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Who’s afraid of a cheap old house?


Elizabeth & Ethan Finkelstein celebrate the hidden beauty of cheap old houses in their new HGTV series

When spouses Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein started their Instagram account Cheap Old Houses, they inadvertently tapped into an “American Dream” of a different kind — one that nearly 3 million followers have connected with far beyond the U.S. borders. “Look, people can’t afford houses. I think they feel really frustrated about that,” says Elizabeth. “Especially this generation. They can’t get any house. When they see our feed and it’s like, ‘Wait, I can do something with my hands and get a sense of fulfillment, while also being able to afford this dream,’ it’s very alluring.” What started on social media is now an HGTV show called Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House?, in which the couple helps aspiring homeowners find and restore old spaces — one episode turns an old firehouse into a home, another transforms an 18th-century church into an artists’ loft — in the process making the project a dream come true for both proprietors and the Finkelsteins. “We cry in every interview,” admits Elizabeth. “It started for us with, ‘Save art deco bathrooms,’ but it’s become much more about the idea of a sustainable life dream by thinking a bit outside the box. I’m really proud.”

Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? on HGTV. Pictured: Preserving and enhancing a vintage home’s unique architectural features is at the very heart of Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House?
Credit: ©2023, Warner Bros. Discovery

TV WEEK: In creating this project, who do you think this show and your Instagram account speaks to?

Elizabeth: Look, no one can afford a house. No matter what your generation is, right now, you cannot afford a house. Gen Z and Millennials, particularly, are saddled with so much debt right off the bat. And there are no more starter homes. Unless you have half a million dollars, you can’t even get your foot in the door. What we’re offering is an alternative, a little bit of a house hack, to how you can have a house that you’re going to love. It might take you longer, but you’re going to have low closing costs and you’re going to be able to save money as you go along.

Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? on HGTV. Pictured: “We’re helping people really achieve ownership through these cheaper houses,” says Ethan Finkelstein, pictured with wife Elizabeth.
Credit: ©2023, Warner Bros. Discovery

TV WEEK: Is there a romanticism to taking something old and restoring it to its former glory?

Ethan: I think so. So much of our generation is a tech generation, and we are yearning to use our hands as much as we can and just get off our screens and learn something, enjoy something and do something. I just posted an article about Gen Z coming up in the trades and I think maybe there’s a resurgence of people wanting to just go into trades and not have the student loan debt — learn how to work with their hands and just skip past what I’ve been through, in terms of working a digital job for so many years and then wanting to really work with my hands later in life.

Elizabeth: I think there’s another side of it, too. There’s kind of a disgust with the disposability of everything today and how, if you’ve got a brand-new house, it’s built with subpar materials and everything that goes in your house is going to last 10 years maybe. There’s something to these homes that have been standing for 200 years. People can learn to fix something instead of throwing it in a landfill. That’s really exciting. I think that’s a big part of the romanticism.

Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? on HGTV. Pictured: The Finkelsteins have teamed up with interior designer Jennifer Salvemini and architectural designer Scott Reed to revive these older properties.
Credit: ©2023, Warner Bros. Discovery

TV WEEK: How did this evolve into a TV show? It seems like a natural fit, but also like you’ve got to have it within certain parameters for it to work..

Elizabeth: Totally. Every medium has its thing, and the part that’s good for TV is, ‘You can have this and look at the possibilities of what you can do with it.’ The TV show is not everything that we do, but this idea of a transformation works really well for that medium. These houses are the ultimate things to transform. The way that old houses have always been portrayed on television and in the movies is as money pits or super haunted. On our show, we walk in and we love all over them. I think people are excited to see that.

Ethan: We’re helping people really achieve home ownership through these cheaper houses. This is a sustainable movement, where we’re reusing houses and materials and antiques. And it’s really about that journey of owning the American dream, the Canadian dream, wherever it is, in terms of having your little place to call your own. We have this family who raised their children in a one-bedroom house that they were renting for 20-plus years and they finally achieved their home-ownership dream. They were the sweetest to work with. And one of the really fun stories, also, is with Christiana Peña, who has worked with us for 15 years. She was a part of the TV production and she gave so much of her heart and soul to all of the other homeowners, but we were able to help her get her cheap old church. It’s just amazing to be able to help her on the journey of something that she’s been obsessed with forever.

TV WEEK: It has got to be so emotional, not just to see these houses find new life, but to see people get what they’ve always dreamed of.

Ethan: I’m trying my best to not cry. That’s all I’ve got to say.

Elizabeth: This is the story that always makes me cry, but the first episode was in Whitehall, New York. This is a town that is suffering. The bones of this town are amazing, and there’s a group of people who live here that have been trying so hard with no money to advocate for people to move to this town. HGTV gave us some money to work with, so we were able to push the restoration a little bit further than maybe a smalltown advocacy group is able to do. A woman came by as we were doing it, and she’s like, “I grew up in this town and, my friends and I, we feel like this building looks like it did when we were little.” And she’s like, “I feel like there’s hope.” That felt amazing because we don’t have the personal funds to invest in this town, but being able to work with bigger stakeholders like a network and a production company and the homeowners, that’s a lot of extra funding that can go into this place. I think there are a lot of shows on TV that are just about taking a house and making it pretty, and there’s no larger cause or mission behind it. And I feel very fortunate that what we do, it’s always a good idea. No matter the economy, no matter the gas prices, to live beneath your means and to nurture something and be creative and learn to do things yourself, it’s good for everybody, all the time.

Who’s Afraid of a Cheap Old House? airing Tuesday, July 9, on HGTV

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