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I’ve always placed great value on turning a house — or apartment — into a home, whether I’ve rented (mostly) or owned (once).
But here’s the rub: As a renter, you can’t exactly knock down walls and tear up floors at will, which means “as is” takes on a whole new meaning.
In my recent search for the perfect New York City rental, I looked at more than 40 prospective pads —and there were some doozies. One had six-foot ceilings but floors so slanted that the appliances seemed to lean away from the walls. (Bing: How to level a sloped floor)
When I finally found The One — a spacious, sun-filled studio on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn, with a deck, no less — I could not sign on the dotted line fast enough.
Six weeks later, when I walked into the vacant apartment, it wasn’t quite what I remembered. The walls were dirty, the uneven wood planks made my floors look like patchwork, and the tiny bathroom felt even smaller because the door almost slammed into the sink whenever I opened it.
I had to roll up my sleeves to turn this into my new home. Some fixes were quite easy (a deep clean does wonders), while others were more complicated. That bathroom door, for example, had to be rehanged to swing outward.
Because I hadn’t paid a broker’s fee, I set aside that money for improvements — although I quickly discovered there’s no limit to how much you could potentially spend on fixing up an apartment, especially one in a 100-year-old building. Which got me thinking: If you’re renting, how do you know when to spend the time and money to improve a home you don’t own?
To help me figure out what fixes were worth it, I turned to two pros: Will Saks, an interior designer with Homepolish, a service that matches clients with interior designers based on style and budget, and Greg McHale, a veteran real estate broker. Read on for their advice on what is — and isn’t — worth the elbow grease and extra dollars.
1. Renovating the bathroom
Worth it? No. A complete reno can cost thousands, even for a small bathroom. That’s because anytime plumbing is involved, the price tag is going to go way up; the average midrange bathroom remodel is estimated at $15,782. And even if you don’t pay that much for materials, it’s the installation work that will get you.
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What our pros suggest: “The simplest thing you can do is update the smaller fixtures: towel bars, toilet paper holders, mirrors, medicine cabinets,” Saks advises. Also, don’t underestimate the impact of clean tiles. I discovered that Tilex works like a charm on grimy tiles, especially if you let it sit for a few hours before scrubbing.
Another expert tip? Regrouting. “[It] makes a rental bathroom feel fresh,” Saks says. You can do it yourself, but it’s also relatively affordable to hire a handyman. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $200 to $300, depending on how pervasive the dirt is.
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When to bug your landlord: If there’s a safety risk — i.e., mold in the walls or even in your tiles — you should bring the matter up with the owner. “A landlord is obligated to fix leaks and electrical issues or remedy mold issues,” McHale says. “These are all situations that can create hazardous conditions for a tenant and, frankly, the building. So making these fixes is both required and a good idea.”
2. Investing in a fresh coat of paint
Worth it? Yes. Saks is a huge fan of painting: “It can make a space feel bigger and brighter. And if painting a room is too big of a commitment, start with one focal wall.”
What our pros suggest: If you’re planning to DIY, expect to pay a couple hundred dollars for paint and supplies. A gallon of paint costs $20 on the low end and $100 on the high end — and should cover about 200 square feet.
And the experts agree: Don’t skimp on quality. Saks always uses Benjamin Moore: “It’s a slight upgrade from whatever Home Depot sells, and most painters vouch for it. They also do an eco-friendly line called Natura, with low vapors for anyone into green design.”
If you’re considering hiring help, West Elm will paint your 12-by-12-foot room for $379, which is a reasonable benchmark when you’re gathering estimates.
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When to bug your landlord: Repainting is customary and usually done before a tenant moves in, says McHale. But in most cities, it’s not mandatory, with the exception of a few places like New York, which requires landlords to repaint every three years.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask if they don’t offer — owners may even be willing to foot the bill and let you hire the painters. Just be sure to find out if you’ll need to paint it back to white or its original color when you move out.
3. Replacing light fixtures
Worth it? Yes. “Great lighting fixtures are super easy to install and de-install and pay off in a big way,” McHale says.
What our pros suggest: If you’re planning to hire an electrician, expect to pay about $50 to $100 an hour; my local electrician charged $120 per hour. Sites such as Handybook.com can give you price estimates based on your location and the scope of the project.
You can also go it alone. “It’s a fairly easy task, and once learned, you’ll be amazed at how simple it is,” Saks says.
You can pay as little or as much as you want for light fixtures, but places such as Ikea and Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. have affordable and stylish fixtures for around $50 to $100.
When to bug your landlord: As long as your lights work, you don’t have much of a case for getting your landlord to pitch in purely for the sake of aesthetics. But think of your new lighting as an investment for your future home: If you’ve got the space to store the old fixtures, you can take your new ones with you when you move.