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Home Business How to upgrade your rental apartment without breaking the bank

How to upgrade your rental apartment without breaking the bank

Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels

Home ownership used to feel like a right of passage—you’d save up, find the perfect starter home and then climb the real estate ladder over time. It was common to own a house in your 20s, and as recently as the ’90s, many young families could afford a modest home in their desired location. Today, owning a home may seem more aspirational than realistic. In fact, about 75% of Canadians, who want to own a house, can’t afford to. In the midst of a genuine housing crisis that shows no signs of stopping, it’s no surprise that more Canadians are renting, either by choice or out of necessity.

There are definitely perks to renting—less commitment, more choice in terms of neighbourhoods, not having to pay for incidentals or property taxes. But, there’s also a good chance you’ll be dealing with things that are less than lovable, like dated kitchen cabinets, drab paint colours or ugly flooring. Whether you’re renting before you buy into the real estate market, or are decidedly a forever renter,  there are ways to make your rental home feel like just that—home. I spoke to designer and HGTV star Tiffany Pratt, who has created “a beautiful life” for herself as a longtime renter in Toronto, for an expert take.

The key to getting started? Consider function, first

As a designer, Pratt treats renters and homeowners the exact same way—and it all begins with understanding their needs and lifestyle. Her method? To see where the mess piles up in your home. “I never want anyone to clean up for me,” she says. “Design is very much a problem-solving game. It’s about finding organizational solutions in interesting spaces.” 

Families often have storage issues, and many tenants need to declutter before they can decorate. “My recommendations are always based on things that will improve their life,” Pratt says, noting that some clients need home office space, while others need a way to keep bags from piling up at the front door. Storage solutions are almost always worth the investment, as they can enhance your quality of life. Once your home functions well, you can focus on adding style.

Can you negotiate rental improvements with your landlord?

If your goal is to upgrade your rental apartment without getting into trouble with your landlord, start by reading the fine print. Your lease or rental agreement should clearly indicate what’s permissible—for example, it may state that walls can be painted any colour you like as long as they’re repainted white when you move out, or it may state “no alterations.” Semi-permanent upgrades like replacing faucets or light fixtures may require a conversation with your landlord but if you’re making improvements to the space, there’s a good chance they’ll say yes—and you may even be able to negotiate material cost-sharing or reduced rent.

If that sounds like a plan, but you’re not very handy, you still get it done yourself. Try throwing a painting party, enlisting your friends to help you paint while listening to music (and providing pizza, of course). For more complex jobs, enlist a handy friend or ask your landlord if they’ll dock the cost of hiring a professional from your rent.

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The worst thing a landlord can say is no, so Pratt recommends approaching them with a plan and starting a conversation. “You can say, I’m willing to put in the work and buy these materials, are you willing to subsidize my rent for a month or two—or three?” Plus, it helps you to build a relationship with your landlord, which can be helpful in the long run.

Experienced renter Kendra Davidson agrees that speaking to your landlord is worth it. “Our last rental was a hideous red inside. I went to the owner of the house and said, ‘If you pay for the paint, we’ll paint it,’ and she agreed. She just didn’t want to [paint] it herself.” 

If you’d like to paint neutral walls a more vibrant colour, your landlord may not be thrilled—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t do it. Tenants are often hesitant to make changes if they know they’ll have to undo them down the road. But Pratt encourages renters to change their mindset. If you’re coveting a design element, just do it. “What’s the problem giving yourself that ‘accent wall’ knowing you’ll have to paint it white again when you move out in three years?” she says. “It will bring you joy every day, but people focus on that one day of pain.”

How to decorate walls in a rental without painting

If you decide not to paint or your rental agreement doesn’t allow it, don’t worry—there are workarounds that will allow you to still make your space beautiful. Consider hanging plenty of art and textiles, adding shelving and mirrors, or applying temporary peel-and-stick wallpaper, which is both affordable and easy to get done. (For more on the cost of these projects, see our cost breakdown below).

“It’s empowering when you tell somebody where to find these things,” Pratt says, noting that this type of project can be done over a weekend. “They aren’t as hard to install as you think they are.”

