Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein made history when they turned their prolific Instagram account, “Cheap Old Houses,” into a TV show on HGTV and Discovery+. I knew the show was coming, but I didn’t have high hopes. I had been duped by previous HGTV shows like “Good Bones,” where the mother made honest attempts at adding ‘old’ things back to old homes. Unfortunately, the final reveals were irreparably gutted and stripped of the features that I prize most in old homes. Eventually, I left HGTV behind when I realized that their ethos was in sharp contrast with how I aspire to live.
My Cheap Old House Journey
Sure, I gutted features in my home, but only to uncover the layer that I knew was hiding underneath.
In the modest 1916 home that I bought for $84,000, we:
- Pulled up the carpet to reveal hardwoods.
- Ripped up the linoleum to reveal hex tile
- Peeled off aluminum siding to reveal cedar shake.
- Salvaged period leaded glass windows and a faux fireplace.
- Added a salvaged drainboard sink to 1960s cabinets.
- Left most of the woodwork painted (sigh).
I had enough people look at me sideways (contractors, family, the mailman…) to know I did not hold the popular opinion on home renovation and the projects I chose to tackle. But I trudged on anyway with my low budget and historically sympathetic vision that is by no means perfect. The journey is slow, arduous at times, but it is one of the happiest journeys I’ve been on.
Old House Community on Instagram
Throughout this old-home-owning process, I found out that I wasn’t entirely alone. Several hundred “old house friends” made me feel less odd for my excitement. They even backed me up when my comments about painting brick and wood floors were deleted on the “big name” IG influencer pages. I felt connected and like my passion for old things and stories had a place to fall.
I followed @cheapoldhouses early on, but I didn’t engage as actively as possible because I had grown suspicious of larger accounts. Could I trust them? Would they just delete my comment if I wasn’t entirely in line with their community? What was their end game? Were they exploiting old homes for a profit (because they saw that the niche was untapped and growing), or did they actually care? When would they try to sell me something? In hindsight, I should have gotten to know the account heads before making such significant assumptions and creating that distance. No, I didn’t get a Cheap Old Houses PR box, and I really wanted a claw foot tub-shaped cookie.
All that said, I knew I was going to tune in to the premiere of the show, and I figured I would keep my expectations in check. Either they would go full-blown “historic-preservationist” and isolate me that way by being too much into the perfection of restoration. Or they would go “Good Bones” and try to sell me on a shiplap wall. I expected to be isolated, disappointed, or maybe mildly approving of the show. Well. My expectations were blown out of the water.
Cheap Old Houses Show Premiere
Anyone who has a passion for either antiques or old homes knows that feeling when you find something incredible. When Elizabeth found the original front doors to the first home they walked through, my reaction was as visceral as hers. I felt like I was there with her, smiling like a giddy child who had just opened their most requested Christmas present. It took minutes, seconds even, for me to realize that Elizabeth wasn’t just a placeholder character; she was the real deal. She didn’t talk down to the viewer. Still, she gave such an honest, and dare I say vulnerable, look at what it means to be passionate about something beyond ourselves.
It seems that Ethan understands his wife’s charisma, and he is happily along for the ride. I suspect this will be the case for many new viewers who have no old house experience. I think it’s essential to provide this lens that considers different budgets, design styles, and means. Hence, people know that historic preservation doesn’t need to be this picture-perfect, inaccessible thing that only museums and rich people do. Passion can be shared, and an unexpected viewpoint (like saving mid-century kitchen cabinets or a pink bathroom) is worthy of airtime. Cheap Old Houses offers this and more. I laughed (because I too have a bunch of old sample catalogs), I cried (you’ll see), and I smiled as much if not more than Elizabeth did in the first two episodes.
I suggest anyone with the faintest interest in old homes or antiques tune in and share it with your friends who look at you sideways and just don’t get it. Maybe they will after this first season airs.
I’ll leave you with the plea from Elizabeth and Ethan on why you should watch:
Tuning in tonight (and every Monday for the next 5 weeks) is casting a vote for old houses. It’s letting a world obsessed with disposable, shiny new things and quick flips know that there is another way. It’s letting the TV world know that we want MORE shows that promote preservation, slow restoration and sensitivity toward our historical homes. Networks show more of what brings high ratings. And if the ratings are there, the message will get across. So we ask you from the bottom of our hearts to tune in tonight at 9:00 and 9:30 EST on @hgtv and @discoveryplus and cast your vote for wavy glass, pocket doors and all the other things in our homes that we hold near and dear. We love you, our dear cheap old house community, for helping us earn a national platform to scream at the top of our lungs, “SAVE YOUR OLD WINDOWS!!!”