August 22, 2023 at 7 am EDT
Debbie Sue and Mark Przybysz's home, a 100-year-old craftsmen's bungalow in Chattanooga, Tenn., which they bought for $65,000, had original hardwood floors, a charming stone porch and a sunken hole in the roof.
Part of the house was set on fire when a previous resident lit a lighter near a curtain. In addition to opening up the cavity above, the fire left dark burn marks on the floor below. Despite the damage, the Przybyszes home had enormous potential, with beautiful Dutch wood cladding on a corner lot. So they dove.
Os Przybyszes (pronuncia-seshibish)they are part of an enthusiastic minority of Americans who live in a house built more than 100 years ago. It is a choice that requires openness to live amidst architectural imperfections and a willingness to work on the house, sometimes endlessly. Buyers of historic properties say they are driven by a passion to preserve history and don't mind giving up a few modern amenities to do so.
“It's old,” says Debbie Sue of her home. “It has withstood years of weathering, abuse, expansion, contraction, so many things. I don't mind imperfection. There is chaos in nature. Imperfection and nature are things we expect, even in our homes.”
Homes built more than a century ago represent just 6% of homes in the United States, according to the market research firmPolitical. But interest in older, relatively inexpensive renovators has grown as the cost of newer homes has skyrocketed in recent years. Median home prices in the United States rose to $416,100 in 2023 from $322,600 just three years earlier, according tofor compiled databy the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Meanwhile, the mortgage interest ratesurpassed seven percentthis year.
For people who didn't or couldn't buy a home before the price boom or while interest rates were low, home ownership – long seen as a cornerstone of the American Dream – seems depressingly out of reach. The willingness to buy an old home that needs renovation can serve as a back door to home ownership, say Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, hosts of "Who's Afraid of a Cheap Old Home?" scheduled to premiere in the spring on HGTV.
“We believe you are selling the wrong American Dream,” they write in their upcoming book, “Cheap Old Houses: An Unconventional Guide to Loving and Restoring a Forgotten Home.” “For many of us, the compensation for acquiring these homes is living beyond our means and accepting crushing debts, not to mention contributing to the overabundance of waste that comes from accumulating everything new and shiny. … It doesn’t have to be that way.”
The Przybyszes' home is in St. Elmo, a designated local historic district dating from the 1870s. Situated on the eastern slopes of Lookout Mountain, the neighborhood boasts a collection of beautiful but dated cottages, Gothic Revivals and Tudors. Stone churches and stately Queen Anne-style homes preside over the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, St. Elmo Avenue, which straddles the Tennessee-Georgia border.
After decades of wear and tear — and a terrible bed bug infestation — the Przybyszes' home was in need of renovations, so they named it “Casa Del Fuego” and then set about restoring it. They sanded and sealed the old wood. They didn't care that some of the boards still had black charcoal marks from the fire; Imperfections were part of the house's history.
“Casa del Fuego is telling its story here,” says Debbie Sue of the bleach. The toilet, where the previous owners had poured concrete with metal mesh, required a jackhammer to remove and replace. The paint on the walls was lead. They also learned that a nearby underground spring regularly emptied a small lake of water into the basement whenever it rained – which happened a lot in southern Tennessee. The house has gained an updated nickname: Casa Del Fuego… Y Agua.
It wasn't the first home the Przybyszes had bought in St. Elmo, a neighborhood that at the time was suffering from decades of neglect. They had already sold some cheap properties in the area, but planned to make Casa Del Fuego their home. On days off from nursing work, Debbie Sue kept an eye on the business. A neighbor sold them a house for $75,000, which they bought as a rental investment. One house showed up on Craigslist for $18,000, then a foreclosure showed up for $28,000 and another for $21,000. They took them all. The houses were a mess. Black mold was spreading across the walls and ceilings; water damage warped the floor. But Debbie Sue, who quit her job to become a full-time general contractor and real estate agent, brought them back to life.
Remodeling older homes comes with challenges. Floors aren't always level – drop a marble and it can roll across the room. In another house than the Przybyszes worked, “a gallon of roach eggs were spilled” when they tried to remove an old door. Homes are often built with toxic chemicals such as asbestos. “I probably wasted years of my life working on old houses because of the exposure,” says Debbie Sue.
