Renovating Your Rental: Home Improvement for the Non-Owner

James O’Brien

If you’re thinking about downsizing to a smaller home, then you’ve probably considered renting. It’s not a simple decision to make; there are a lot of questions to be answered. How much space do I really need? Are the neighbors noisy? What’s the right renter’s insurance?

In addition to these concerns, you may be wondering whether you can renovate a rental to make it feel more like your own, and whether the renovations will cost you money (that will ultimately benefit the rental owner).

Luckily, there are plenty of simple ways you can renovate your rental property without upsetting your landlord, or pouring money into a project you can’t take with you when you move out.

It’s fair to say that painting the walls is almost always the way renters refresh a drab space — a reversible-enough renovation that landlords often don’t mind. But there are other ways to improve your living quarters that are just right for rental units.

From drawer pulls to faucet fixtures, along with the well-placed accent or three — here are a few ideas that you can use to improve a rental space and take with you if you decide to move on.

Foyer and Hallway

Often neglected, these are the spots where small additions can go a long way. “The entrance to your home, whether it’s yours forever or for a few months, should be inviting to everyone who crosses the threshold,” says Cheryl Dixon, head of Brand and Trade Marketing for Grohe.

“Spiff yours up by creating a table-scape on a narrow Parsons table or small, wall-mounted, demilune-shaped shelf with a small dish for keys, a tray for mail, a lamp, or candles. Not only will it be a prettier spot, but a more serviceable one,” she suggests.

Living Room

“If you’re not permitted to hang pictures, think about investing in a grand, nearly ceiling-height mirror and leaning it against a wall,” Dixon says. “This is a modern concept, and with the right frame, a marvelous accent for any style of furnishings.”


Add architectural detail via a folding screen painted to complement the walls and furnishings. Or switch out your lighting scheme, mixing small lamps and even colored bulbs to project a room-changing wash of different textures.


You can swap out a dated faucet to make your sink look brand-new again. And you can transform your shower into a spa-like experience with a multi-setting shower head. Toilet seats can be an inexpensive and dramatic way to alter impressions of the room — changing a beat-up white model to a wood or colored resin model can do the trick.

Be certain you keep the original units, however. You’ll want to be able to return the room to the landlord’s specifications if they request it at the end of your tenancy. And you’ll want the option to take the items that you purchased with you.


In this room, you’ll want to focus on replaceable but not permanent fixtures such as cupboard hardware. When it comes to knobs and handles, you can stick with classics (e.g., faceted crystal) or move to something contemporary (e.g., steel). Just be certain to select knobs and handles that use the same number of screws and screw size as the ones your landlord has in place.

Renovation Rules

Rules for renovating a rental space will differ, lease to lease, but some basics apply to almost every situation.

“Having a written agreement about what is done, who owns it, and what happens when the tenant leaves is critical to avoid conflict and perhaps a law suit at the end of the lease,” says Bruce Ailion, a realtor and property manager with ownership interest in about 120 rental homes.

“Just about anything done can become the possession of the owner when you move, or, anything you do may need to be removed and returned to the original condition if the owner did not approve or did not like it,” he explains.

If the improvement is agreed upon ahead of time, however, you might well be able to negotiate a longer lease at your current rate or share the costs of improvements with your landlord. The point is, it can pay to be forthcoming about the work you want to do. So, talk it out, follow through, and enjoy your renovated rental.

Keep Reading: 4 Guides for Your Weekend Home Makeover Project

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