How To Customize Your Rental Apartment (Without Pissing Off Your Landlord)

Because you don't have to be an owner to upgrade your flat.

Feb 10, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

For a lot of newly-minted adults, getting on the property ladder is one of those checkboxes that looms overhead, or in the not-so-distant future, as a must-do. A mortgage can seem like an important rite of passage to the world of bona-fide responsibility and Suze Orman-endorsed “good debt” that media representations of successful adulthood are made of. As a current homeowner and former renter, I say make sure it’s truly worth the headache. 
 
Some places make purchasing property inaccessible -– looking at you New York, San Fran, Vancouver –- and others will practically hand you the keys in exchange for a signature and some pocket change (if you happen to be a writer looking to relocate to Detroit, literary activity and property taxes will foot the bill.)
 
In my home city of Montreal, it can go either way. Renters are pretty well protected, at least theoretically. Rental laws mean increases to rent follow suggested increases of around one percent annually (while they’re not legally binding, tenants can refuse outsize increases without the landlord being allowed to evict them, so it works out.) When you rent an apartment here, you’re also legally entitled to know the rent the previous tenant paid –- you can contest the rent you’re paying even after you’ve signed the lease, if the increase seems unjustified. Wherever you live, read up on your rights!
 
I would describe the rental market here as uneven, though, because there are killer deals to be had taking over a long-held old lease versus renting blind off Craigslist (the lack of informed tenants means a lot of what’s on the market is inflated) and if you can find the former, it may make more sense to rent long-term than to consider purchasing. (Though if you’re paying a small fortune for a rental in an accessible real estate market, it might be time to start home shopping, finances permitting.)
 
Although there were some decent rents to be had in my neighborhood, given the amenities I was looking for, buying was ultimately the right decision for me. But equity be damned, there are times I miss having a landlord, like when the plumbing is wonky from the hair-doll that’s formed in my drain, or when my property tax bill comes in. 
 
If you have a great lease on a great place in a great neighborhood, consider that it might not be worth moving out, ever. And just because you don’t own your home doesn’t mean you can’t customize it. Some landlords are super-strict about paint colors and modifications -– even making holes in walls to mount art or shelves. It’s been my experience that the most hardline among them can be swayed once they realize you’re a good tenant with good taste, and that you intend to treat their property with respect. 
 
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Maybe don’t go ahead and install a ceramic backsplash in the kitchen without checking first. My pothead landlord was such a space cadet he was convinced he’d installed it all along, so it worked out. More on how to install one (and get away with it) later.

 
It’s economically advantageous for them to keep you: no months of lost rent between tenants, no repainting or refreshing, less wear and tear from moving in and out. The best landlords out there are the ones who are happy to have you add value to their property through minor renovations. Often they are willing to kick in for supplies or negotiate a rent reduction in exchange for the work, especially if you have the credentials to back up your skills. If on top of that, they’re relatively laid back and stay out of your hair, you’ve hit rental gold.
 
I visited a beautiful apartment a few years back that was a former 19th-century bordello, complete with an ornate opium den and wood-paneled walls, but when the building’s owner informed me of all the projects she had in mind for the place (and her hands-on approach to them) I realized I was looking at a part-time roommate and not a landlord. Pass.
 
Once you’ve found the right place -– and hopefully the right landlord -– consider the different ways you can put your stamp on it. If you’re ready to undertake larger renovations, power to you. If you have carpentry or construction skills and are able to barter those for cheaper rent, even better. But here are some small fixes that even novice decorators should be able to tackle without too much difficulty.
 
Walls
 
It’s customary for landlords to whitewash your digs at the start of a new lease. This is your opportunity to speak up, if there’s an alternative you’d prefer. Whether you end up paying for the paint color and they provide labor, or whether they pay for supplies and you agree to roll up your sleeves and roll it on, the best time to paint is before you’ve set up your space. 
 
In terms of leveraging permission to paint bright colors or hang artwork, it’s often as simple as promising to patch the holes (Poly Filla, a spatula, and five minutes of your time) and return the apartment to a light/white shade (invest in a good primer and be prepared for two coats.)
 
Also, when mounting wall décor, be sure to ask a lot of questions at your home hardware shop –- all building materials are not created equal, and you’ll need the right mounting hardware to make sure what goes up, stays up.
 