How to decorate a rental apartment kitchen or bathroom

Some rental kitchens may be dated, but others are simply boring. The two things they often need? “Personality and texture,” says Pratt. She recommends adding a peel and stick backsplash or even installing real tile, if your landlord will allow it. If you have enough space, try adding a small kitchen island on wheels. And if the walls are an off-putting colour, ask permission to paint them a fresh white. “No landlord would ever think that’s a bad thing,” Pratt asserts.

If your landlord is willing to replace dated cabinets, that’s great. And if not, consider asking if you can paint them yourself or replace the doors with a new set (your local re-use centre may have options). You can also use peel and stick wallpaper to temporarily cover ugly cabinets. While many temporary wallpaper options come in bold patterns, neutral and even faux-wood looks are also available. 

If budget is a concern, Pratt recommends working around existing countertops while changing out cabinet hardware or faucets. “These projects don’t cost a lot of money and you’ve probably made some great changes,” she says. The same rules apply to the bathroom. Plus, you can always keep the old fixtures. That way, if you move, you can reinstall them and take the new ones with you to your next place.

How to upgrade rental apartment floors

In some cases, a landlord will agree to update the flooring in a rental unit (or, allow you to make changes yourself). This might involve all new flooring throughout the unit or simply adding peel and stick tiles on top of a dated bathroom floor. However, if you’re stuck with ugly carpet, bad tile or worn-out wood floors, you’ll need to find a way to work around them. “This may be when you spend money on that beautiful rug,” says Pratt.

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How to budget for upgrading your rental home

Apartment and house rental upgrades can be done at a variety of price points, and it all comes down to what matters to you and what you can afford. “You can buy beautiful things anywhere,” Pratt asserts. “You can find gorgeous things on Kijiji, off the road, from an auction… then splurge a bit on that thing you’ll love forever. There are interesting ways to accumulate based on your budget, so do the best you can with what you have.”

Growing up with a mobile lifestyle because of her father’s job, Davidson learned a few habits that have benefited her as a renter. “My parents always said to pack your fancy stuff and bring it with you, but their fancy stuff was homey stuff,” she says. “There were carpets to hide ugly flooring, and they invested in a lot of art.”

Davidson and her husband take the same approach now, always taking sentimental pieces of art and furniture, as well as rugs and high-quality bedding, with them when they move. She finds it offers consistency as well as a sense of luxury. They also pack holiday decorations and other things that are important to their family’s sense of comfort and tradition. “Our home is us, and that’s what we’ve always said. It has nothing to do with the structure.”

How much do rental upgrades cost?

UpgradeApproximate costPainting bedrooms and common areas$60/gallon (approx. 1 to 2 gallons per room) Changing out kitchen hardwareYou can get beautiful, modern drawer pulls starting at around $5 each New kitchen faucetAround $200 for a mid-range option (more for a high-end version)Window coveringsIf you’re replacing cheap plastic blinds with curtains or shades from a big-box store, budget around $100 per windowTemporary tile or wallpaperIt costs approximately $100 to $150 for enough peel and stick tile to create a kitchen backsplash or enough temporary wallpaper for an accent wallArt, textiles and furnitureExtremely varied—shop around based on your budget

What if my landlord won’t let me make any changes to the unit?

If you’re working with a lot of restrictions, focus on making each room beautiful in creative ways. “Go down the road of doing things with art and plants and beautiful textiles,” Pratt says, suggesting that renters use small tacks to hang a beautiful tapestry on a wall. “There are lots of ways to make your rental feel like home without making big changes. It will make you microscopically aware that every choice you make has to be stylish.”

And yes, she means every single choice. “Make your kettle interesting, your pillows, everything.” 

Is it worth it to upgrade a rental?

Whether you’re a property owner or a renter, your home is your home—and it’s worth making it both functional and beautiful. Remember, upgrades can be completed over time in order to stay on budget. Make a list of everything you want to do, set a budget and prioritize. Hopefully, you’ll be left with a comfortable, appealing space that you truly love. 

“Every moment matters and every day of your life spent in this space is important whether you’re renting or owning,” Pratt says. “Don’t give less attention to your space because you’re renting. It’s an important thing to care about.”

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