What It’s Like to Buy a Fixer-Upper via “Cheap Old Houses”

The Instagram account featuring historic homes listed for under $100,000 is a social media phenomenon. But who ends up actually restoring them to live in?

In summer 2020, Cynthia Butler was scrolling through Instagram when she spotted a doozy of a house. It was a colossal 15,000-square-foot Classical Revival mansion complete with giant front columns and a carriage house out back. And it was listed at just $98,000. The downside? It was in complete disrepair; a tree had sprouted in the upstairs billiard room, moss formed silky clumps in the carpets, and the plaster was so full of water (due to a leaky roof and busted windows) that industrial-size dehumidifiers would have to work around the clock to pull out all the moisture.

"It was the worst I had ever seen in a building that had not been condemned," says Butler of the home in Orange, Massachusetts, a town with mostly family-owned businesses and a population of around 7,500 near the New Hampshire border. It was also across the country from her then home in Los Angeles. But Butler, who previously worked in video production and flipped properties as a hobby for 20 years, had been on the hunt for old homes on the market in need of serious renovations, hoping to find something she could turn into a bed and breakfast. By the time she discovered the mansion, it was already at auction, so Butler took the leap and bid on it sight unseen. She placed her bid of $150,000 that June, the house was in escrow by July, and by September she had relocated across the country and was all moved in.

None of this could have been possible without Cheap Old Houses, the popular Instagram account with 2.8 million followers showcasing historic homes listed for under $100,000—originally across the United States only, and now some internationally—that has since become an HGTV show and a recently published best-selling coffee table book. (This spring, the Instagram account and website will be at the center of another HGTV series, Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House?)

Cynthia Butler bid $150,000—sight unseen—on a Classical Revival mansion that she found through the @CheapOldHouses Instagram account, and converted it into a bed and breakfast.

Cynthia Butler bid $150,000—sight unseen—on a Classical Revival mansion that she found through the @CheapOldHouses Instagram account, and converted it into a bed and breakfast.

The price point is a major draw for fans. "Cheap Old Houses appeals to everybody—empty nesters, Gen Z, you name it," says Elizabeth Finkelstein, a historical preservationist who founded the account with her husband, Ethan, in 2016. "But I will say it’s undeniable that millennials and younger people, especially, feel priced out of the housing market given they’re so often saddled with the tremendous debt that comes with education, starting a family, pursuing all the American dream hallmarks we’ve always been taught to aspire to."

Interior designer Reagan Leslie, for example, who owns a Cheap Old Tudor Revival in her hometown of Peoria, Illinois, says that graduating in 2009 amid the recession taught her to rethink buying new. "When I bought my house in 2016, I really wanted a home that, if the bottom fell out, I could still afford it," she says. She snagged the home for $119,000 after her mom told her about the property, having seen it on Cheap Old Houses. With money to spare, she realized that she could DIY the renovations very slowly over time, paying for all the incremental updates in cash. "Now the home has equity, and I can even use it to renovate another house," she says.

Sarah Reid, the owner of a Cheap Old A-frame in New Hampshire, whose restoration she documents on Instagram, bought the property for only $40,000 in 2011. She relocated from California to move into the house full-time in 2020. "Cheap Old Houses is far more than just, ‘Look at this cheap house—OMG what would you do with it?’" Reid says. "I think the work that Elizabeth and Ethan are doing is actually really important in terms of sustainability and the future of housing. It’s about finding ways to use old housing stock and not rely on the disposable culture reflected in McMansions."

Restoring a Cheap Old House isn’t for the faint of heart. Even when homes aren’t in complete disrepair, as are most of the account’s featured listings, renovations can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and linger on for years. Butler says she slept on a mattress on the floor for the first few weeks in her house until she’d made the place more livable, installing electricity in the living room, fixing the floors that were badly warped and rotted in some spots, repairing plaster damage, and repainting whole sections. "The existing oil furnace was in good condition, but the oil tanks had to have new feet put on them, and I had to install new radiators since all the old radiators had been taken when it was abandoned," she says. After that, she started working on each space (which included 11 bedrooms!) one at a time. "Every room needed something major done, whether that was replastering or redoing floors from burst pipes," says Butler, noting that it took $30,000 just to make the floors safe and walkable.

In Reid’s case, her A-frame wasn’t meant for year-round living. The off-grid kit home wasn’t insulated well, it lacked hot water and electricity, and occasionally mice got in. It took Reid and her husband a while to figure out how to keep the pipes from freezing. Getting snowed in is just part of the experience in the isolated locale. "We’re kind of beholden to the snowplow guy," she says. "Every winter it’s like, ‘Will you come?’—but he doesn’t always want to because it’s a terrible driveway to plow. We are always crossing our fingers."

