Buying Old, On the Cheap

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Rich preservationists, nonprofit museums and national parks hold title to swanky mansions or quaint cabins built decades and centuries ago – some valued in the millions of dollars, pledging ties to famous Americans and viewed by thousands of tourists yearly.

At the same time, obscure owners hang onto 18th and 19th century houses of wood frame or brick that may lack links to historic figures, don't boast much value now and are viewed only by wandering neighbors or pioneering travelers.

Ancient properties, whether iconic or unknown, list on real estate sites such as CIRCA Old Houses or when they’re for sale. Many hundreds of pricey homes on the market in historic districts show up on the online pages. But the real finds are inexpensive residences that, at least on the surface, claim history or architectural interest, often requiring extensive renovations but still able to be fixed up.

“I don't believe that you have to spend a fortune to find your dream home,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of CIRCA Old Houses.

The site, kicked off in 2013, includes a popular Instagram feed @cheapoldhouses of what it calls “America’s most beautiful, salvageable historical homes” for sale under $100,000.

“If you're the type who loves a diamond in the rough, and who looks forward to rolling up your sleeves and burying yourself in a house project, then you'd be the perfect person to purchase, restore and save one of these gems,” she says.

Offering searches by price ranges and for all of the 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada, the company has built a following among real estate professionals and homeowners. “CIRCA came about in response to my own search for my family’s dream house,” Finkelstein says. Today CIRCA Old Houses claims more than 1.5 million page views to its website monthly.

Old home shoppers can check out photos and learn about regions with a propensity of lower-priced historic neighborhoods at, among other internet places,

The site, tied to the well-known TV program, lists its current projects as the Newton (Massachusetts) Generation NEXT House, Charleston Single House, 2017 Idea House Revival of a Rhode Island beach home and the Detroit House, a 1939 Russell Woods-design restored with help from the community.

Meanwhile, This Old House in the past decade compiled a guide of “14 great places where the historic houses need TLC, presenting life-affirming DIY challenges and plentiful opportunities.”

In brief, they are:

• Casey-Shattuck in Juneau, Alaska - homes built 1905-40 in Craftsman style.

• Selma, Alabama - fixer-upper bungalows to “massive Italianate.”

• Lincolnville, St. Augustine, Florida - the nation’s oldest city, founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, includes Folk Victorian homes dating 1870-1920.

• Dayton’s Bluff, St. Paul, Minnesota - a historic district with 18,000 residents showcases Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses.

• The Shaw Neighborhood, St. Louis, Missouri -rows of Second Empire, Georgian and Tudor residences “like waking up on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis.”

• Near South, Lincoln, Nebraska - American Foursquare and Richardsonian Romanesque homes from 1869 to the 1920s.

• Phillipsburg, New Jersey – town’s 19th- and 20th-century houses include “downtown brownstones and multifamily townhouses, most with original details.”

• Goldsboro, North Carolina - Queen Annes, Stick Victorians and Italianates ranging in size from 1,100 to 6,400 square feet.

• Cathedral District, Bismarck, North Dakota - 20 blocks near downtown with 150 National Register homes including 1900-45 “Eclectic Era” Shingle and Prairie.

• Centre Park Historic District, Reading, Pennsylvania – “Reading's wealthy arrived in the 1870s, building country mansions mimicking Italian villas and British manors.”

• Hampton Heights Historic District, Spartanburg, South Carolina - Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles predominate.

• West Boulevard, Rapid City, South Dakota - three building periods 1875-1949 produced a mix of styles in the “Gateway to the Black Hills.”

• Lewisburg, West Virginia – “Outdoor enthusiasts, artists and old-house buffs find common ground” in the mountain town, with some homes dating to the late 1700s.

• Rainsford Historic District, Cheyenne, Wyoming - Victorians with quirky roofs stand out.

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