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Rental renovation: How to budget and sell your landlord on apartment upgrades

When Toronto-based Autumn Hachey first spotted her apartment in the west-end neighbourhood of Parkdale on Kijiji, she knew she had a potential project on her hands.

The space had solid bones, but design-wise, it was far from easy on the eyes. The kitchen, for example, was furnished with IKEA cabinets and a retro black-and-white backsplash that made the room feel cramped and dark.

A stylist with HGTV and interior designer by profession, Hachey’s first instinct was to completely redo it, but there was one problem: It was a rental.

Rental renovations are notoriously difficult to pull off. Renters are often stuck jumping through hoops with their landlords to avoid being charged for damages or losing their security deposit. And without the incentive of watching your own property value climb, it’s hard to justify any high-cost fixes — so renters have to get creative in making changes on the cheap.

But Hachey found a way around both hurdles: She drew up a proposal that involved low-cost fixes, sat down with her landlord, and put forth her design ideas. She wanted to repaint the walls and the backsplash, install new cabinet handles and lighting fixtures, and grout tiles onto the side of an IKEA island that came with the space.

She quickly got permission, and one month and $1,000 later, her newly renovated rental kitchen was bright, comfortable, and looked brand new. But Hachey says none of the work she put into this would’ve been possible had she not had a strong relationship with her landlord from the get go.

“I think landlords, they get scared that you’re going to ruin their property,” she says. “I always recommend making this as hassle-free (for them) as possible. Pretend it’s a design presentation and just walk them through what you’re thinking.”

Hachey also urges renters to consider how a renovation may increase an apartment’s value in order to get the landlord on board. She took this approach in her previous apartment, for example, and her former landlord agreed to help cover the cost of installing new lighting fixtures as a result. The renovation proved to be a win-win for both parties: After Hachey moved out, her landlord was able to increase the rent by $200 a month.

Beyond splitting costs with your landlord, Hachey says being thrifty about sourcing materials is another great way to lower the price of a renovation. She recommends second-hand stores and Instagram resellers such as @the_sweetest_vintage and @theapartmentlife and says scouring these accounts is one of the most underrated ways to source high quality, one-of-a-kind items on a budget. Renters with even tighter purse strings should look at Value Village or Facebook Marketplace, she says, which are often littered with hidden gems should you have the time to hunt.

It’s also important to prioritize certain design tasks, like painting and redoing the lighting, which are “the biggest changes you can make to a space that are visually impactful,” Hachey says.

Dark colours will automatically make a space feel smaller, so opting for bright-coloured furniture or painting the walls a light colour are easy first steps that can completely change the way a room feels. And if you’re really strapped for cash, try switching out the lightbulbs or adding string lights or thrifted lamps.

Lighting is an “ambience-maker,” she adds. So if you’re stuck, start there.

Peel and stick wallpaper and molding are other non-permanent ways to enhance the visual appeal of a room, and are relatively affordable from retailers like Home Depot and Wayfair.

And if you’re looking to revamp your home without spending a dime, there’s always the option of decluttering or moving furniture around. Clearing off floors and placing large furniture toward the sides of a room can have a surprisingly large impact on how large a space feels.

Regardless of approach, Hachey urges renters not to put off the process of renovating: It’s possible even on the leanest of budgets, and entirely worth the effort.

“At the end of the day, when you’re making over your space, this is your home,” Hachey says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re there for two months or five years, that is your home base.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2020.

Audrey Carleton, The Canadian Press

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