Former home aficionados like the Przybyszes have also found a thriving online community where homeowners share photos of their home designs and dream of purchasing a charming fixer-upper. The Powerful Real Estate Instagram Account@CheapOldHouses, for example, operated by the Finkelsteins since 2016, serves as a home base for millions of people who dream of living in something with a little more personality.
In the beginning, the feed featured listings for homes that cost less than $100K (they've steadily raised the cap over time because of inflation) and were at least 100 years old. The posts featured charming historic homes from across the country, some decrepit and in desperate need of TLC and others that were surprisingly ready-to-go for the price.
On a social media platform with a reputation for content with fabricated photos of unattainable perfection, @CheapOldHouses bucks the trend by showing past photos, giving viewers a chance to imagine a home's potential. And people can't get enough of it: The feed has nearly 2.5 million followers.
The homes that the Finkelsteins feature range from abandoned, castle-like homes that require complete destruction, to beautiful homes that are inexpensive due to their size and location. For example, they shared a 15,000-square-foot neoclassical palace in Orange, Massachusetts that was on sale for just $150,000. Then there was a $15,000 Victorian house — but if you want it, you'll have to cut the house in two and ship it from downtown Austin. Or maybe you're interested in a neo-Greek farmhouse in Colon, Michigan with 600 bats occupying the attic?
As they scoured the web for listings on vintage homes to post on Instagram, the Finkelsteins were also looking for their dream home. After four years of posting homes for other people, they've found something for themselves. In 2020, the couple purchased an uninhabitable farmhouse in upstate New York for $71,000. Hidden in 11 acres of wooded land, the structure, little more than a destroyed shell, was close to falling and needed to be lifted from its original foundations.
“It was really, really bad,” says Elizabeth. “But it had a lot of soul.”
They removed the wood siding, renovated it and put it back in the house. Walls that have been displaced over the centuries have been replaced in their original locations. They kept the slate roof, dug the ground around the house, and reinstalled the chimneys inside. Instead of buying new furniture and materials, they take the time to find used items whenever possible. When a contractor working on a nearby house was about to throw away a set of Victorian sanitary ware, the Finkelsteins seized the opportunity to give them a new home.
Three years later, they're still working at the farmhouse while living in a "newer" house that also predates the Civil War. “It's cheaper to go slow,” says Elizabeth.
As charming as the photos and descriptions may seem — who hasn't dreamed of living in a castle? — old houses have disadvantages. Insulation can be minimal, making it difficult to regulate temperatures; and these houses are big consumers of energy. Walls and ceilings can be full of toxins and old wiring can be tricky. Mold can be difficult to contain.
“No one is naive enough to look at many of these houses and think they don't need work,” says Elizabeth. “Our audience can read between the lines and know what they're getting into. There is a huge decrepit mansion in a field in Illinois. It will require a different type of person.”
Like all things real estate, buying and restoring old homes has become more expensive in recent years, given the rising cost of materials and a shortage of skilled labor. A couple featured in the Finkelsteins' book who bought an abandoned mansion along Route 66 in Illinois started a non-profit foundation to help cover maintenance costs.
While many shoppers with do-it-yourself attitudes can save money, bringing in help can save you a lot of trouble. But hiring a contractor to work on historic properties is often not easy, says Scott T. Hanson, architectural historian and preservation consultant.
“Most architecture schools do not teach historic preservation, and most registered architects do not understand traditional building methods and materials,” wrote Hanson in “Restoring your historic home.” “A clueless human with a power tool can quickly do a lot of damage to a historic home.”
And nowadays, even the “cheap old house” market has become competitive. The Finkelsteins have found in recent years that they must publish listings as soon as possible if they want to feature them before they sell.
“They appear on the market and are gone in five minutes,” says Elizabeth.
The change in attitude has even altered Chattanooga's St. Elmo neighborhood, where the bargain prices the Przybyszes enjoyed have long since disappeared. Homes there sell quickly, including some for over half a million dollars, a figure unheard of before the pandemic. Many of the landlords who lived in the neighborhood for generations are gone, as are the college students who once rented there. A realtor recently called Debbie Sue with a client looking to build a home in the neighborhood for up to $1.3 million.
“The vibe of St. Elmo has changed tremendously,” says Debbie Sue. “I have Catholic guilt.”
Chris Moody is a writer based in Boone, North Carolina, where he teaches journalism and broadcast media at Appalachian State University.
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