Houses are influencers now, and this one burned to the ground

Use your imagination when you look at Louise. Yes, the 170-year-old Georgia home has peeled paint, shattered windows, missing shingles, and termites in its walls. But if you can picture it, Louise could be glorious. Laine and Kevin Berry knew Louise’s grand potential when they bought the house in March for $15,000 after years of eyeing the property. This isn’t a dilapidated home destined to be torn down, they say, but rather a historical anomaly. A preserved Gothic Victorian house that shines precisely because it hasn’t been remodeled.

“Everything was there,” Laine tells me. “It was all there. It just needed to be saved, and so that made it really, really special.”

The Berrys have seen this potential before. Louise is their sixth “baby,” as Laine calls the homes, and their most recent restoration project. In only four months, they solidified the house’s foundation, refilled the brickwork, and replaced the roof, all in an effort to restore Louise to its original state. They were just about to start working on wiring in the home, in fact, when disaster struck: a lightning bolt hit an oak tree behind Louise and set fire to both the tree and the house. The result looked like something out of a horror movie, a raging inferno that consumed the entire home. Louise is now a husk of its former self.

“It’s unimaginable that that is what happened,” Laine says. “I think it’s everybody’s nightmare to lose their house to a fire. But I don’t think anybody, even if we think about losing our houses to fire, we don’t even consider lightning as a possibility.” Even more unbelievable, she adds, is that the last owner of the home, who refused to sell for years, died only a week before the fire.

“It almost felt like, cosmically, she was not going to let it go.”

Imagination can’t save Louise now, although a community of old home appreciators who’ve been following the house’s restoration on Instagram wishes it could. They’ve rallied around Louise, sharing the house’s story across social media, supporting the Berrys’ GoFundMe, and leaving encouraging comments about how much they enjoyed watching the house’s journey. Some of the more than 66,000 followers have asked how much it’d cost to rebuild Louise ($1.3 million) and wondered if they could raise that much cash.

“If all of your followers donated 25 dollars we could raise 1.6 million,” one commenter noted. But Laine and her husband don’t specialize in new builds. Their interest is in saving existing but neglected properties from ruin.

The online restoration community has been growing for years, fueled by accounts that share homes in need of saving. (“Saving” a home is the community’s preferred term for buying and fixing an old building. The idea is to never tear down a worthy place and, really, not to flip them, either.) Among the most popular are @savingoldhouses, which has 90,000 followers, and @cheapoldhouses, an account with more than a million followers. Elizabeth Finkelstein started Cheap Old Houses in 2016 after launching a popular column on her website, Circa, that listed 10 homes under $50,000. She eventually needed a place to put all of the extra listings, so came the Instagram account.

The posts are simple. They don’t go through restoration tips or processes but instead focus more on real estate listings. Each post depicts a home with its location and price written on the first slide. Finkelstein doesn’t profit off the home’s listings, but she does offer specialized newsletter subscriptions, sells space on Circa to list homes, and operates a merch store to make money. Most listings cost less than $100,000 on Cheap Old Houses, and for Finkelstein, the more preserved it is, the better.

“I almost find [the homes] more alluring if they’re not in great condition but they’re original,” she says. “People love time warp, time capsule, houses that you open up and it looks like it hasn’t been touched.”

During the pandemic, she says the account has, at times, grown by 25,000 people a week, demonstrating everyone’s collective desire to get outside their homes, find a project, or at least imagine themselves somewhere other than wherever they’re hunkered down.

Once a home sells, Finkelstein posts another image, but this time with the words “I’VE BEEN SAVED” across it. The home’s buyer will often launch their own Instagram account so that fans can follow along with the renovations. Louise was one of those homes, and Finkelstein says after she posted about the “fairytale” house, the Berrys gained around 30,000 Instagram followers.

“They’re Insta stars because I think people love to kind of follow along,” she says. “I do think my feed is made up mostly of dreamers and people who are like, ‘Wow, I would love to do that.’ And to see someone actually take it on and do it, it’s so fun just to feel like you know the whole story.”

