Rent Like You Mean It

12 Upgrades You Can Make (& Get Away With) In Your Rental

It's time to ditch the fear and pick up the tool kit.

June 14, 2021
Photo by Food52

Rent Like You Mean It is a series all about giving our rental spaces a new lease. We’ve rounded up a whole host of refreshing spruce-ups (and cover-ups), impactful DIYs (plus how to get them back to square one when you leave), and peeks at real-life rental transformations. Because a lease should never stop you from having a space that feels like yours—even if it’s only for a year.


I am passionate about making rentals feel just as decorated and designed as any owned home. I am constantly redecorating my apartment, asking my landlord if I can make updates, and generally (I think) improving the value of the place. By documenting much of this on social media, my hope is to instill some confidence in others that they, too, can make changes and updates to their spaces—without having to worry about getting their security deposits withheld.

Aside from the fear of a forfeited deposit, the other thing I hear quite frequently is: “But is it worth it?” And the answer is, resoundingly, yes! Anything that will make your space feel more true to you, more relaxing, more inspiring, or just easier to look at—it’s all worth it. Some people can’t justify the cost of peel-and-stick backsplash for an apartment they may be in for only two years, but for others with specific taste, the sight of Tuscan-style tiles and dark grout is enough to start every morning in a sour mood.

There are also so many updates that make your quality of rental life infinitely better, ones that will almost surely go unnoticed by your landlord upon moving out. Things like swapping out old doorknobs, removing years of paint from hinges, or re-caulking the tub are actually more likely to increase the value of your apartment once you leave, with the added bonus of making you feel content in your home before then.

For other “renovations” like painting doors, changing light fixtures, or getting custom blinds (or if you’re not confident in your un-making-over abilities), you should check with your landlord first. Chances are, they’ll be agreeable about any changes you’re passionate about making, and they might even come help you do them to ensure everything is done properly. In my experience, landlords have seen how meticulously I keep my apartment, and are happy to let me decorate and update as long as the home stays structurally intact.

All of the updates below are ones I’ve done myself, and aside from them actually being empowering to accomplish on your own, they’re all well within the scope of what you can do in your rental. And if you have any questions, drop them for me below in the comments!

1. Paint the Walls

Paint! Is! Reversible! Let that sink in for a minute. There’s pretty much always a way to paint back to where you started, and it’s rare that landlords say you absolutely cannot paint. Most often, they ask for it to be painted back to the original color before you leave, and sometimes they don’t even ask for this, because they’re often required to paint between tenants anyway. When I brought the idea of paint up to my landlord, she shrugged and said, “do whatever you want,” so paint I did! I also asked for the original paint color, so I ordered a quart for touch-ups in places where I’ve patched the wall, and I can easily order a gallon should she ask for it to be painted back before we leave.

2. Re-Route the Cable Wire

While we don’t have cable in my apartment, we certainly do need Wi-Fi, which requires a modem connected to the coaxial cable that comes in through the wall. But of course, the spot the previous renters chose to put their router and modem didn’t work with our configuration. I discovered that they had run the length of the cable throughout the living room and attached it with small pins, which then got painted over between tenants… so I got to work pulling it off the wall and around the trim, tying up the extra, and stashing that (along with the router and modem) strategically behind a chair. The entire cable is still intact (just in case the next tenant needs to put the router farther away), and I repainted in the places the cable used to be. Of course, if you’re in need of more cable or to snake it along the wall, you’re also definitely allowed to extend the cable and pin it to the wall.

3. Install Curtains and Blinds

Landlords don’t expect you to be constantly exposed to peeping neighbors, and if they do, it might be time to seek out a new place anyway. Using a few screws to install blinds and curtain rods onto your windows are pretty much a given. Plus, if you’re concerned about leaving holes in the trim or walls when you leave, they’re very easy to patch with some wood filler or spackle—promise.

4. Nail Things to the Walls

I can’t believe I’m still saying this but…hang your art up, people! You’re absolutely well within your right to put a few nails on the walls, which generally are so small they don’t even require patching. If they do though, you know the drill. If you’re really anti-holes in your space, though, there are just about a million different Command Hooks that hang, stick, and fasten many kinds of wall art.

5. Use Drywall Anchors

For heavier frames, floating shelves, and mirrors—you’ll need a little more staying power than just some nails. Drywall anchors are a little more intense than a nail or a hook, but they’re just about as easy to patch when it’s time to go. Rule of thumb here? Anything that can be spackled is within your ability to do.

