After more than two decades of shows featuring extensive home makeovers with dramatic reveals, HGTV’s latest offering takes a refreshingly different approach. Based on the popular Instagram account of the same name with more than 1.6 million followers, Cheap Old Houses (which premiered Monday, August 9, on HGTV and Discovery+) stands out for flipping the script of home-design TV shows. Instead of an “out with the old, in with the new” mindset, wife and husband hosts Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein travel the country to visit and celebrate historical homes—all of which happen to be on the market for a maximum listing cost of $150,000.
Most of the houses included in the show (and on their Instagram feed) are technically move-in ready, although that really depends on your definition of the concept. “I think that if you want a house that is perfect, in the sense of being all freshly restored, that’s one thing,” Elizabeth Finkelstein, who has a background in historic preservation, tells AD. “But I think our followers are interested in houses that are going to give them projects. Maybe they don’t have their dream kitchen on day one, but the closing costs are low enough that they can get in and save up for one.”
While some people can walk into an empty turn-of-the-century Victorian and only see the parts that they think need the most work and modernization, the Finkelsteins hone in on the original architectural features that have managed to survive over the years and what can be done to preserve and incorporate them into a restoration. In these homes, the beauty truly lies in the details.
“My two favorite things in the world are wavy glass and pocket doors,” Elizabeth says, noting that they came across a lot of each on their travels. Some of the other standout features she and Ethan uncovered on the show include dumbwaiters, tin ceilings, Victorian brass speaking tubes, and perfectly preserved white subway tile from the sanitary era “the way it’s supposed to be: flat, without the bevel on it.”
When the Finkelsteins find these details, they take the time to explain their original function, design, and historical significance, providing viewers with the context necessary to fully appreciate why, for example, a midcentury renovation of an 1850 Italianate home included an all-pink bathroom with pink double sinks. (Hint: It was the influence of a First Lady.)
The significance of what the Finkelsteins discover in these homes isn’t always instantly apparent. For instance, the house with the pink bathroom also had a butter-yellow steel kitchen made by St. Charles of New York, which Elizabeth refers to as the “crème de la crème of steel kitchen manufacturers at that time.” What they didn’t know during their visit was that the same kitchen— in the same color—can also be found in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. “It’s not even mentioned on the show, because I didn’t realize [the connection] until after we left the house,” Elizabeth explains.
Though no actual restoration takes place during the show, viewers are offered a glimpse of the Finkelsteins’ vision for what one could look like, thanks to 3D graphic renderings. “Our hope is that people see that there’s another way to go about houses other than what they’re constantly fed, which is disposable, new, shiny things, and quick flips,” Elizabeth says.
Finally, each episode showcases a success story in which someone purchased and then lovingly restored a historic home—including ones they initially found through the Cheap Old Houses Instagram feed. In addition to the requisite before-and-after photos, this segment of the show sees the Finkelsteins meeting the homeowners and hearing about how they brought the house back to life.
It’s also a way of showing the viewers examples of what people are capable of with a relatively low down payment, a dream, and the willingness to put in time and effort. “I want people to appreciate older things and realize that not everything that isn’t new is worth throwing out,” Elizabeth says. “And I want to inspire people to feel like they too can do this.”
This is the show fans of historical architecture and design have been waiting for. Now we’re waiting for HGTV to pick it up for a second season.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest