Home Hacks

How I Transformed My Rental Bathroom Without Remodeling a Thing

The best part? It was all under $150.

May  5, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

Reciting the specs of my Astoria, Queens apartment never fails to elicit gasps from people familiar with the New York City housing market. 1,000+ square feet? Yup. Hardwood floors? Thank god. Natural light? Need it. A dishwasher? I know, it’s a gem. And it doesn’t cost 70 percent of your monthly earnings? No way.

So, what’s the catch, you ask? Well, I do live with two roommates, so the square footage is split between us. And sure, we could be a little closer to Manhattan for a shorter commute. But the real catch, the one that kept me up at night? The. Bathroom. Multiple shades of brown and yellow tile from floor to ceiling, an outdated textured glass shower door, and budget lighting fixtures. Shudder.

It gave me nightmares. Photo by Caroline Mullen

From the minute we signed the lease, I began brainstorming temporary fixes to make the bathroom palatable to the human eye. I found this photo on Pinterest, which offered a glimmer of hope that I might be able to turn this eyesore around, so I got to work moodboarding and online shopping—between lying awake at night plagued by brown-and-yellow colored nightmares. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it did consume a lot of my headspace!

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Ummm, sorry, but that appears to be a pretty darned okay bathroom to me in its original form. I like the tile you covered up on both ceiling and floor. Changing the light fixture, okay - that is pretty easy to undo. But hey, it's your bathroom.”
— Queen O.

Some of my solutions might not work for everyone—it mostly depends on your level of patience for projects and willingness to revert to the original when your lease is over. If you’re game—the results are worth it, I promise—here’s how to drastically improve an 80s nightmare…all for less than $150.

The moodboard Photo by Caroline Mullen
Ta-da! Photo by Caroline Mullen

Cover Up the Ceiling Tile

The two options I debated for the bathroom ceiling were to either coat the tile with white epoxy paint or cover it with contact paper. Since epoxy paint is a pretty serious project requiring a lot of ventilation, days of drying time, and is generally a more permanent fix (would need a landlord’s permission), I decided to try my hand with this contact paper, which is essentially vinyl, not paper. I must say, it’s held up exceedingly well in the humid environment of the bathroom, and after four months I haven’t had to replace any of it.

Photo by Caroline Mullen

How to do it:

- Measure the tiles, and cut pieces of contact paper the size of each tile.
- Wipe down the entire surface with rubbing alcohol to ensure the best stick.
- Stick down the corner first and peel the back off while you smooth it down. It's fairly easy to peel it back off and restick, so don't get too precious with it.
- If there are any unavoidable bubbles, stick a pin in them and they should flatten out.

Lay Down Floor Tile

If there was anything worse than the ceiling, it was the floor. Originally, I wanted to lay down black-and-white geometric tiles, but I had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t line up correctly and they’d haunt me every time I looked down. I ended up going with these inexpensive vinyl peel-and-stick tiles, which have also held up better than I thought they would. My best advice here is to measure, and measure twice. I ended up lugging two sets of these home on the subway because I measured incorrectly in my frenzy to get the floor covered. They’re not really intended to cover bumpy, grouted tile, but they’re the perfect interim solution for my bathroom. I’m all about a hack job, clearly.

Photo by Caroline Mullen

Here’s how to do it:

- Measure the space you need to cover, but get about 4-5 extra tiles to account for mishaps.
- Use paper and painter’s tape to map out the hard-to-fit sections of the floor (like around the toilet), then trace them onto the tile and cut them out. While I needed a utility knife for some pieces, good scissors worked wonders on these.
- Make sure the floor is totally clean of stray particles and dust, then wipe down with rubbing alcohol to ensure the best stick.
- Stick, stick, stick! It might not be perfect, but it’s far better than it was.

Hang a Shower Curtain

At a loss for what to do with decades-old sliding shower doors, I posted on Instagram asking for suggestions. I had a few people suggest hanging a shower curtain in front of the glass door, and at first, I thought it seemed redundant (double shower coverings?), but once my vision for the rest of the bathroom was coming together, I knew that sucker had to be hidden. This shower curtain adds subtle texture and hides the brass and textured glass. Thank god.

Photo by Caroline Mullen

Paint the Door

Okay, I probably should have consulted my landlord on this one…but I’m an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission kinda gal. The door is pretty standard-issue wood veneer, but years of wear and tear and a healthy dose of water damage rendered it, well…unsightly. I committed to painting it, and away I went!

Here’s how:

- Give the whole door a quick sand with 220 grit paper, then wipe it clean of any dust.
- Add two coats of paint, I used this eggshell white with a paint brush because I didn’t have a roller on hand, and it worked just fine. Make sure each coat dries completely before adding more.