6. Peel and Stick Everything

Peel-and-stick is also…peel away. By that, I mean temporary! While traditional wallpaper is affixed to the wall with horribly permanent paste, peel-and-stick wallpaper is just a big, glorified sticker—made to easily come off when it’s time to move out. Similarly, peel-and-stick backsplash or floor tiles often are meant to be removed at the end of a lease, and while perhaps aren’t the greatest option for an owned home that requires longevity from materials, they’re the perfect thing for a one-to-five-year place.

7. Mount a TV

What, are we just all supposed to have enough room for a TV console or entertainment center? This is not always the case, especially in city rental apartments where space comes at a premium. Mounted televisions are cleaner to behold, take up less space, and are easier to hide with art or a canvas. Similarly to a drywall anchor, the screws you use to affix a TV to the studs behind your drywall can be easily patched, so don’t let a rental stop you from a full movie night experience.

8. Change Lighting Fixtures

There’s simply no reason that you need to live with boob lights. They’re cheap, unattractive, and more often than not, dated. The good news? All you have to do is save the existing fixture to put it back up when it’s time to move out. And trust me, if I can change five light fixtures in my apartment by myself, you can, too.

9. Soak Painted Hinges

Did you know that you can actually remove the years and years of paint gunk layered onto your cabinet and door hinges? Yup. Once you’ve cut them free from their painted prison with a utility knife, you can soak them in hot water and laundry detergent overnight, loosening the years of neglect to then be scrubbed off in the morning. Now, lucky for you, your doors will close again!

10. Paint Doors and Cabinets

For anything in your home that’s unpainted wood, I would recommend checking with your landlord before painting. It’s much easier to change a paint color on something already painted than to go back to raw wood, and they might not like you messing with trim or doors—especially if they’re old. However, lots of apartments have really cheap or old doors that just…look bad. I asked my landlord if I could paint a few of them in the apartment, and she truly couldn’t have cared less. Now I’m plotting a way to convince her to let me paint the kitchen cabinets

11. Change Doorknobs and Cabinet Pulls

Similar to light fixtures, doorknobs and cabinet pulls are items easily stashed in a closet to be replaced by the original when it’s time to move out. If you really hate your existing knobs either on your doors or cabinets, all it takes to replace them is a screwdriver. Keep the original ones tucked away in a drawer somewhere and pop them back on when it’s time to go.

12. Mount Shelves

Just like hanging art or mirrors, you, too, can mount a shelf! Most wall-mounted shelves either screw into studs or attach with a few drywall anchors, and you already know you can definitely pull those off.

Which of these updates would you try in your own rental? Tell us your thoughts below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LuLu_88
    LuLu_88
  • NotYourLandlord
    NotYourLandlord
  • Walrus679
    Walrus679
  • M
    M
  • emily
    emily
When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.

21 Comments

LuLu_88 July 19, 2021
Goodness gracious to the people who are getting bent out of shape. She literally said to check with the landlord, not go willy-nilly doing whatever under the sun you want.

I love these ideas! I'm all about making a space feel like home, no matter where you are or for how long. I live in a relatively new apartment which was thankfully well-designed, for the most part. I have a "corporate" landlord/leasing company, so I can't implement a lot of these changes.

I did hang fun curtains in the living room and bedroom and swapped out the shower head. I use wall hangings to express my style in different rooms; I put up antique-looking bookcases and decorated the tops of them with candles, mirrors, lavender bunches, etc; I hung antique copper mixing bowls from little nails in the kitchen; I store my fermentation projects in purple, green, and blue Mason jars on my kitchen counter top; etc, etc, etc. My place feels like "me" and feels like home, and I look forward to being in my space every day.

Even if you're limited on what you can do, you should absolutely make your space your own, within the parameters of what you're allowed to do. Thanks for this post! Love these ideas!
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. July 19, 2021
I love these ideas!! I absolutely love seeing how other people personalize their rental spaces—it's so inspiring!
 
NotYourLandlord June 16, 2021
Speaking as a landlord who is generally really easygoing, I’m super glad you aren’t my tenant. All of my properties are 100+ years old, and the fixtures, etc in them might seem “dated” to you, but they are either original to the individual house, or historically accurate for it. The thought of you merrily drilling, hanging shelves, changing out hardware and lights willy-nilly frankly gives me the bends. Just because your current landlady doesn’t seem to mind means that’s a blanket ok or a good idea for anyone else. You’re doing no one any favors by suggesting these are wonderful suggestions for the average renter. If you want to make that many changes, get a mortgage.
 
