The expression “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission” describes how I feel about decorating a rental to a T. Most landlords are way more agreeable than they appear to be on paper—and than we give them credit for being. So making minor renovations here and there, I’ve found, is something one can usually get away with.
Many landlords may even thank—or reimburse—you for putting your labor and money into improving their property if they’re pleased with the way it turns out. That said, doing anything that conflicts with what’s in the lease still puts you in danger of losing your security deposit—or worse—so renovate at your own risk.
If you are interested in staying longer than your lease and making it more permanent (especially if you have an agreement with your landlord), then you can consider those larger renovations, but for the most part, I’d say stick to ones you know you can get away with. So without further ado, here are nine rental renovation ideas to give a try.
In my experience, almost all landlords will be okay with you painting your apartment—so long as you paint it back. Just don’t do any crazy treatments that will be difficult to repaint, and if you use a dark color, use a primer when you repaint so it’s fully covered. If you choose a versatile, neutral color like a nice shade of white, your landlord may allow you to leave it up when you move out. In many states, property owners are required to repaint the walls every few years for new tenants, so they’ll be repainting anyway.
But word to the wise: As soon as you move in, get the name and brand of the original paint color from your landlord. Even though I had permission to paint (and repaint) in writing, one of my past landlords refused to answer my phone calls when I asked for the name of the paint, in hopes that he could wring some money out of me.
Swapping out your light fixtures is one of the easiest rental renos to get away with. Just store the original fixture somewhere safe during the duration of your tenancy, and replace it when you move out. Your landlord won’t know the difference. Make sure to turn off the electricity when you’re installing it, though, so you don’t put the apartment at risk. And if you’re not comfortable installing lighting, hire an electrician.
More and more brands these days are producing wallpapers that are easy to remove. There are some peel-and-stick varieties that don’t leave an adhesive residue, which of course is a no-brainer for a rental. But then there are also “paste the wall” varieties, which can be peeled off in sheets by hand rather than the troublesome wallpaper steamer.
I hung a paper by Graham & Brown in a foyer of past apartment (a small surface area), and while it wasn’t a breeze to remove, it came off in about 20 minutes and then required an hour or two of spraying with an adhesive remover and then scraping. When I was finished, it looked good as new, and it was totally worth the labor since I loved the heck out of that printed wallpaper!
Shelves may require a few more screws than picture frames, but your landlord may actually be pleased if you leave them behind for future tenants, as they provide additional storage. If he or she wants you to remove them, just make sure you spackle and repaint the wall so it looks clean.
Dated linoleum tile is one of the biggest and most common offenses you’ll find in rental apartments. It’s actually quite cheap to replace—about $150 can get you enough new linoleum tile to replace a whole kitchen, depending on where you shop. If your floors are particularly heinous, it might be worth the effort and expense. Chances are your landlord isn’t keen on the look of it either, and will be pleased if you replace it with something more current, so long as it’s timeless and versatile. He or she may even reimburse you.
Unless you’re skilled at installing tile, I wouldn't recommend replacing the tile in your rental unit, as labor and materials can get costly. However, if your bathroom or kitchen is blessed with some truly dated colored tile, you can purchase a tub and tile refinishing kit or spray paint for $20 to $50 to give it a bright-white makeover. There’s even spray for appliances on the market, if you have, say, a brown ’70s-era oven or hood.
I like to say that hardware is the jewelry of your home. It's amazing what some shiny new drawer pulls and cabinet knobs can do—it's like an instant makeover! Though they can get expensive if you have a big kitchen with lots of doors and drawers, the great thing is that you can take them with you when you leave! Most cabinet hardware is standard, so you can reuse them in your next home. Since all they require to install is a simple screwdriver, you can easily tackle this renovation yourself, and if you replace the original hardware before you move out, your landlord won't know the difference.
If your bathroom medicine cabinet is not built into the wall, replacing it with something more statement-making, or even something simple that doesn’t look contractor-grade, can make a real impact. It’s as easy as unscrewing it, storing it for moving day, and then hanging something prettier.
If your kitchen cabinets are really dated—say, a mustard tone or that ubiquitous midcentury medium-tone wood—and it’s unequivocally clear they have passed their prime, your landlord may not mind you painting them. That is, so long as you do a good job painting. Be sure to completely remove the cabinet doors and hardware before you paint, let them dry, and then reinstall them. Don’t choose any crazy colors—go with something classic and versatile like black, white, or gray.
Up next, fuss-free ways to update your rental.
This post was originally published on September 21, 2015, and has since been updated.