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“Cheap Old Houses” is an Instagram account showcasing interesting old homes for sale, usually priced under $100,000. It also recently became a series on HGTV. I’ve watched only one of the HGTV episodes, but I’m addicted to the Instagram posts.
I’m mesmerized by the photos of these often dilapidated houses, with their old-world details like grand stairways and pocket doors. While some of the houses are in cities like Indianapolis or Syracuse, most are in tiny towns, largely in the Midwest.
The “Cheap Old Houses” account tickles a fantasy I have in which my husband and I buy an old house in a small town somewhat nearby, fix it up, and live a sunlit, peaceful life while watching corn fields sway from our wraparound porch. We also save money in the process because the house was cheap and the cost of living in my imaginary little burg is low.
I’ve lived happily in the Chicago area since my early 20s, so I don’t know why this fantasy is so persistent. Is it because I grew up in a Victorian house (in a medium-sized town) that my parents rehabbed? Is it because I’m seduced by the low prices? Is it my love of history and a desire to save these time capsules? Or is it just, like most people, I occasionally wonder if the grass might be greener elsewhere?
My tumble down the “Cheap Old Houses” rabbit hole goes something like this: I pick up my phone and swipe through photos of a house for say, $90,000 in an Illinois town like Chenoa or Flanagan. After I ooh and aah at the original woodwork and leaded glass, I Google the town to see its exact location and population.
The next step involves thinking about what it would be like to actually live there. “Flanagan is really small,” I say to myself, “but it’s not that far from Bloomington or Peoria. Maybe that would be do-able.”
While I can be quickly lulled into this fantasy, I’m just as easily snapped back into reality when I think about the truth of my life. Neither my husband nor I are particularly good at home improvement.
Even more important, I’ve lived in Evanston since the early 1990s. I feel rooted here. When I drive around, I see snapshots in my mind. There I am in my early 30s with toddlers in a house on Noyes Street. There I am as a single mother living on Ridge Avenue, revising my vision of the future. There I am watching soccer practice at Baker Park when my now-husband introduces himself. There I am holding his hand at Pete Miller’s restaurant, revising my plans for the future yet again.
Wherever I go, from James Park, to Evanston Township High School, to Lighthouse Beach, I see a slide show of the last almost 30 years. Could I leave it all behind? Could I leave my friends behind? Could I live without the lakefront, the First Congregational Church or Northwestern’s pool? Could I start all over again?
The answer is no, particularly because all of our children and their growing families live in the Chicago area. We’d be crazy to move now.
I know it’s a luxury to even have choices, so I feel a little silly about my real estate daydreaming. But I can’t seem to give it up.
I wonder if it serves a purpose. Maybe I like feeling that I’m not completely set in my ways, that I’m open to change. Maybe I like pondering alternatives because life has taught me to always have a Plan B.
Or maybe, when I imagine living in another house, in another location, it forces me to do an assessment of my current situation. And, when I do this assessment, I remind myself that although my present-day home isn’t anything special – no grand staircase, no wraparound porch – I’m comfortable here. I also remind myself that a sunlit, peaceful life is more about my frame of mind than my physical address.
I doubt I’ll wean myself from “Cheap Old Houses” anytime soon, but I don’t really want to live anywhere else, at least right now. The grass outside of these unleaded windows is green enough.