NotYourLandlord June 16, 2021
*doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for anyone else.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. June 16, 2021
Welp, sounds like it's good you're not my landlord then!
 
emily June 16, 2021
Based on my friends' and my experience, most landlords frankly do not care about the quality of the accommodations they are providing. I don't even have functional windows in my apartment. There appears to be a very vocal and defensive 1% of landlords who DO care and make a point to comment on every article like this as if tenants are mindless lemmings who are going to start ripping out antique fixtures because they read an article on the internet. Maybe you're just the one in a million perfect landlord who's had a few nightmare tenants but most of us aren't like that, in the same way most landlords don't do what you have described.
 
Wesley123 June 17, 2021
not your landlord is obviously a big jerk! No need to make that kind of comment to you!
 
Walrus679 June 15, 2021
One thing not mentioned, many city apartments and houses have less than inspiring views.
Look into window films!
They cling to glass and can give you a view of anywhere.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. June 16, 2021
Ooooh, a great suggestion!
 
M June 14, 2021
Having a lenient and easygoing landlord seems to have you mistaken on what people can generally "get away with." Many of these are things that would definitely anger many landlords, make you lose your security deposit, make landlords stricter for the next round of tenants.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. June 14, 2021
No mistakes! I'm clear that many of these things require permission, and luckily, many are also easily reversible upon moving out.
 
M June 14, 2021
Respectfully, this piece explicitly says the opposite and sets a new renter up for trouble -- that these are the updates they can make, get away with, and not lose their deposit for.
 
emily June 14, 2021
Great tips. I'd also add - replace the shower head and toilet seat! I replaced my old 1950s shower head with a bigger one that has a handheld attachment - makes it SO much easier to clean the shower/tub and bathe my dog. I also replaced the old toilet seat with a soft-close version, which is way more convenient (plus your butt doesn't have to share a seat with whoever lived in your home in the previous decades). I did not keep the old toilet seat but I stashed the original shower head under the bathroom sink and will replace it when I move out. Lately I've been wondering about installing a ceiling fan in the bedroom, and figuring out how to conceal my TV cables behind the wall. I'll need to check with my landlord for those but here's hoping it works out.
 
emily June 14, 2021
Great tips. I'd also add - replace the shower head and toilet seat! I replaced my old 1950s shower head with a bigger one that has a handheld attachment - makes it SO much easier to clean the shower/tub and bathe my dog. I also replaced the old toilet seat with a soft-close version, which is way more convenient (plus your butt doesn't have to share a seat with whoever lived in your home in the previous decades). I did not keep the old toilet seat but I stashed the original shower head under the bathroom sink and will replace it when I move out. Lately I've been wondering about installing a ceiling fan in the bedroom, and figuring out how to conceal my TV cables behind the wall. I'll need to check with my landlord for those but here's hoping it works out.
 
emily June 14, 2021
Oops, sorry for the duplicate comment!
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. June 14, 2021
Oh good one! I also replaced my shower head and toilet seat! So gross to be sitting on someone else's toilet, I agree.
 
shinylizard June 14, 2021
As a landlord, I have to disagree with several of these, especially mounting a TV. I work very hard to keep my historic duplex (plaster walls & professionally finished floors and trim) in very good shape and attractive to renters. When I purchased it, one of the units had several gaping 2-inch holes from someone who had tried to mount a TV in several different places on a wall. My leases spell out clearly what tenants can and can't do, if they feel like changing something, I'll usually agree to it, but I've got to think about the long-term shape of my building. I won't ask my tenants to live somewhere that I wouldn't immediately move into myself. Boob lights? Not in my building.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. June 14, 2021
You sound like a great landlord! Definitely not all of these are doable in all apartments, totally agree. With a vague lease, I'm mostly left to ask about all these individually to my landlord, and generally she's very agreeable!
 
emily June 14, 2021
I'm not sure what the previous tenants did but mounting a TV definitely shouldn't result in 2" holes!
 
Smaug June 14, 2021
Might not, but using things like sheetrock anchors and molly bolts- even if nothing goes wrong- leaves holes that are really too big to spackle, and will certainly require repainting the room. Painting wooden cabinets is probably irreversible damage. If I were a landlord I'd be extremely leery of amateur painters- too many places with windows painted shut and moldings that you can no longer tell what shape they are.
 
Arati M. June 14, 2021
Love these, Caroline! I have the opposite problem: I treat my owned apartment like a rental—with kid gloves! lol