Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, the creators of Cheap Old Houses, talk to Inman about their popular Instagram account and how agents can benefit from its 1.1 million followers.

When Elizabeth Finkelstein first started posting image of old homes ranging in price from $20,000 to $30,000 on Instagram, she didn’t expect many people to actually move across the country to buy them.

But the Cheap Old Houses Instagram account, which Finkelstein started with her husband Ethan in 2016, now has the power to make a listing in even the most rural town go viral – as soon as a home is posted on the account, hundreds of comments roll in and a sale usually takes place not long after.

Scouring multiple listing services nationwide, Elizabeth and Ethan find and post homes that are on the market, usually for under $100,000. Typically, the homes are in rural areas and in need of major repairs but they also look much nicer than your typical abandoned property. The Finkelsteins, who left Brooklyn for the suburbs a few years ago, specifically try to draw attention to attractive historic homes that have been left in disrepair.

“The old houses in New York have been flipped so that everything is renovated or changed or updated,” Elizabeth, who has a master’s degree in historic preservation, told Inman. “These houses, there hasn’t been that kind of economic investment to modernize them every time they’re sold so they’re a little window into like how real everyday people lived.”

Ethan, who works as a web developer and does the marketing for the Instagram account, said its popularity has skyrocketed during the pandemic – they went from around 700,000 followers at the start of the year to over 1.1 million now. He believes this is due to the reshuffling of priorities that came as economies closed and many people started working from home.

As more people adapted to being able to work from anywhere, many made one-time dreams of leaving big cities or restoring an old home a reality.

“You have to be a little bit open to location when you’re finding the cheapest old house but people are thinking about it,” Ethan said. “We once featured a house that was $3,000. That’s a lot of people’s rent.”

One couple that made such a move is Natalie and Michael Ferreira, the parents of two young daughters who spotted an 1830s Colonial-style house on Cheap Old Houses in Norwalk, Ohio, for $79,000 and made the move from New Orleans within the course of a month. They have since started an Instagram account about their renovation journey.

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This is us.

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While a $20,000 price tag may seem surreal to Californians or New Yorkers, many of the homes require significant repairs and investment that can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But as the Finkelsteins pointed out, many of their followers are looking to fulfill a longstanding dream, whether of homeownership or restoration.

“The people that are buying these houses are not flippers,” Elizabeth said. “They’re not just going to buy it and then flip it and make an Instagram feed about it a week later. These are people who are going to live in it in the long term and chip away at it over time.”

Since launching the Instagram account, the Finkelsteins have been working with agents to feature listings and find homes. They ask for permission to share the photos and highlight details about the kind of work the house needs. Generally, agents are thrilled to get this kind of national attention to homes that are often located in abandoned parts of the country.

As the account grew, the Finkelsteins began to include some international listings and launched a subscription-based feed specifically for farmhouses.

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5050 State Highway 8, New Berlin, NY — This one’s going to need a real angel 😇 For sale by owner and on 2.5 acres. “Second Empire Victorian… suffers from severe water and structural damage originating from a leaking roof. Roof rafters, 3rd floor joists and 2nd floor joist damage. Once featured in a book entitled ‘America’s Painted Ladies’ pages 48 and 49. Historically it is priceless having been built in 1860 by a cabinet maker/ undertaker David H. White for Captain Charles Harris. There is also a hidden room off the dining room said to have been a stop for the Underground Railroad, according to the book. Sits on 2.5 acres.” — link at cheapoldhouses.com #cheapoldhousesny #cheapoldhousesacreage

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The majority of the Finkelstein’s audience are millennials who live in expensive cities like New York and Los Angeles and dream of changing their life, although couples nearing retirement and single women in their fifties have also bought homes they saw on the Instagram page. The most rewarding part of seeing the account grow is seeing so many people make the once-elusive dream of homeownership a reality while also saving homes that may have been abandoned otherwise, Elizabeth said.

“These are homes that were once spectacular and need investment,” Elizabeth said. “Knowing that you’re going to be a part of something and you’re going to be a part of the growth of small town is, I think, a draw for a lot of people.”

Email Veronika Bondarenko

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