Managing Construction

Renovate Your Rental

When Jamie Kaneko was looking for a new home, she was excited to finally find a rental property large enough for her family. The five-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot house was perfect for her four children, but she did have one complaint: The bathroom was dated and in disrepair.

Instead of continuing her search, she decided to sign a lease for the Murray, Utah home and renovate the bathroom herself. She and her boyfriend tore out the existing shower and floor, repaired the plumbing, and retiled the entire bathroom. “We are trying to clean up our credit before we buy, and this really was the only way we could make the house our home-by adding personal touches and modifying to our taste,” Kaneko says.

This drive to personalize a space-even if it's a rental that you don't own, and even if you are spending money you won't get back-is pure human nature, says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt. “It does not matter where you live, it is not temporary-it is yours. So, make it work for you,” Galt says. “When you are living in an environment that has been designed well and right for you, it will improve your health and it will improve the relationship that is going on in the space. You will have more interest in entertaining your friends. It will impact your entire life on so many levels.”

Kaneko is happy she did the work, and even happier that her landlord reimbursed her efforts in the form of refunded rent. In fact, they have several more projects planned for this year, including painting. “Some will be on our dime just because we want to have them done,” Kaneko says. “Renting isn't ideal in the long run, but we feel like we are creating the home we want as we rent it. We may buy it next year.”

Making Renting Attractive
Industry experts say people like Kaneko are more likely to stay in their rental properties longer if they are given the freedom to personalize. That's good for landlords and building owners because it's easier to keep a tenant than to have to look for a new one.

“Years ago, owners said, 'No way! I'm not going to let you do that,'” says Lisa Trosien, the self-proclaimed “Apartment Expert” and consultant to the multifamily housing industry. “But the thing that they found is, on average, if you rent or customize your unit, tenants will stay for about 30 months.”

And not all renters are transient. Some are so-called “lifestyle renters,” who don't want to deal with the hassles of home ownership. Others are being forced to delay their dreams of home ownership because of economic concerns. In both cases, these are people who are planning to stay put and want to personalize their space.

Trosien has seen tenants add mirrored closet doors, change paint and wallpaper, bring in their own appliances, install new carpet or hardwood flooring, and change plumbing fixtures. Getting landlords to pay for these improvements is practically unheard of, she says. But in rental markets with high vacancy rates, where incentives such as “two months free rent” are used as lures, prospective tenants might be able to negotiate.

“If a would-be renter came to me and said, 'I do not want the two months' rent. I want hardwood floors;' as an owner, I would do that in a heartbeat, because that is going to enhance the value of my asset,” Trosien says.

Some owners are seeing the cash benefit of allowing tenants to customize. At Avistele rental communities in Georgia and Florida, tenants are given the option of upgrading their home's appliances, flooring, and countertops as well as adding steam showers and surround-sound media rooms. Here, owners are capitalizing on the idea that just because you rent doesn't mean you can't live in the home of your dreams.

Ask First
From a legal perspective, it is always best for tenants to ask before making any changes. If you want to take down a wall or put in a door between two apartments to “combine” them, you could be asking for trouble. You could be compromising the structural integrity of the building, and the landlord could be left with a space that violates local housing codes.

If you make changes without asking, you're risking more than your security deposit. The landlord can sue you for the cost of returning the apartment to its original condition.

“If your security deposit is only $1,000, but it costs $1,500 to repaint the apartment, they can come after you for that,” says Michael Semko, counsel for the National Apartment Association. “Or, if you do something that damages the unit, not only would there be the repair costs, but if the owner can't re-rent the unit, he or she might be able to get lost rent as well.”

For this reason, Semko recommends first asking the landlord for permission for anything that could potentially damage or change the rental unit. And get that approval in writing, he recommends.

Spruce Up Your Rental Home
Painting your rented apartment or house is “the fastest and most economical way to make a dramatic change,” says Atlanta interior designer Melissa Galt. But if you want to go beyond simply adding a splash of color, consider these do-it-yourself projects: