What can be fixed in a rental you think you love?

You’re out on a Saturday, looking at apartment after apartment, all small and musty with weird layouts or on a freeway or living next door to an ex-boyfriend when you finally come upon a great apartment. It’s in your price range, it’s in your favorite neighborhood, it has a great Thai take-out place a few doors down, but… there are a few things that give you pause.

Today we’re going to talk about what can and can’t (or shouldn’t be) changed in a rental apartment.

One rule of thumb for any rental “upgrades”: you should be a able to change it back, and, even better, take it with you with you leave. Think about it: you’ve made an investment of time or money, you should get it back at least in how much happier your apartment makes you, but it’s even better if you don’t lose your security deposit or if the item can be used in your next home as well.

What you can’t change:

  • Location:  Yes, all neighborhoods change over time, but don’t try to bet on gentrification or up-and-coming hipness unless you like the neighborhood as is. For example, mid-Market MAY change with the arrival of Twitter and other companies moving in, but it may not. Love the neighborhood as is, or wait until you do.
  • Layout:  If you’re saying to yourself, “This apartment would be great if we could just knock down this wall,” walk away. Quickly. This is not a show on HGTV.
  • Neighbors and Noise:  If you’re really noise-sensitive, you should be looking for a top-floor apartment that doesn’t face the street. At that point, you’ve done the best you can do and only after you move in will you find out if your neighbors are party animals or not. Invest in earplugs and study up on negotiation tactics because you’ll be the new kid in town telling the neighbors to keep it down.
  • Flooring:  You can’t really do much about flooring. With people lining up out the door for the apartment, landlords are likely to giggle if you demand they replace carpet with hardwood. Of course, you can always lay down rugs, but you have to make your peace with what’s on the floor before you move in.
  • Built-in storage:  I have a friend who is constantly telling me I should paint the cabinets in my kitchen. This violates the cardinal rule of being able to change it back. You can, however, always add shelving and then take it with you when you leave — as long as you’re willing to spackle.
  • Laundry:  Unless you have the hook-ups but no machine, the laundry situation in a building is not going to change. Even shared laundry is a deal-breaker for some people, usually those who like to leave their clothes in the washer for days on end. And others seem to relish the opportunity to go to the laundromat — they are just sure their romantic-comedy-worthy “when we met” story is going to happen over sorting lights and darks. Either way, laundry is what it is. Make your peace and move on.
  • Parking:  If you absolutely need parking and there’s a wait list, be careful about what the usual turnover is in the building. Bigger buildings with younger tenants may mean you move up the list quickly and you’re only searching for street parking for a few months, whereas with established buildings and tenants, you could be waiting years. A rental either comes with parking or it doesn’t. You need to decide if it’s a deal-breaker.

What you can change:

  • Paint:  The first thing you ever did in your first apartment was to paint every single wall, right? I think we managed to go through a different color for every room and do a dark red wall in our living room — all which we massively regretted when we moved out less than a year later. If you are planning on calling this new rental home for more than a year, by all means, paint. It can give a space a completely different feeling. And, even though you’ll have invested time and money in the paint itself, it can always be changed back easily, or with a small-ish hit to your security deposit.
  • Window treatments:  Mini-blinds not doing it for you? You’ve got a view of a wall from the living room? Hang curtains! Not only will they help dampen sound (just like rugs) but they can help change the intensity and color of light as it enters the room.
  • Light fixtures:  Do you have what are ever so affectionately called “boob lights”? Feel free to hit up Home Depot or the Alemany Flea Market for new fixtures. They aren’t difficult to replace once, and if you have a place to store the old fixtures, you can just swap on move-out day and no one will be the wiser.
  • Your attitude:  So, maybe you can’t afford a Victorian with hardwoods, built-ins, and crown molding or a loft with a space-age kitchen, views of downtown, and 14-foot ceilings. There is no reason to despair! Find the things you do like about the apartment, and focus on those. If you’re not constantly thinking about your brown carpet or peeling paint, you’ll be much happier (and a better dinner party guest).