Rent Like You Mean It

I Found My Dream Apartment—Then I Looked Under the Sink

How one renter tackled her under-sink horror story with a clever DIY—and a steely resolve.

June 26, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

The story of how we landed this apartment is pretty bonkers—even for New York. It was a dreamy prewar charmer on the top floor of a fern-green turreted building, a block from the park, balanced like an elephant over the brightly twirling ball of a popular Italian restaurant downstairs. You could smell the garlic and anchovies through the floorboards, and the light from the south-facing window was blinding. It was the one. After 3 months and 50-odd viewings, we found ourselves signing a lease. We ordered bookshelves. And right after, we learned that there was an industrial-grade exhaust fan over our roof that roared every day for 8 solid hours. As it turned out, it shook the walls so violently you could get a foot massage simply by standing in the center of the primary bedroom.

We were forced to back out of the lease. There were 2 weeks of despair-eating pastries, and our attempting to settle for smaller (more expensive) places. We were close to giving up, when the phone rang. The fan had been fixed. We dropped everything we were doing. Exactly 2 hours later, it was ours. Again.

After such a fiasco, you’d think nothing could dampen my spirits. But, you see, I hadn’t looked under the kitchen sink yet.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I once rented a place where the landlord fixed EVERYthing with duct tape (cabinet doors, ceiling fans, drapery fixtures....). We eventually stopped calling him for repairs and just bought a roll of the magic silver stuff ourselves. Now a homeowner and pretty much only use duct tape for ...ducts. ”
— nita

I suppose there is a certain routine you go through when sizing up a potential living space. You peer into the closets (will your expansive collection of transitional spring coats have enough real estate?), practice dashing from one side of the kitchen to the other with an imaginary raw whole chicken in your hands (just me?), and size up the distance from your window to that of your neighbors (hello, mustached guy playing Minecraft over there). But somehow it never strikes you (me?) to look under the sink.

Now mind you, our landlord is a mensch—he bought us a brand spanking-new fridge, after all, but when it comes to the old “if it ain't broke, don’t fix it” adage, we have very different mindsets. To whit, this is what greeted me the day after we moved in and I opened the cabinet door:

Photo by Maggie Slover
Photo by Maggie Slover

It was dank, it was dark, it needed the Phial of Galadriel to see into the corners. Insulating foam sealant was applied pel mel to every gap and crevice, while the floor careened tipsily toward the middle where it turned into a disintegrating pile of rotten wood. The only thing missing? A family of possums.

After a few phone calls, it became clear the only repair that made sense was a demolition. Not being in the mood to spend hundreds of dollars on a rental, I poked around the internet for a more temporary (yet sanitary) alternative. And then it dawned on me. Years ago, my friend had covered her sketchy kitchen floor with peel-and-stick linoleum and it actually looked convincingly like retro black-and-white tiles. A quick search brought up similarly quaint patterns. I settled on a green old-world Barcelona-esque number from The Home Depot along with a box cutter and called my dad to make sure I wasn’t crazy. He said I wasn’t.

After a thorough vacuuming, I covered the most open spaces with the linoleum squares (they arrived in 12x12-inch tiles with a paper backing that peeled off). The built-in adhesive made it a cinch to stick them to the floor. Note: I added double layers where the surface was uneven. Then I crafted a paper template for the back wall where the pipes were connected, using that as a guide to cut holes with small openings so they could neatly fit around the plumbing. The leftovers I cut as reinforcements for gaps. All said and done, it took about an hour and a half and cost 30 bucks. Not bad at all.

Photo by Maggie Slover
Photo by Maggie Slover

It still feels a little like spelunking when I reach into the back for my Dutch oven, but the transformation was gasp-worthy. The new surface deters moisture from getting in and is easy to clean—and because it's just peel and stick, you can easily check behind to ensure there's no mold forming from residual moisture, then either stick back on or replace with new. Plus, if you squint, it looks like real tiles from a European villa. Too far-fetched? I’m going with it.

What are your rental kitchen horror stories—and happy endings? Tell us in the comments.

Now for the area around the sink:

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nita
  • Danielle
  • baileychic8
  • LoveArchitecture
  • Rebecca Phillips
    Rebecca Phillips
Maggie Slover

Written by: Maggie Slover


nita July 22, 2021
Late to the comments, but I have to say "thanks for the memories".

I once rented a place where the landlord fixed EVERYthing with duct tape (cabinet doors, ceiling fans, drapery fixtures....). We eventually stopped calling him for repairs and just bought a roll of the magic silver stuff ourselves. Now a homeowner and pretty much only use duct tape for ...ducts.
Maggie S. July 22, 2021
Haha that' Sounds like our landlords would get along. I hope I never see it holding pipes together again!
Danielle July 22, 2021
Slow news day :)
baileychic8 July 2, 2021
I once rented an apartment that had to floor removed from the bottom of the bathroom cabinets to access the bathtub drain and never put back. I fed a cat thru the whole it was the perfect place for her many litters of kittens. One evening I opened the cabinet to feed the cats and there was a possum under there eating the cat food he looked at me and hissed with food falling out of his mouth. Disgusting.
Arati M. July 8, 2021
Oh my goodness that sounds like a nightmare!!! What happened next?
LoveArchitecture June 29, 2021
Creative and lovely, Good Job you!
Maggie S. July 1, 2021
Gosh, thanks! <3
Rebecca P. June 28, 2021
I will never not open kitchen cabinets again when checking out apartments! When I moved into my current place (but soon to be former) and opened the old wood cabinets, I discovered the VERY strong smell of urine. Turns out that when polyurethane (which has urea in it!) gets really old, it starts to smell like pee. I never did find a solution. (As an aside I’m moving from SF to Brooklyn in a month with my dog, and also looking for a place near the park! I hope I find such a dreamy place!)
Maggie S. July 1, 2021
Rebecca what a nightmare! I've put a lot of baking soda boxes in there as well...fingers crossed. Hope you can find a place like this too. Idiosyncrasies and all, it's so worth it.
Aja A. June 28, 2021
Love the colors!
Maggie S. July 1, 2021
Thank you Aja!!