DIY Home

How I Completely Customized My Rental for Under $1,000

Plus, I can take it all with me when I move out.

February 15, 2022
Photo by Bobbi Lin

In my past rental homes, I’ve changed out the renter-special items (you know, the cheap, bulk-purchased fixtures and hardware) piecemeal, or just tried (in vain) to live with them. But I operated with hate in my heart for the boob lamps on the ceiling and cringed every time I grasped the caked-with-rust doorknobs. This time, in my new apartment, I made a commitment to doing the straightforward things first (doorknobs, cabinet pulls, light fixtures), so that when I painted and started to decorate, everything really felt like a cohesive and well thought-out home.

Our apartment is pretty standard-issue for the New York metropolitan area. Parquet wood floors, low-end appliances, an all-white bathroom. We’re lucky in that the unit has been well maintained, and the usual landlord-style shortcuts—e.g., painting over hinges or shoddy repair jobs—actually seem to be in short supply. My biggest gripe with the apartment is that it’s lacking in character. That’s the trade-off, though, when you choose a newer high-rise over the classic brownstone. With that said, I wanted to infuse a bit of personality into the space, as well as tone down all the stainless steel and nickel at the same time.

While I could have picked out various items from Home Depot, Amazon, and the like, this time I turned to an incredible source—an outfit called Rental Redo, which specializes in all the basic items that really make a home shine. The inspiration came when founder, Lauren Lemkowitz, grew frustrated at the lack of good quality hardware and fixtures to update rentals, and so she curated a one-stop shop for all the essentials, pointing out that a “rental redo” need not cost more than $1,000 to complete.

I cannot emphasize enough how changing out these basic items in a rental makes a world of difference. Whether you’re in a new-build rental with little-to-no character or an older home that’s been painted and patched more times than it probably should have, making updates to your space (in my humble opinion) is always worth the investment. Plus, all of these “temporary” fixes can be uninstalled and brought to your next home, so you can sleep easy at night knowing you’re not flushing money down on just a rental. Here are some of the super-simple (but not often thought of) things I swapped out.

Kitchen Cabinet Hardware

Our cabinets are a light maple veneer, which I initially thought looked super outdated. I had grand plans of covering them with black vinyl to make them look a bit more modern, but after sitting with them for a while (and incorporating some other light wood tones in the apartment), I decided they weren’t so bad after all. All they needed were some new pulls.

Left: Before, Right: After Photo by Caroline Mullen

The existing pulls were a brushed nickel finish, and while I didn’t mind the style so much, I felt like the cool-toned metal was bringing down the overall look of the kitchen. Brass pulls immediately warmed the space up, bringing a little life and character into the kitchen. These beauties are a solid, finished brass, so they won’t patinae (which I opted for, given how high-touch they are) and they’re super easy to wipe down. There are a bunch of other options in the Rental Redo shop, too, if finished brass isn’t your vibe. A little patience and a drill will get this project done in a half hour or less—promise.

Closet & Vanity Hardware

Ah, more nickel hardware! All the closet doors in the apartment are on overhead tracks, so they have small, drawer-pull-style knobs to open and close them. The ones that came with the apartment were…fine, honestly, but I wanted to keep a cohesive theme of matte black and brass throughout the home. These matte back knobs are weighty, feel expensive, and have the perfect amount of texture to easily grip and open the door. I also love that the bathroom vanity pulls are the same as the closet pulls—it makes the space feel like one.

The bathroom, complete with new vanity, door, and closet hardware. Photo by Caroline Mullen

Overhead Light Fixtures

If there’s one thing you can take away here, let it be this: Change. Your. Boob. Lights. You know the ones—they cost about $10 each at hardware stores, they exist in basically every rental known to man, and they look, shall we say, like a certain body part. Nothing makes a home look less custom than renter-grade light fixtures, I promise. I’ve changed enough light fixtures (with frantic FaceTime calls to my dad) to have a pretty solid understanding of how to do it, and it’s not nearly as daunting as you might think. I recommend watching a couple YouTube tutorials, triple-checking that you turned off the breaker, and trying it yourself. If you’re not up for it, though, hire a TaskRabbit to complete the task—it’s worth it.

The Sputnik lamp atop the dining table. Photo by Caroline Mullen
The brass button light in the hallway. Photo by Caroline Mullen

I swapped out all the overhead lighting (save for a larger Sputnik-style fixture in the dining room) for these adorable button lights that work just as well as low-profile ceiling lights as they do sconces. For the bathroom, I stuck to the matte black theme, and in the entryway and hallway, an unfinished brass, which looks modern and classic at the same time—my favorite vibe.

Door Handles

Last, but definitely not least, door handles! Chugging right along with the matte black theme, I opted for these sleek, modern door handles to install on the bedroom and bathroom doors, which coordinate perfectly with all the black and brass knobs and fixtures. You can see those in the above bathroom photo!

Have you made substantive changes to a rental before? Do you find it to be worth it? Tell us below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dubyel
  • Emma Kelsey
    Emma Kelsey
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.


Dubyel February 21, 2022
Replacing electrical fixtures is usually pretty simple, but don't just trust that the light goes off with the breaker off. Get a non-contact voltage tester ($15 - 25) to test the wires themselves before you touch the bare wires.
Dubyel February 21, 2022
Funny, when I bought my last house in 1995, I replaced all the light fixtures and ceiling fans with brass and updated the 50s kitchen with white cabinets and brass hardware. Skipping the oil-rubbed bronze phase, about ten years ago I updated all the light fixtures and hardware to brushed nickel to replace the outdated brass. So now those brass handles that we all tossed by the millions are back in and the brushed-nickel goes in the bin. Everything old is new again.
Emma K. February 20, 2022
Looks great! Where is your shower curtain from?