The end goal for many property owners is to either live in their home or turn it into a bed and breakfast or rental. The Berrys, for instance, live in one of their homes and operate the others as Airbnbs. They only sold one property that was too far away to manage. Louise was supposed to become a bed and breakfast.

Whatever they turn into, the goal is to maintain these homes and keep them as historically accurate as possible.

“We’re losing these properties at incredible rates, so our objective has been to come into areas and restore properties that, for whatever purpose, have been neglected for several years,” says Laine, who’s working on getting a certification in historic preservation from the Boston College of Architecture.

Another popular restoration journey, @whathavewedunoon from Cal Hunter and Claire Segeren, is supposed to end up as both a permanent home and an Airbnb. Hunter went to an auction in 2018 to buy an apartment in Glasgow, Scotland, and accidentally bid on the wrong unit. Instead of a place in a major city that needed manageable work, they ended up with an apartment in a town called Dunoon, an hour and a half away from Glasgow. The building was in extreme disrepair — when it rained, it rained inside the house. The roof looked like a colander with holes along the ceiling, and, critically, it needed serious structural work. A structural engineer told the couple to give up and start fresh. The building had been abandoned for 30 years already.

“Cal was excited from the very start, and he just kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s just sticks and stones; we can deal with any of the problems that the building has for us,’” Segeren says. Hunter, who’s a carpenter, felt more optimistic about the project at first.

“The first couple months were overwhelming for me,” she says. “It was like a roller coaster back then. There’d be one minute where you’d be excited and thought, ‘You know, this is a great thing for us to be doing,’ and then the next minute I’d be crying and asking myself what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.”

The couple ended up buying four other apartments within the same building so they could take complete ownership, ultimately costing them a total of £40,000. They only have £60,000 for the rest of the project, £20,000 of which already went toward reconstructing the roof. With funds limited, their in-person and virtual community stepped in to help. People in the area donated extra material, Segeren says, and their Instagram fans, of which they have more than 150,000, donated more than £8,000 through GoFundMe.

“It’s such a great little niche in the Instagram world and in the online world,” she says. “You don’t have to pose and make things up to please [the restoration] Instagram followers. People are just happy to see you as you, and your house as it is, and see the hard work that you’re putting into it.”

The homes’ stories and gritty details are part of the appeal, as opposed to other parts of Instagram that are highly curated and finished. This isn’t about interior design but rather the journey and rough edges. One photo on their account shows Hunter in a raincoat and rain boots up to his knees in mud. Others detail water damage and steps to restore the home’s stone walls.

Their followers, like many other restoration fans, have consistently ponied up for causes and homes they support.

Finkelstein sold pins, for example, to raise money for Nina Simone’s childhood home, through a campaign on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website. She raised $5,000 in donations within only a couple of days. The Berrys’ GoFundMe sits at over $33,000, most of which came after the house burned down, which they’ll use to raze the property. Eventually, they hope to move another historic property, which would otherwise be destroyed, onto the lot. Their window restorer, Andrew Wing, lost his tools in the fire and raised nearly $7,000 to replace them.

“I have enjoyed following you since the very beginning,” one donator wrote on the Berrys’ fundraiser. “I can’t believe how sad I was and still am over a house I’ve never been to and people I have never met. I think you two are amazing and you should be very proud of the community you have created in this virtual world.”

Louise’s demise shook the community. “It literally felt like a person had died,” Finkelstein says. “It was a moment where time just seemed to stop,” Scott Reed, of @savingoldhouses, says about when he heard Louise was burning.

Louise stood for 170 years and lived a second life as an influencer on Instagram. Although a freak event took it down, the home’s fans invigorate the Berrys to keep restoring.

“I could very easily get to a point where I’m like, ‘I just can’t do this again. It’s too painful to lose, so why even try it again,’” Laine says. “But because of these people, because of this amazing community, I feel a responsibility to continue the work that they have become so invested in.”

They no longer have to imagine Louise’s future; they know what it is. Instead, they can picture a future for the lot in Louisville, Georgia, where Louise once stood and a new, old home will be soon. The community, as always, is imagining that, too.

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