‘Cheap Old Houses’ abroad-edition is the travel escapism you need 

Penni Schewe

Each Thursday, right around the time I’m desperate for a second cup of coffee, I get a much-needed jolt of escapism to my inbox. No matter my level of pandemic-era stress, I click and — for the cost of a $6 per month newsletter — I feel calmer as I scroll through photographs of faraway homes, frozen in time.

Oh look, I think, a 400-year-old Georgian chapel in the Welsh countryside; a Swedish log cabin with bright blue trim and a soothing white interior; that fantastic house in Nova Scotia with a kitchen that looks like a 1950s diner. Each image takes me to a distant place, a quieter moment, a different version of life. And each can be mine for a low, low price.

I first encountered Cheap Old Houses as an Instagram account spotlighting historic homes around the United States. A history lover, I would swoon over the big beautiful Victorians in the fields of Indiana or some wide-porched French Colonial in the deep South.

A pergola over the patio.

A pergola over the patio.

Sun Country Properties

The houses were mostly in out-of-the-way places, small towns off the interstate — once-thriving communities from which American industry had moved on. They were often rundown, but with their architectural character intact. I would imagine myself on one of those farmhouse porches. From behind my computer screen, I could smell the spring blossoms and feel the summertime humidity; I could mentally stretch out in their sprawling square-footage and wide-open surroundings. And, as the site’s name suggests, the properties came cheap — typically less than $100,000. For this Californian, born and raised in the land of $1 million shacks, they were the stuff of fantasy.

In its early days, Cheap Old Houses had a straight-forward premise: these historic homes are works of art. They need us. And maybe we need them too?

In the last year, the couple behind Cheap Old Houses, New York-based Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, have branched out. They’re still on a mission to preserve historic architecture, but now, with a new HGTV show debuting this summer, they have a bigger — and ever-growing —  platform to promote their message.

For me, what really exacerbated my obsession with Cheap Old Houses was not the upcoming cable show, but a newsletter they launched mid-way through 2020. Cheap Old Houses Abroad, their international edition, is one of several subscription newsletters that goes beyond the couple’s public Instagram account by offering exclusive listings in niche markets. There are “Ultra Cheap Old Houses” (properties less than $25,000), “Cheap-ish Old Houses” (houses under $250K, “generally focusing on more expensive parts of the country” — i.e. you might actually see California featured), “Cheap Old Farmhouses” (properties that sit on at least three acres of land) and my love, the “Cheap Old Houses Abroad” mailing, which feels tailor-made for my COVID-era travel longing.

A terrace overlooking the Andalusian hills.

A terrace overlooking the Andalusian hills.

Sun Country Properties

I am not alone, it seems, in using real estate in this way. According to a recent New York Times story, visitors to Zillow’s online for-sale listings increased more than 50 percent year-over-year early in the pandemic. As a travel writer who typically took multiple international trips a year, Cheap Old Houses Abroad taps into my pining for the larger world.

I asked Elizabeth Finkelstein what prompted the Abroad newsletter after years of focusing on domestic properties. “I would occasionally come across an abroad listing and it would just transport me,” she said. “And I think that Cheap Old Houses in general is very much about escapism — escapism  from your cubicle… Well, it used to be your cubicle,” she added with a laugh. “Now it’s your basement, or wherever you’re working.”

And, for me, I think that last part — the pandemic and the way it has forbidden international travel — is what makes the Abroad newsletter such a simple, irresistible pleasure. It replicates an experience, browsing airfare sales on places like Scott’s Cheap Flights or The Points Guy, that used to scratch my escapist itch. But those sites are now bittersweet.

They remind me of a time when I could spot an airfare deal and seriously consider taking the trip. Of course, even during pre-pandemic times, I spent far more time trip-planning and imagining than actually traveling. But the possibility of hitting the “book now” button was there. And for the last year, that hasn’t been true.

Because Cheap Old Houses Abroad is selling a bigger, longer-term fantasy — something that even outside of the pandemic would be an aspirational five-year plan, not an impulse buy — it takes me to that same dreamy mental place.

Terracotta tile floors, exposed wooden beams, and yellow-trimmed windows - all for a low, low price

Terracotta tile floors, exposed wooden beams, and yellow-trimmed windows — all for a low, low price

Sun Country Properties

Maybe, I imagine, there is a world in which I too could own a house with emerald tile mosaics in the entryway, hardwood detailing along the banisters, a stone wall separating olive groves, 20-foot ceilings with ancient wooden beams, stained glass windows or terracotta floors. Maybe I could spend the next decade of my life in the Spanish countryside, tending an almond farm, visiting the local pueblo blanco for wine and tapas in the evenings. Maybe that dilapidated French hotel with six rooms and a once-thriving cafe could be my next career?

“To be honest, I started it for the dreamers, for people like us that just kind of want that escape,”  said Finkelstein. “But I’ve been actually surprised at how many people are using it because they are really looking abroad. I know that sounds silly, but I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, there are actually people that are really doing this.’”

Maybe, someday, I’ll be one of them.

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