It was not love at first sight.
After Buffalo, N.Y., couple Nick Weith and Damian Mordecai spotted a grand Victorian-style home on a popular Instagram account called Cheap Old Houses, they drove an hour south to a village called Gowanda (population 2,700) to tour the historic property.
Initially, Mordecai, a 39-year-old nonprofit executive, was “less enthused” about the idea of living so far outside the city. But the pair was drawn to the property’s stately brick façade, dramatic slate tile mansard roof and widow’s peak tower. By the time they got back in the car, Mordecai was sold. “We have to buy it,” he said to Weith, a 26-year-old educator.
Their visit to the 1870s manse took place the weekend of March 13, when President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency.
In the days that followed, shelter-in-place orders went into effect across New York. By then, Mordecai’s office was already exploring work-from-home solutions, making the prospect of a lengthy daily commute a non-issue. They closed on the 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom, 1½-bathroom home in June for $52,500, and they estimate that renovations will cost another $50,000. (Cheap Old Houses posted a photo of the house with a caption that exclaimed, “I’ve been saved!”)
Given relatively high city rents and the growing realities of a remote workforce that are becoming ubiquitous as the pandemic persists, purchasing a “cheap old house” in a small town or rural area is becoming an increasingly alluring pathway for some millennials.
“The idea of homeownership seems impossible to so many people,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, who founded the Cheap Old Houses website and Instagram feed in 2016 with her web designer husband, Ethan. “Some people are tired of pushing paper and staring at pixels all day. They dream of working with their hands. The site helps people realize that it’s not so off-kilter to think you can attain these things.”
The Cheap Old Houses feed broadcasts new real estate listings for old properties across the country — capped at $100,000 — to a “design-savvy” community passionate about historic preservation and restoration projects.
Since the onset of the pandemic, its audience has only grown: It’s hit the 1 million-follower milestone on Instagram and Finkelstein has watched her audience grow at nearly twice the typical rate from week to week. “I’m not surprised by the attraction right now,” she says. “You get this kind of feeling of escapism. It’s the perfect storm of emotions.”
Some people are willing to uproot their lives completely for the right opportunity. Natalie and Michael Ferreira, along with their two young daughters, Bonnie, 6, and Naomi, 3, moved from New Orleans to Norwalk, Ohio, after closing in May on an 1830s-era brick colonial-style home for $79,000. (Yes, they, too, spotted it via Cheap Old Houses.)
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