After Buffalo, New York, couple Nick Weith and Damian Mordecai spotted a grand Victorian-style home on a popular Instagram account called Cheap Old Houses, they drove an hour south to a village called Gowanda (population 2,700) to tour the historic property.
Initially, Mordecai, a 39-year-old nonprofit executive, was “less enthused” about the idea of living so far outside the city. But the pair was drawn to the property’s stately brick façade, dramatic slate tile mansard roof and widow’s peak tower. By the time they got back in the car, Mordecai was sold. “We have to buy it,” he said to Weith, a 26-year-old educator.
Their visit to the 1870s manse took place the weekend of March 13, when President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency.
In the days that followed, shelter-in-place orders went into effect across New York. By then, Mordecai’s office was already exploring work-from-home solutions, making the prospect of a lengthy daily commute a non-issue. They closed on the 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom, 1½-bathroom home in June for $52,500, and they estimate that renovations will cost another $50,000. (Cheap Old Houses posted a photo of the house with a caption that exclaimed, “I’ve been saved!”)
Given relatively high city rents and the growing realities of a remote workforce that are becoming ubiquitous as the pandemic persists, purchasing a “cheap old house” in a small town or rural area is becoming an increasingly alluring pathway for some millennials.
“The idea of homeownership seems impossible to so many people,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, who founded the Cheap Old Houses website and Instagram feed in 2016 with her web designer husband, Ethan. “Some people are tired of pushing paper and staring at pixels all day. They dream of working with their hands. The site helps people realize that it’s not so off-kilter to think you can attain these things.”
The Cheap Old Houses feed broadcasts new real estate listings for old properties across the country — capped at $100,000 — to a “design-savvy” community passionate about historic preservation and restoration projects.
Since the onset of the pandemic, its audience has only grown: It’s hit the 1 million-follower milestone on Instagram and Finkelstein has watched her audience grow at nearly twice the typical rate from week to week. “I’m not surprised by the attraction right now,” she says. “You get this kind of feeling of escapism. It’s the perfect storm of emotions.”
Some people are willing to uproot their lives completely for the right opportunity. Natalie and Michael Ferreira, along with their two young daughters, Bonnie, 6, and Naomi, 3, moved from New Orleans to Norwalk, Ohio, after closing in May on an 1830s-era brick colonial-style home for $79,000. (Yes, they, too, spotted it via Cheap Old Houses.)
After seeing the posting in January, Natalie, a 39-year old professor, says, “The idea really grew on us. We were thinking about it all the time.” The home is located in the same part of Ohio where her parents live, between Cleveland and Toledo near the shores of Lake Erie, making their cross-country pilgrimage a true homecoming.
In the fall of 2019, Mike Wildey, a 21-year-old student and musician, along with his mother, Melissa, 51, made an equally dramatic move from Las Vegas to Weedsport, New York, a tiny village near the Finger Lakes, for an 1830s Victorian “mini mansion” with a $66,000 price tag that was posted on Cheap Old Houses.
Accustomed to the high cost of living on the West Coast, he was initially “bewildered” by the number on his real estate 30 miles west of Syracuse. After enduring his first winter with sub-zero temperatures and bursting pipes, Wildey has invested about $5,000 in renovations so far — with many upgrades to go.
Although the purchase prices of historic homes might appear nominal, they almost always require soup-to-nuts renovations, which could range from $50,000 into the high six figures, as well as the arduous and time-consuming task of restoration. Everything from repairing roofs and rewiring electricity to stripping ancient lead paint and installing functioning kitchens can mean dear snags and delays along the way.
Already, Weith and Mordecai have found it difficult to convince skilled contractors to venture out to what they’re calling the Kimble House, in a remote location that’s a 20-minute drive off major highways. In Norwalk, in addition to home renovations, the Ferreiras have also taken on a considerable landscaping project with a half-finished pool and giant pit in their backyard. “It’s basically like stepping outside to a cliff,” says Natalie, who’s brushed up against poison ivy in the process.
Betsy Sweeny, a 27-year-old architectural historian at the Wheeling National Heritage Area in Wheeling, West Virginia, took the leap in May and bought a turn-of-the-century, “eclectic-style,” red-brick Victorian home on the east side of town for a mere $18,500. (“I’ve been saved,” the Cheap Old Houses account crowed of her purchase.) She estimates that her renovation budget, however, will come to $125,000. “I’ve wanted to do a project like this my entire life,” says Sweeny, who is chronicling the restoration process on Instagram.
While Sweeny celebrates the ability to “live authentically and live locally” inside a historic home in a small city like Wheeling, she cautions potential homeowners of the challenges of financing these types of labor-intensive revitalization projects via traditional banks. Instead, she advises researching tax credit programs designed to incentivize redevelopment of old properties.
For many, restoring this real estate is like living out a storybook fantasy. In 2019, Erin Harrington and her husband Luke, 28, made the leap from renting an apartment inside a historic home to purchasing their own 1915 arts and crafts-style bungalow in Syracuse, New York, for $94,500.
It was designed by Ward Wellington Ward, a prominent local architect of that era.
For Erin, a 28-year-old aesthetician, it was the charm of her bungalow’s original diamond-patterned windows and Dutch doors that won her over.
Invoking the fabled land of Narnia from C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Natalie Ferreira says, “With all the back rooms, corridors and staircases, I imagine myself inside a fantasy novel I read as a little girl, but now I’m living the grown-up version.”
For Weith and Mordecai, they’ve found romance in everything from the eccentric placement of an old-timey doorbell near a brass door handle to the grand staircase that sweeps up to their third-floor tower. Sweeny first swooned over her Wheeling home’s tile-moulding fireplace, which features scenes of dogs running across the panel.
And Wildey is fascinated by his Weedsport home’s backstory — it was previously owned by a doctor and Holocaust survivor. Having grown up in the desert with the bright lights of Vegas, he’s struck by the beauty of “being surrounded by so much nature” and the antique details of its stained glass windows. “It feels like an attraction that would be simulated in Vegas,” he says.
During the coronavirus crisis, a fixer-upper offers a sense of purpose. “It brings me solitude, working on something that we’re always inside,” Harrington says. “We can’t go anywhere, anyway.”
There’s also a feeling of security that comes with the sturdiness of a structure that’s stood the test of time. Indeed, the Ferreiras’ house dates back to the Revolutionary War. And Wildey’s is about to enter its third century.
“If this home has lasted 200 years,” Wildey says, “I can get through this. It’s probably been through a few pandemics.”