DIY Projects

Today In Questionable Decisions: Why I Renovate Rentals

My daughter, painting her bedroom

In the month or so since I moved into the new place, I’ve painted my daughter’s room, put down floor tiles in the kitchen, patched the ceiling, painted the front door, installed kitchen drawer pulls, and added lighting both indoors and out. Tomorrow, I have “replacing the iffy doorknob” on the schedule, and blackout blinds are in my future. So it didn’t surprise me when a reader asked why in god’s name I would do so much work on a house that I don’t even own – I’m saving up to hopefully buy in the area within a couple of years, because the owner has eventual plans to build a new structure on this lot.

There’s a simple answer, and a more complex one. The simple answer to “Why put so much work into a rental?” Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done, even as far back as college, when I spruced up every single one of my dorm rooms to the point that they looked like (teeny-tiny) twentysomething apartments.

Living room wallpaper that sparked some drama, circa 2010

As evidence of how constant my attitude towards rental improvements has been over the years, I’m going to quote myself (sorry) from a 2010 post:

One of the major mistakes that renters make [is] refusing to put time and effort into their apartments because they don’t own them. You’re going to spend a year of your life – more likely two to three, because we all know that moving is absolute hell – in those few hundred square feet…so why not put a little money and time (notice I said a little) into making your present living space a bit more “you”?

Basically, I think that if you live in a place, even only for a short time, it’s worth your while to make it feel like your own. You only live once, et cetera.

what improvements to make for your rental apartment

My last rental home seemed to require a gold chandelier, so I put one in.

OK, I put in three.

The equally true – but more complicated – reason why I fix up all of my houses, even the ones I don’t own: Because to me, investing in a house isn’t solely about ROI. I’ve always had a kind of oddly romantic affection for houses – all of them, whether I own them or not. I think they should be respected, and cared for, and how I try to show this respect is by always leaving a house more beautiful than it was when I arrived.

But here’s the major caveat: I don’t necessarily recommend making all the kinds of improvements that make – I’m the first to admit that I can be a bit excessive in how much work I do on places, in terms of both time and money. For me it’s fun, so I consider it an investment in a hobby, but not everyone loves spending their evenings in the company of a power drill.

Another caveat: I tend to try to fix things myself rather than hassle the owner of the house – if something breaks and I can fix it myself or pay a relatively small sum to have someone else fix it, I’ll just do that. And of course many landlords appreciate this…but, as I’ve learned, not all of them. As an example, at my last place there were a few outdoor lanterns that didn’t work, so I bought new tops for them and rewired them. I didn’t ask my landlord first because it seemed to me to be such an obvious improvement both aesthetically and in terms of safety, but he was not pleased, and let me know this via a whooooole lot of mansplaining. (You will be shocked to learn that he was also not my favorite person I’ve ever met.)

Related Read: How I Totally Renovated My Boring 1950s Ranch House

So. With all that said, here are the changes I recommend making to your rental…and a few that I don’t necessarily…unless, of course, you’re like me.

Quick fixes 100% worth spending a little time and money on:

  • The number one thing I deal with immediately after moving into a place is the lighting situation. If there are central fixtures present, I almost always swap them out for multi-bulb fixtures with dimmer capabilities that give you that lovely warm wash. (Just remember to save the original fixtures so you can put them back when you move out.) Even if there’s no existing fixture, it’s not that hard to run a wire along the wall and install one, as I did in my last place – although that’s a job for a professional electrician.
  • A ceiling fan makes a world of difference in terms of the feel of your apartment (not to mention the fact that it’ll save you some money come summer). Again, if there’s an existing central light fixture, it’s pretty straightforward to install. And ceiling fans don’t have to be boring, either – how cool is this wood and mint one?
  • Paint all the things white (as I did to the dark brick in my daughter’s bedroom, top photo). The owners probably won’t mind – obviously ask first – and you’ll get instant lightness and brightness and airiness.

pink front door

Me and my beloved pink door (tear)

  • A coat of bright paint on a single wall (or door!) can make the entire place feel brand-new (you may also want to just paint the moldings; this is a super-quick way to give a room some character). The owner may want you to return the walls to the original color when you leave, but it’s worth the effort for the impact.
  • If you want to go even further with the drama, try stick-on wallpaper. Lulu & Georgia has gorgeous removable styles. Ugh, this one.
  • Curtains do wonders to soften a room, and you can find chic styles at totally reasonable prices – Opalhouse for Target is pretty great. I also have a soft spot for spectacular tie-backs (I want these), which you can totally take with you when you move.

Now, some changes that *I* tend to make, but that you might want to skip.

  • Floors. Look, some floors are just straight-up unacceptable. You’re not going to install totally new flooring, obviously – hi, expensive – but if you’re dealing with some terrible, horrible linoleum situation (as I was in my new place)? Peel-and-stick floor tiles! (I bought these.) I have a whole post on them coming up, but the short story is that while they don’t look quite as good as real tiles, alas, they totally work – especially if you throw a rug over them to add some texture.
  • Bathroom and kitchen fixtures. I am extremely skeeved out by ancient faucets and shower heads and such. Can’t do it. So if my landlord isn’t going to pay for new ones – which they’re not – I’m going to buy affordable-but-new ones and put them on myself.
  • Epoxy. Right now, I have a bathroom wall situation that’s going to have to get fixed – it’s just reallllly old and sort of patchy and icky – and how I’m going to fix it is with epoxy paint. (Read this post for my full tutorial on when, where, and how to use this technique.)

And finally, don’t do these things:

  • Change out kitchen appliances. They’re just too cumbersome to lug around with you from place to place, and most apartments come with them already installed. I know, I know – your rental house dishwasher sucks. Mine does, too. But chances are I’m not going to take it with me when I move, and so unless I can convince my landlord to send a new one my way, it’s staying put.
  • Address any major plumbing/electrical issues on your own. Remember how I put in new hard-wired outdoor lighting that at my last place, and got a mansplaining for the ages? Don’t do that. If any problems arise in these areas over the course of your lease, they are 100% the owner’s responsibility – and you don’t want to get into any liability issues, trust.

And there you go. I have so many before-and-after posts coming up! Eeeeee.

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