Swap Out Light Fixtures

Photo by Caroline Mullen

Be warned: electrical work is not for the impatient or instructions-averse, but it is a game-changer for rentals (au revoir, boob lights!). I followed this tutorial that aided me in replacing the ceiling fixture in my bedroom, and while I was struggling on my tip toes for an hour, it was well worth it. The fixtures in the bathroom aren't totally heinous, so I let them be, but it's totally possible to swap 'em out. Plus, you can just reinstall the old fixture when it’s time to move out.

Which of these swaps would you make in your rental bathroom? Tell us in the comments!

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Caroline Mullen

Written by: Caroline Mullen


Krishnatabor January 25, 2022
I think you did a great job, and you want a bathroom that makes YOU happy. I love your approach, having a vision board helps, I know for me I may have to have something on Monday and by next Monday - I know it won't work in that space. Very inspiring.

Treefrog21! January 25, 2022
Where are “after” pics?
Susie W. May 27, 2020
My landlord provides minimal maintenance - what you see is what you get. Upside: he doesn't care what I do to the place re: paint, light fixtures, replace kitchen floor linoleum, etc. I made improvements to the bathroom several years ago - replaced moldy sheetrock (I'd didn't know before that sheetrock was a thing, much less how to tape, skim, sand - but I learned!), replaced rotten shower window sill and trim (another learning opportunity), etc. Lately, I've been wondering if I could do some inexpensive but impactful things to improve it more. Per your article: yes, I can. PS: your bathroom looks good now - before, kind of disturbing.
Caroline M. June 3, 2020
Thanks, Susie! It was kind of disturbing, lol. My main gripe these days is the gunk that builds up in the shower door tracks. So gross.
kmkane123 December 18, 2020
Caroline, a hand held steam cleaner works well for those gunky shower door tracks! https://bestreviews.com/best-handheld-steam-cleaners
michelleroo May 10, 2020
Vinyl is a very toxic form of plastic. Plastic is a huge global problem. I would prefer to see articles that advocate environmentally friendly approaches to decor. Keeping the bathroom clean and the door closed might be a better solution in this regard. The shower curtain was a clever solution, especially because it was not vinyl like so many are. I have a friend with a modern feeling house until you use the bathroom which is like entering a museum with it's vintage 60's bathroom. Because it is clean, it is amusing curiosity.
Arati M. May 6, 2020
The thing I love the most about this article is the attitude (and perseverance) with which you go about making it your own! Most of us have been laden with an unattractive rental bathroom at some point in our lives, but we (ok, I!) choose to sit and complain instead of taking it on! Great job!!
Caroline M. May 7, 2020
You're... the best?
GigiR May 5, 2020
If by any chance you have a window in your bathroom that needs privacy,
you might want to try another peel and stick product. At the paint store, there are window films on a roll, sold by the square foot. The one I picked fooled me as rice paper. Translucent and lovely to look at. It is in fact a plastic material, but doesn’t read as plastic. It is applied by spraying water on the window glass, and fitting the ‘paper’ film in place. You have to push out air bubbles as you go along. Its still in place after 3 years. Still looks good.
Arati M. May 6, 2020
That’s such a useful tip! Thank you!
M May 5, 2020
Certainly not an ideal style, but I'm impressed with how clean and well-kept the original is. Can't help but wonder what condition it will be in later, since mold and grossness loves to take over bathrooms.
Caroline M. May 5, 2020
Hi M! So far so good. Lots of wiping & sweeping as with any bathroom to stave off yuck.
GigiR May 5, 2020
There is a product called Concrobium. Its a pump spray that obliterates mould and mould spores. If you use it from the start, ironically, you won’t need it. It is killing the spores that’s important.
Also white paint that a lot of titanium in it has been known to obliterate mould on painted surfaces, like corners of bathroom ceilings. Its more of a blocker but works well. More than 1 coat might be needed. Good luck!
Queen O. May 5, 2020
Ummm, sorry, but that appears to be a pretty darned okay bathroom to me in its original form. I like the tile you covered up on both ceiling and floor. Changing the light fixture, okay - that is pretty easy to undo. But hey, it's your bathroom.
Caroline M. May 5, 2020
To each her own!
Ramona N. May 6, 2020
Fifty percent agree. I think the black on the ceiling could have stayed and complemented the vinyl floors and curtain. Also, let's see the door and new light fixture!
Claudia T. May 5, 2020
I totally want to do peel and stick on top of the current tile (like you did for your floor) in my rental bathroom but I'm worried mold will grow underneath? I'll be living in damp England.
I really like your shower curtain over the door, though! Looks a lot better.
Caroline M. May 5, 2020
Hi Claudia, this is a great point! I am definitely super careful with water on the floor, and the good thing about peel & stick is that it generally comes up easily if there is a need to clean underneath. It's not a perfect solution, but it works for me!