Old houses, especially those in need of a little TLC, have long captured our imagination. Now, thanks to the latest breed of preservationist, one that comes with social media savvy, old houses are getting a fresh spotlight.
Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, for example, have parlayed the 1.4 million followers on their @cheapoldhouses Instagram account into an HGTV show called "Cheap Old Houses" that will debut this summer.
The eight-episode series will showcase inexpensive period homes from across the country that the Finkelsteins are considering for their Instagram account. It will also highlight homes that were previously promoted on the account that have been restored and "saved."
In addition to the Instagram account they started in 2016 to showcase old homes that typically have price tags of $100,000 or less, the Finkelsteins run Circa Old Houses, a real estate listing site for all sorts of older homes, ranging from neglected fixer-uppers to meticulously restored homes at higher price points.
"For me, it's all about the dream and the potential and the project," said Elizabeth Finkelstein, who has a master's degree in historic preservation, and was formerly a director of preservation and research at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in New York City.
Late last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded, 71-year-old nonprofit created to save historic sites nationwide, started a partnership with Circa, which now lists and socially promotes historic trust properties that are on the market.
The Finkelsteins, of course, are not alone in their focus. There are dozens of Instagram accounts dedicated to old houses, and the hashtag for #oldhouselove recently had more than 690,000 posts.
All this social media attention may be helping drive sales of older homes, even those that require serious work.
Demand for single-family homes under $100,000 and 100 years or older has remained steady year over year, according to Realtor.com, but the pace of sales for this niche market has gained momentum in the pandemic, following the national trend in overall home sales.
"In January 2020, the median days on market for these homes was 86 days, eight days slower than the same time in 2019. However, as of December, these homes were selling in 79 days, 10 days faster than last year," said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com, who added, it's "an impressive feat considering the diligence required for purchasing one of these properties."
Recent data provided by Zillow showed homes built before 1940 garnering nearly as many saves per housing unit as houses from the early 2000s.
Erin DiFazio, a broker with Chrome Realty in Sarasota, Fla., who specializes in historic properties, said she believed that more buyers now want homes that "reflect a more authentic self, individual character and a bit of story." The craftsmanship of older homes is often a primary selling point, she said.
While legislation pertaining to historic preservation varies from place to place, there are often specific incentives and protections for locally designated properties, including tax credits and exemptions, and flexibility in the building and zoning codes to preserve historic features. Insuring an older home, however, can be challenging, depending on the state, DiFazio said.
"More and more first-time buyers are admiring what makes these homes timeless," said Michael Robleto, a Los Angeles agent with Compass who specializes in prewar homes.
Many buyers are tired of the overtly neutral living spaces that seem ubiquitous in flipped homes, he said, adding that in addition to a potential investment benefit, the construction quality of older homes is often unmatched.
"The old adage is true: They don't make 'em like they used to, and you can't rebuild history," Robleto said.
In the past two years, Robleto has detected a noticeable change in buyers' willingness to take on an older home that needs major mechanical work, and to preserve the original elements of a home, including windows, custom built-ins, glass doorknobs and hardwood floors.
"Home improvement TV shows and social media profiles have a massive effect on our historic housing stock," he said.
"This Old House," which trailblazed this category of home-improvement TV starting in 1979, continues to carry and attract an immense audience on page and screen.
"This Old House" and "Ask This Old House," a long-running offshoot program that tackles home improvement dilemmas with homeowners, are two of the highest-rated home improvement shows on TV, according to Nielsen data provided by "This Old House." On YouTube, the brand reaches 1.55 million subscribers, and the magazine has a robust subscription base of 5.3 million monthly readers.
The restoration of old homes, to some, is merely eye candy — a chance to ogle beautiful spaces with pedigree. To others, it's a way of life and, for now, the perfect pandemic hobby.
For Rebecca Lineberry Galko, who works in the career development office at Yale School of Management, her old house provides endless opportunity for keeping busy.
"I struggle with getting overexcited about projects and wanting to tackle everything ASAP," she said. "But this house is helping me learn to slow down, to manage my expectations, and to go room by room."
Lineberry Galko, 36, grew up in a house from the 1860s that came with a root cellar and outhouse, and she delights in old details like gorgeous radiators, chilly drafts, single-pane windows, and plaster and lath walls.
She is slowly restoring a 1755 Colonial-style home in Higganum, Conn., which she bought last July for $265,000. The four-bedroom, two-bathroom house has modern plumbing and heating systems but also relics of the past, including two beehive ovens, a fireplace crane for holding pots, and a meat-smoking chamber built into the chimney on the second floor.
It takes you straight back to the 18th century, said Lineberry Galko, who treasures the fact that these elements date back some 265 years.
She anticipates needing to budget about $30,000 for house projects over the next three years, for a blend of DIY repairs she'll tackle alone, and those she will outsource to more experienced home experts. Tasks include pulling down a ceiling in the parlor to expose hand-hewn beams, and installing a historically accurate front door.
"It is a balance of making updates that make sense for the 21st century without disturbing the pieces of the 18th century that remain. You should create a space that helps you absolutely love where you live, but in this case, it needs to be done in a way that is respectful to the house," said Lineberry Galko.
DiFazio, the real estate agent, said that with ownership of old homes comes responsibility.
"Old houses carry tremendous significance to their communities, and when you become the steward of a historic property, you are agreeing to care for and maintain the property to the best of your ability."
For some, the arrival of the pandemic spurred a leap into property ownership and the celebration of new beginnings in old homes.
This was the case for Robert Hartwell, founder and artistic director of the Broadway Collective in New York City, an online training academy for future generations of Broadway artists. Last year, after losing his aunt to COVID-19, Hartwell began scanning old homes on Zillow, when he found his dream home. The house, which has two front doors, "was the third house I saw," Hartwell said of the Massachusetts property, adding that he's currently searching for a historically accurate shade of red for the entrances.
It may have been the Greek Revival columns and stunning white facade that drew him in, but the history of the six-bedroom residence, which features 4,500 square feet of living space, "captured my heart," said Hartwell, who purchased the home on Juneteenth Day last year.
"There is something so compelling walking through the home knowing that there were rooms that I, as a Black man, wouldn't have been allowed in when it was constructed in the 1820s."