HGTV stars share housing ‘hack’ for aspiring homeowners facing affordability issue

FILE - A for sale sign is seen on a single family home January 30, 2008 in Vallejo, California. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

The dream of owning a home in the United States has been stifled for many in recent years thanks to surging interest rates, low inventory and high inflation. 

But HGTV stars Elizabeth and Ethan Finkelstein, who host the series "Cheap Old Houses" and run a wildly popular Instagram account with the same name, say they have overcome significant market changes through a "house hack." 

"There's the American dream of go get a bigger house, go get a bigger car, go get a bigger television, all that, but there's also the American dream of pick up your bootstraps and figure it out and get creative, and those are our people," Elizabeth told FOX News Digital exclusively. "I think that our people are living that American dream of building your own life and figuring it out."

"There are hacks to the system. If you have that creative American spirit in you, then you are in every bit living the American dream through a cheap old house," she continued. 

© Stephanie Munguia for Cheap Old Houses. @smunguia on Instagram.

© Stephanie Munguia for Cheap Old Houses. @smunguia on Instagram.

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The pair, who started their @CheapOldHouses Instagram page long before the pandemic and now have nearly 3 million followers, place a spotlight on historic homes for record-low costs in hopes of locating an aspiring homeowner who may not have been able to break into the housing market. 

The homes are often priced under $100,000, are more than 100 years old and need restoration work. 

"The housing system is broken. No one can afford our house right now," Elizabeth said. "Especially the generation that has grown up on social media, which is the generation we're talking about, which are younger people saddled with so much debt already right out of school, and the idea of homeownership is such a pipe dream."

"We love old houses. We grew up in them. To us, a natural solution to this is to take advantage of a house that you can get at a lower price point, come in, fix it up," she continued. "You're not only preserving history, but you're also getting yourself in the door of a market that so many people feel like they can't access."

Housing prices up and supply down

Home prices and associated costs have increased in recent years. 

Compared to three years ago, the median price for existing-home sales has increased 25%, from $307,400 in January 2021 to $384,500 in February 2024, according to National Association of Realtors (NAR) data

In its most recent report shared in late March, NAR said existing-home sales increased in February compared to the month prior. Among the four major U.S. regions, sales jumped in the West, South and Midwest, and were unchanged in the Northeast. Year-over-year, however, sales declined in all regions.

Meanwhile, home loan costs have surged, too. 

As of February, the monthly mortgage payment on an existing home was $2,001, according to NAR. That compares to a January 2021 reading of $1,009 and represents a walloping 98% increase. Mortgage rates, which were an average 2.79% in January 2021, are now 6.78%.

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Cheap, old houses are ‘insulated from market changes’

Ethan argued that the market for cheap, old houses is largely insulated from market changes. In speaking with FOX News Digital, he cited a consistency in their "house hack" despite COVID-19, inventory changes and other economic woes in recent years. 

As a result, aspiring buyers have been able to secure their investments despite variable market "swings."

"I think cheap old houses [have] constantly been insulated from the market of all the swings," Ethan said. "We've seen so many different markets throughout the years. COVID… there was huge price increases. Throughout the lumber crisis, there was all these shortages on what we had as inventory… we were restoring buildings during that time, we didn't have price spikes because we were fixing what we already had."

"Now we have interest rates that are super high," he continued. "You know how we're avoiding the interest rates? We're buying houses that are super affordable and really low-priced to keep the interest rates down. We have friends who have bought cheap old houses, who have moved from renting for $2,000 a month, who are now mortgaging a house for under $600 a month because they bought a $100,000 house. It's kind of a house hack that we just love."

"This is not a get-rich-quick scheme," he said. "This is really a sustainable solution for people to find housing that is affordable, potentially move their location, and live in one of these cheap houses and hack the system."

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The pair detailed how the most rewarding part of their business venture is watching homeowners go step-by-step through their entire journey, witnessing them restore and utilize their very own cheap old house. 

"There's so much that's rewarding about what we do," Elizabeth said. "We love that we're not contributing to the environmental issue we're all facing right now, that we're reusing materials that are already in buildings, that we're learning how to repair things. I think we have an economy now that's based on new… new is always better, but we're learning how to fix things, and people are learning new skills and feeling like they can do this on their own."

"I think seeing people's lives change through these houses has been incredibly rewarding for us," she continued. "I think [when] we started this, it was so much about the houses and getting the houses in the hands of people as an alternative to this completely ridiculous housing market, and we found that it's so much about the people."

FOX Business contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.