Betsy Sweeny worked as her own contractor and designer for the restoration of the West Virginia Victorian home she bought for $18,500 through Cheap Old Houses. 

Betsy Sweeny worked as her own contractor and designer for the restoration of the West Virginia Victorian home she bought for $18,500 through Cheap Old Houses. 

In Wheeling, West Virginia, Betsy Sweeny bought her Cheap Old Victorian house for $18,500, more than $11,000 below asking price, and relocated there from Charlottesville, Virginia. But due to the many necessary renovations—which included reinforcing a corner of the house on the verge of collapse, repairing the historic pressed metal ceilings, and taking down some walls and putting up new ones—the total spent on the home will probably run more around $140,000. A trained architectural historian, Sweeny has cut costs by working as her own contractor and designer, and she has been doing a lot of the restoration herself, which she too shares on Instagram. "Expect to put in the amount of money you would for a reasonably affordable home wherever you are," she tells those thinking about restoring a Cheap Old House. For Sweeny, her home’s still-intact pocket doors, grand staircase, and many more historical features make the project more than worth it.

"These homes are steals precisely because you would pay many times more in today’s dollars for a mansion with leaded glass windows, intricately carved wood cornices, vintage bathroom tiles, and more," Elizabeth says. But the allure of Cheap Old Houses isn’t just the grandness of the homes. There’s a yearning to swap packed subways and rush hour traffic for quiet evenings and nature walks. Ethan agrees. "The idea of ‘location, location, location’ has certainly been flipped on its head in recent years," says the Cheap Old Houses cocreator. "Buyers priced out of a handful of expensive American cities are now trending toward smaller cities and towns, without the need to commute. It doesn’t hurt that people can afford massive, ornate homes in some of these places. Take Lucas Neuffer, for instance, who is profiled in our book and bought his palatial mansion in Evansville, Indiana, for $25,000." 

It’s also worth noting that many Cheap Old House buyers—not unlike Butler, Leslie, Reid, and Sweeny—have at least some home improvement background, whether as designers or aspiring home-flippers, and there’s often an incentive beyond home ownership in taking on the renovations, as documenting them on social media might play a role in their livelihoods.

Sweeny estimates she’ll likely spend around $140,000 in total on her Cheap Old House due to the many necessary renovations. 

Sweeny estimates she’ll likely spend around $140,000 in total on her Cheap Old House due to the many necessary renovations. 

As more people leave cities, whether in pursuit of slower paces of life or more affordable housing markets, or both, some former Rust Belt towns are seeing a population increase. "Rochester, New York; Toledo, Ohio; and Buffalo, New York, have all seen major spikes of incoming residents," Ethan says. Although Zillow doesn’t trace metro-level migration, there are signs that relatively affordable metro areas like these are drawing in more home buyers, according to Zillow home trends expert Amanda Pendleton. "In general, metros in the Midwest, the Great Lakes, and secondary cities in the Northeast are where homes are selling the fastest and where home value growth is the highest," she says. Zillow’s February Market Report finds that Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, homes, for example, have been going under contract within five days of being on the market. "Many of the housing markets outperforming the nation are places where more people can still afford to buy, even in a high mortgage rate environment," says Pendleton. And yet while buyers are drawn to affordable homes, they aren’t necessarily buying Cheap Old Houses en masse. "Even in an affordability crisis, most buyers are looking for a move-in ready home," she adds. 

Many of the homes featured in the recent Cheap Old Houses book tend to be one-offs in not yet gentrified areas—specifically, smaller U.S. cities and towns that boomed during the industrial era, then were left largely devalued. Sweeny’s home in Wheeling, for example, sits on the Ohio river, making it easy for the town to ship its manufactured goods out West. Peoria, where Leslie’s house is, was once known for its whiskey production. Even Orange, where Butler has her Cheap Old mansion, was the site of a major sewing machine company, but after an economic downturn and the construction of a freeway bypass that decreased travel through the area, "the city became a no man’s land," says Butler. The story is pretty much the same in the other towns and cities. This could all change if manufacturing moved back to American metro areas.

Butler says that people in the local community had been trying to save the Orange mansion for years before she bought it, "but no one could raise the money," she says. "The first day that I was here, hiring roofers to look into fixing it, people were pulling up in their cars to get out and thank me for saving the house. I had forgotten what a sense of community was until I moved here."

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Top photo courtesy Betsy Sweeny

Related Reading:

How to Research Your Home’s History

Before & After: Think Your Renovation Took Awhile? Try 14 Years

Michelle Mastro
Michelle Mastro is a freelance writer and editor. She covers lifestyle, travel, home, and culture stories. You can follow her on Twitter (@Mastro1Michelle) or Instagram (homes_writer).




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