Ethan and Elizabeth Finkelstein found their true calling when they started their Cheap Old Houses Instagram feed, which now has more than 1.7 million followers. Now they are starring in an eight-episode HGTV series of the same name. The show follows the couple as they search for architecturally intact homes priced at less than $150,000, and share stories of the home’s history and architectural details.

Elizabeth grew up in an 1850s house that her parents restored and has a master’s degree in historic preservation. Ethan has always loved old homes and old trucks. The couple is restoring a cheap but beautiful old farmhouse they snagged for $70,000.

The Finkelsteins recently answered questions in an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: How do you actually find these wonderful “Cheap Old Houses?”

A: We scour the Internet every day to find the most beautiful homes for sale. We look for them ourselves, and we take submissions from our followers. We haven’t seen prices rise since our show, “Cheap Old Houses,” aired. The two houses we featured on the episode we filmed outside of New York had been sitting on the market for more than a year before the show aired, and they both sold for under asking price. These are often homes that are going to take special buyers who want to put in the time and work.

Q: What are your tips for evaluating old houses? What criteria do you use to determine whether a project is worth it?

A: By “worth it,” do you mean financially? Are you planning to resell it? We just bought a cheap old house that needed everything, including a new foundation. We plan to make it our long-term home, and we love it dearly, so “worth it” is a bit subjective. You would need to understand the value of comparable restored homes in the area, as well as the amount of work the house needs, to know whether you’re going to break even in a few years.

Q: What’s your take on structural changes to old homes? We own a beautiful, pristine 1914 Craftsman. We’ve wrestled with updating the kitchen, which is mostly in original condition. Our proposed redesign takes inspiration from the existing space, which should make the remodeled kitchen fit with the original, but we’re taking down the wall between the kitchen and dining room to create a peninsula.

A: I always recommend keeping as much original as possible. But if you’re making changes, I would suggest keeping some form of evidence of the old space. Find a way to keep the story alive, so future owners can piece it back together. Perhaps keep evidence of the old wall in some way.

Q: Who should we hire for a home renovation: an architect, a design/build firm or a local contractor? We recently bought a home in rural Virginia, and we’re having trouble finding someone to do the renovations we need.

A: If you live in a historical house, I highly recommend finding a contractor who loves and understands old houses. Anyone who has only worked on new builds will automatically recommend replacing parts of your house with new products instead of restoring what’s already there. As for who to start with, it depends on what your goals are. Are you looking to do an entire overhaul of the design? Is your house livable, or does it require major work? I would start by talking to a general contractor who understands old houses. They can help determine where to start.

Q: Do the cheap old houses you visit have significant structural damage?

A: It depends on the house. Some are move-in ready, but some will need the advice of a structural engineer. This is the case with new houses, too.

Q: Is there a tipping point between cost of renovation for an old home vs. future resale value? If so, how would you recommend someone make that decision?

A: I do think there is a tipping point for this, and it depends on what your intentions are when you start out. We are not experts in (nor do we advocate for) flipping. Our intention is for people to fall in love with these old houses and consider restoring them and living in them. I see it much like having children: It’ll be expensive and difficult at times, but it’ll be the most rewarding thing you’ll do. If you’re only looking at old houses as a vehicle for profit, then I’m not sure I’m the right person to talk to. They might cost you more in the end, and they might not. It depends on the location, purchase price, amount of work needed and how long you intend to live in the house for before selling it.

Q: What is the asbestos situation in these houses?

A: Asbestos was used heavily in the middle of the 20th century, so if your house dates to that time or was renovated during that time, then you should always make sure you’re taking appropriate care when performing restoration work. We recommend “suiting up” appropriately when performing restoration work on any house, just in case. Asbestos is not the only harmful thing to have been used in houses.

Q: We have an old house with a green tub and a green sink, but everything else needs to be gutted. Where should we look for design inspiration?

A: I love green tubs and sinks. I can fall down a rabbit hole looking at old design catalogs for inspiration on kitchens and bathrooms. My favorite free resource is the Building Technology Heritage Library ( It’s a searchable database of thousands of old building materials catalogs. There are so many catalogs of old bathroom fixtures and pictures of old bathrooms. You can filter by date; if you know your house’s date, you can find more specific resources.

Q: What do you think of restoring bathrooms and kitchens to mimic a home’s original period when a house has had renovations?

A: To find an original kitchen or bathroom from the date of construction is a rare find, because kitchens and bathrooms are the most “flipped” rooms in most houses. We are all for bringing them back to their original look — or at least making them feel in context with the rest of the home by taking design cues from kitchens and bathrooms from the era.

Koncius writes for The Washington Post.

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