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.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
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
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 more than $17,000. And even if you don’t pay that much for materials, it’s the installation work that will get you.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 like Handy.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 like Ikea and Schoolhouse Electric and Supply Co. have affordable and stylish fixtures for around $50 to $200.
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.
"FLOR carpet tiles come in a variety of colors, patterns and textures. And if one tile gets worn or stained, you can replace it, which is less expensive than replacing the whole carpet.”
4. Refinishing Floors
Worth it? No. “Refinishing floors can be expensive and messy,” Saks says. “A contractor needs to sand, which is dusty, as well as restain, which involves fumes and time to dry properly.” If you have to front the money for this project, expect to pay anywhere from $3.92 to $5.04 per square foot.
What our pros suggest: Rugs are the easiest way to hide an imperfect floor, and add a touch of design. “Even if you aren't looking for color and pattern, a simple sisal rug will add texture to the room,” Saks says.
Another perk: Rugs absorb sound, cutting down on noise for your neighbors below. To find good deals, Saks recommends websites like Overstock and RugsUSA. He's also a fan of FLOR carpet tiles: “They come in a variety of colors, patterns and textures, and they are great for high-traffic areas. If one tile gets worn or stained, you can replace it, which is much less expensive than replacing the whole carpet.”
When to bug your landlord: Barring a hole in the floor or some other type of disrepair that's potentially dangerous, your landlord probably isn’t going to invest money in a cosmetic fix. “You can try, but it really depends on the market you live in,” McHale says. “If inventory is so scarce [and there’s] high demand, landlords don’t need to share that cost with you.”
5. Swapping Out Hardware
Worth it? Yes. “This is a super simple change out—all you need is a screwdriver—and like lighting, you can always take the hardware with you to your next place,” explains Saks. He suggests vintage-inspired outlet wall plates in cool finishes. One note about doorknobs: “If you change one, I’d say change them all for consistency,” he says.
What our pros suggest: There’s always the opportunity to spend more, but generally speaking, light switches, outlet covers and wall plates are an extremely affordable fix. At Home Depot, a new switch and wall plate together can cost around $3 (less than $2.50 for a switch, $.79 for a plate), and a set of 10 outlets costs around $20. Doorknobs are somewhat pricier: A classic rosette brass-and-white porcelain door set, for example, is about $76 on Amazon.com.
When to bug your landlord: Almost never. Unless there's a piece of hardware missing altogether, expect to foot the bill.
6. Remodeling the Kitchen
Worth it? No. “Kitchens are some of the most expensive renovations,” Saks says. I can attest to that: A quick check on Sweeten.com, a site for home renovators that pairs projects with contractors, suggested a starting budget of $7,500 for my 50-square-foot kitchen!
What our pros suggest: As mentioned earlier, painting and swapping out hardware are economical solutions with big impact—replacement handles for your cabinets, for instance, can provide a whole new feel for your kitchen.
Have a little more wiggle room in the budget? Consider replacing your cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Most apartment kitchens are prefabricated, which means it should be easy to find a lot of options that fit your cabinets' dimensions, says Saks.
A bonus tip from McHale: “If your landlord will allow it, get a dishwasher [if your place doesn't have one]. I did it a few years back, and it was the best $400 I’ve ever spent.” Just be aware that the feasibility of this depends on your kitchen layout.
When to bug your landlord: You'll have to live with that ugly or outdated cabinetry, but if your appliances don’t work or frequently break down—costing your landlord expensive fix-it bills—you could argue for an upgrade.
7. Installing Custom Window Treatments
Worth it? Maybe. It depends on how much function you’re looking for from your blinds, drapes or shades. Custom treatments can offer features you can’t get from standard treatments. For example, I opted for top-down, bottom-up blinds that let natural light in at the top, while allowing for privacy from passersby on the bottom.
Sometimes, custom window treatments are the only option you have, especially if you live in a city with older architecture. In my apartment, the windows measure 29” x 82”, making them unusually tall.
What our pros suggest: Expect to pay at least $100 per window for custom blinds and shades—and more if you’re looking at a premium brand like Hunter Douglas. The good news is that companies like Blinds To Go often offer special promotions, and Saks personally favors JCPenney for affordable options.
Here’s another lower-end option: Buy affordable drapery and blackout panels, and have them hemmed by a tailor to your ideal length for about $10 to $20. “Premade drapery panels are much more affordable than custom ones, and they can add a nice, luxurious layer to any space,” Saks says.
When to bug your landlord: Never. As a tenant, all you’re entitled to are windows that aren’t broken and can be locked. When it comes to blinds or drapes, you’re on your own.