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Ok, maybe five minutes was wishful thinking, but hanging everything you own on one wall is definitely one way to make it a focal point. Also, let the mirror-less frame serve as evidence that it’s important to choose the right hardware the first time around.

 
There are lots of options when it comes to wall colors. If you’re renting an apartment with period details, like wall moldings, consider painting them a separate color for added emphasis. I cannot say enough about how much I love chalkboard paint, even though everyone and their Pinterest-loving cousin has seen it done a million times.
 
Whatever, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every decorating decision, and anyways this one’s only as cool as what you put on it. I love doing a panel (use painter’s tape to set your outline, then brush on two coats –- simple as that) near the front door, or in the kitchen, or in a home office. It’s great for lists and drawings, or as a temporary guest book.
 
Just be sure to prime the surface for writing by running the long side of a stick of chalk over the entire thing once it’s dry, then washing it down. If you don’t, the first drawings you make might just remain, ghosted, until you leave. 
 
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I did have the decency to put the icing on cookies before eating it, despite what this picture may imply. Also, maybe don’t lean against the chalk drawing if you’re wearing black.

 
Lighting
 

Standard-issue ceiling lights are the bane of every moderately priced apartment’s existence. There are plenty of affordable options, from Homesense to flea markets, so there’s no reason to stick with what you’ve got currently. Wiring a ceiling light is super straightforward; my mother showed me how when I moved out at 18, and I haven’t looked back since. If your mom isn’t a closet handywoman, YouTube has you covered.
 
 
Alternatively, hire a real handy(wo)man to give you a few hours’ help. Between installing light fixtures and making sure to mount your wall décor with the right hardware, you’re sure to learn a few tricks of their trade.
 
Hardware
 
Hardware can be switched out at the time you leave, so feel free to change them up, as long as you store the originals with care. Give a boring kitchen a much-needed facelift by hitting up Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware or even Home Depot for funkier knobs and pulls.
 
It takes no time at all to remove the old and put new ones in their place. Just be sure to bring one of each type of knob you intend to replace with you when you shop, to make sure you’re purchasing replacements that will fit the original holes. 
 
Waterworks
 
Invest in your comfort and convenience by upgrading your kitchen faucet and your showerhead. A swivel nozzle that will fit into a bare-bones kitchen faucet doesn’t have to cost over $10 but it will make your life a lot easier, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher.
 
If you have a hand-held showerhead, it’s easy enough to replace it with a fancier shower handle that offers a few different spray options. As with the hardware, bring the original to the store to avoid buying one that won’t fit. Same for replacing standard showerheads. Just be sure to wrap the wall pipe with thread seal tape before you mount the new head, so that it’s watertight. 
 
If you’d like the option of both in an apartment that only has a standard showerhead, screw in a shower arm diverter before you attach the showerhead. Opt for one with a built-in holder, like the one I linked to, so you won’t have to make any holes in the tile, then screw the hand-held shower hose into the threaded end.
 
Tiles
 
I took installing a backsplash in my kitchen into my own hands, because the wall above my sink and counter was super-grody from years of tenants not drying it off. I scraped the peeling paint down until the surface was even, then I broke up tiles using a hammer over a towel.
 
I applied mastic to the wall with a notched trowel and fitted the pieces together in a random pattern, trying to leave relatively equal spaces between all of them. I found myself breaking more pieces as I went, according the shapes I needed to complete the wall. I let the wall dry overnight, then grouted it with premixed grout, let it set for 20ish minutes, then I cleaned the faces of the tiles with a damp rag. When the grout was drier, I polished the tile surfaces properly.
 
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While I opted for a neutral result (again, best to ask for permission!) I’ve seen some really great alternatives to tiles including this wall in the bakery at Haisai.

 
If you happen to have the dreaded vinyl floor tiles preferred by large institutions and cheap landlords everywhere, and you’re given the go-ahead to spruce them up, this is an inexpensive DIY that makes a world of difference. It’s also relatively simple to replace dingy vinyl tile with (slightly) nicer vinyl tile, but if the surface is intact, I’d go the painted route. Just put a small rug underfoot by the sink and counter so the highest-traffic areas don’t wear too quickly. 
 
Speaking of rugs, large area rugs layered overtop ugly wall-to-wall carpet do wonders for creating a distraction. Sometimes the best upgrades don’t need permission at all. I’m curious to hear from the renters among you -– what have you done to spruce up your apartment, and did you ask first?