Renter’s Guide to Renovations: Are These 7 Common Upgrades Worth Doing?

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floorplanI’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.

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.

Since 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.

RELATED: 8 Tips From a Master Renovator

  • Em

    From someone who’s been working on a rental (some on my own, and some with my landlord’s help) for over a year now – if you can’t replace kitchen cabinet doors, ask your landlord if you can paint them. If the landlord is already okay with painting walls and the cabinets are very dated, a neutral coat of paint can really freshen up the kitchen and make it feel renovated.

    On drapes/curtains – if you can sew even a little (just straight lines) and have access to a sewing machine, you can make your own basic curtains pretty easily. Jo-Ann Fabrics always has at least one 40% or 50% off coupon available online, which can really save you money on a cut of fabric, and I’ve had good luck finding cheap tension rods on Amazon. My curtains are a mix of Ikea (it’s really hard to beat $5 floor length sheers) and homemade (fun colors/patterns), and it makes a huge difference in making my rental feel like a home.

  • Jessica

    This was helpful, but I disagree with the “buy more expensive paint” part of this article. Consumer Reports recently tested many brands of paints and actually found that Behr (sold at Home Depot and around $30/gallon) is the most cost effective and listed it as a best buy. I would never spend $100 on a gallon of paint, especially not just because some interior designer says it’s the way to go…

    • TartanSixNine

      I can vouch that Behr Pure Premium is a great paint. It is more expensive than most at first glance…until you realize you don’t need to buy primer, and you need to buy less of it than others since it covers so well (usually two coats of this stuff will do it).

  • landlord_in_MA

    Re #7, that depends on where you live. I own 4 rental units in Massachusetts, and by law landlords are required to provide window coverings. 99% of the time, it will be plain white, cheap vertical blinds, but there has to be something on the windows when it’s rented. Of course after you move in, you can change them to whatever you want or hang curtains.

  • MandyM

    our management company just replaced all the old metal vertical
    blinds with new plastic ones. So much better and we didn’t even have to beg!

  • TC

    My fiancé and I live in a pretty large alcove studio in Brooklyn, and we are considering adding sliding doors. Do you have any advice for that and potential costs?