyone will buy a 7,000-square-foot mansion — for that, you need a lot of time and handyman skills, or a large budget,” Elizabeth said. “But there are people on the show who bought 600-square-foot bungalows that didn’t need as much work. There are enough cheap old houses out there for everyone.”