Though you probably feel like your options are limited when it comes to decorating a rental, you may be in luck because many landlords are way more agreeable than they seem. Some may even thank 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 your lease still puts you in danger of losing your security deposit—or worse—so we renovate at your own risk. Or at least ask your landlord before making any big changes you may be unsure about.
We asked a New York interior designer for a few of her chic rental renovation ideas to try without changing the original bones of your rental too much. Explore 15 of her tips and give a few of them a go!
Meet the Expert
Sasha Bikoff is a New York interior designer who's outfitted some of the country's most impressive homes. Her out-there style combines the best of 18th-century French and Italian Rococo, 1960s Space Age Modern, and 1980s Memphis Milano.
Paint Your Walls
Almost all landlords will be okay with you painting your apartment—so long as you paint it back before the next tenant moves in.
Sasha advises, "Try opting for more luxury paints and finishes so the renovations feel more decorated and less 'spec house.' Really dive deep into neutrals—especially whites." Just don’t do any crazy treatments that will be difficult to repaint, and if you enlist a dark color, use a primer when you repaint so it’s fully covered. In some cities, though, landlords may be required to repaint rental units every few years, so they may be doing the repainting for you. In New York City, for instance, landlords are required to repaint a rental unit's walls every three years.
If you plan on painting your walls, be sure to get the name and brand of the original paint color from your landlord so you can paint the walls back before moving out.
Swap Out Light Fixtures
Switching out your light fixtures is one of the easiest changes you can actually get away with in a rental. Just store the original fixture somewhere safe for the duration of your tenancy because you'll have to put it back before you move out. Make sure to turn off the electricity when you’re installing it, though, so you don’t put the apartment at risk.
Sasha suggests, "Work on a lighting plan that incorporates a combination of the unit's preexisting recessed lighting and light fixtures so that you can set all kinds of moods." And if you don't trust your electrical skills to get the job done right and safely, hire an electrician.
Apply Removable Wallpaper
Peel-and-stick wallpaper is way less of a commitment than you'd think. There are some removable 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 you can be peeled off in sheets by hand rather than with a troublesome wallpaper steamer.
Floating shelves may require a few more screws than picture frames do, but your landlord may actually be pleased if you leave them behind for future tenants, as they provide additional storage without taking up any valuable cabinet or closet space. If he wants you to remove them, just make sure you spackle and repaint the wall so it looks clean.
Replace Old Kitchen Materials
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 and the size of your kitchen. In addition to the outdated floors, Sasha instructs, "Have fun in the kitchen with the backsplash. You can go crazy with amazing tiles and stones these days!"
Refinish Dated Bathroom Tile
Unless you’re skilled at installing tile, we wouldn't recommend replacing the tile in your rental unit, as labor and materials can get costly. However, if your bathroom 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. Before you start this time-consuming project, though, make sure your landlord gives you the green light since you'll be permanently changing preexisting features of the apartment.
There are even spray for appliances on the market, if you have, say, a brown ’70s-situation in your space. If you're going to take this approach to an easy tile refresh, know that fumes are intense, toxic, and dangerous, so ensuring that there's significant ventilation and fans is key. Style may be important, but safety always comes first.
Add Stylish Hardware
"Hardware makes all the difference! It is the jewelry of the home and immediately elevates any space," Sasha says. It's amazing what some shiny new drawer pulls and cabinet knobs can do for your space. Though they can get expensive if you have a big kitchen with lots of doors, drawers, and cabinets, you can take them with you when you leave and install 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 have any idea they were ever temporarily replaced.
Change Your Bathroom Mirror
If your bathroom's medicine cabinet is not built into the wall, replacing it with something more statement-worthy, or even something simple that doesn’t look contractor-grade, can make a real impact. Replacing your mirror is as easy as unscrewing it, storing it for moving day, and then hanging something prettier.
Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets
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. Be sure to completely remove the cabinet doors and hardware before you paint, let them dry, and then reinstall them.
Get New Switch Plates
Design is truly all in the details. It's no secret that plastic switch plates crack and discolor easily. If your rental's fixtures show their age, replace them with metal alternatives for an easy luxe look. We're loving the funky, unexpected look of the Anthropologie ones above, which offer just enough personality without overpowering anything else that's also on the wall.
Update Your Shower Head
There are so many ways to freshen up an old-school bathroom without making structural changes. From re-grouting the tile work, adding fresh caulking and replacing the faucet, you have a ton of options that will make a big statement visually.
Remove Cabinet Doors
If your landlord won't let you paint your cabinets, simply remove them from the hinge and stash them away. Then, style the new open shelves with decorative objects or add removable wallpaper to the insides for a pop of color.
Layer Light With Sconces
Rental properties usually have the bare minimum when it comes to lighting. Make your space feel more like home by layering additional light sources, beyond overhead lights. When your lease is up, simply unscrew them from the wall and take them to your next home—no electrician required.
Refinish the Floors
"To save money, wooden floors don't have to be replaced; they can just be buffed, sanded, and stained to a slightly different color. The right stain and color makes all the difference and will really enhance and modernize any room," Sasha says. Treating a wood floor is definitely an all-day project, but what are weekends for if not for home improvements? If your floors are dark and heavy, try staining them a slightly lighter color to make the space feel more cohesive.
Play With Countertops
If your landlord will let you, replace your old kitchen countertops. Sasha suggests trying to find one that is stain-resistant and therefore will stand the test of time. Of course, this may take a little bit more convincing to your landlord, but getting rid of stained, scratched, and outdated countertops will make a huge difference.
We are loving the fresh and stylish varieties of terrazzo. Gone are the days of terrazzo hospital and cafeteria floors because the speckled stone is making its way into high-end design.