Home Improvements

November 21st, 2010 by Potato

I get a annoyed when people imply (or explicitly state) that a rental house cannot truly be a home. One reason seems to be the idea that since it’s “not yours” you can’t take any pride in how your place looks, and will not do anything to it, and will be at the mercy of your landlord.

Of course, Wayfare and I don’t buy into this at all. For making our place a home, we can paint as we wish (though our current and previous place had such good paint jobs with tasteful colours that we didn’t want to, though we did paint the institutional white of our apartment). For larger improvements it’s not that we can’t make them, it’s that we can’t make them without the landlord’s permission. We’ve found that landlords have been quite open to letting us work on improving the property, and in some cases have even been willing to share costs — after all, most things that make the place a nicer home for us also make it more attractive to future tenants. Some things are kind of halfway between a repair and an upgrade, and they’d be responsible for repairs anyway.

The biggest thing so far has been the installation of a dishwasher in the kitchen of our new place. There, we paid for the dishwasher itself (though our landlord sourced it through some discount supplier he knows), and our landlord covered the labour to remove the shelving, and the plumbing/installation. We didn’t mind paying $400 to get the use of a dishwasher for a few years, and then the landlord will have a dishwasher at a discount that can make the property more attractive for the next tenants. Win-win.

And of course, that idea of win-win is important with these sorts of negotiations: you have to make it worthwhile for the landlord as well as yourself, that’s the reality of the situation. But that’s not really a high hurdle to hit. Another big improvement to our current house was the installation of central air conditioning: we didn’t even (explicitly) pay anything towards that, we just had to point out that it was one of the only houses we were looking at that didn’t have central air, and the landlord agreed that it was becoming a standard feature. He agreed to install central air if we took the place a few weeks earlier than we were originally trying to negotiate for.

We’ve also made numerous smaller improvements on our own to this pre-war bungalow. We planned on being here for a few years at least, and understand that most small renovations do not provide any return at all, at best a recovery of some of the expense, even in an owned house. For the most part, you spend money on renos because that money spent on improvements makes the house a nicer place to live while you’re there, which brings you joy. It’s a cost of living. People shouldn’t look at them as something they want to get paid back on, and that to avoid spending any money on a house just because it’s owned by someone else is a way of thinking that doesn’t resonate with me.

Fortunately, Wayfare happened to be creating a list of all the stuff we’ve done just to keep our landlord in the loop, so it’s easy for me to cut-and-paste for you what improvements we’ve made to our home:

  • Added a door to the bathroom cupboard [The bathroom has a nook with shelves for linens and other storage, but it was just open to the bathroom. We put in an accordian door to turn it into more of a closet.]
  • Rehung the door to the middle bedroom [This was a repair rather than an upgrade — the door wouldn’t close properly because it was hung at an angle. Just had to take out the hinge and screw it back in properly/level.]
  • Added a door handle to the door to the basement [The door down to the basement just had a hole from where the knob had been removed — here’s where our landlord gets a negative mark, as in my opinion that should have been fixed before we moved in, but he figured it also had a hook/latch to keep it closed, so it still functioned. We put an actual doorknob on it.]
  • Put a peephole into the front door [Self-explanatory. For security reasons.]
  • Installed a screen door closer and spring on the front door
  • Took down the broken mailbox and replaced it [Technically, the old mailbox still functioned at its primary objective of holding mail, but failed at its secondary objective of keeping said mail dry.]
  • Replaced the vent cover in the kitchen [Largely cosmetic: the kitchen has a chess-board inspired white and black tile floor, yet had a light brown vent cover. We got a black one to match. Plus the old one was filthy.]
  • Added a oak hand railing to the basement [This one I think should have been done long ago, I don’t know how they had a staircase with no railing. We put one in.]
  • Added a new baseboard and quarter round around the landing to the basement to plug up some cracks [Largely cosmetic, but with all the following cosmetic improvements to the basement it went from looking really unfinished and ancient and utilitarian to being a rather nice semi-finished laundry room and storage space.]
  • Removed all of the plastic clothes dryer venting and installed new metal piping. The dryer now vents outside rather than in-between the walls. [Yeaaaaah… I’m pretty sure that vent do-hicky was supposed to go outside, and not into the void between the inner and outer wall.]
  • Cleaned out under the basement stairs and threw out the paint that had turned solid as well as all the broken glass. All of the current paint is now stored there along with the drawers that were taken out of the kitchen when the dishwasher was installed.
  • Installed doors to the area under the stairs to keep it out of sight. [The space under the stairs was just a mess. It’s both cleaned up and out of sight now, with a nice white-painted plywood triangle covering things up. Looks downright finished now.]
  • Removed the broken blinds in the front bedroom and replaced them with a roller blind. [The blinds were left behind by the last tenant anyway.]
  • Fixed the stove so that the plug on top now works [The actual problem turned out to be simple to fix, but I didn’t discover that until after I had taken the stove halfway apart.]
  • Scraped the cement off of the interior basement wall near the laundry area.[Again, just making it look more finished.]
  • Replaced the rotting shelves in the basement with melamine shelving
  • Replaced the plywood shelves in the bathroom cupboard with melamine shelving [Yep, don’t know who would have put their towels that they’d put on their clean naked body on those shelves. Ugh.]
  • Cleaned up the caulking and grout in the upstairs bathroom and added white quarter-round around the side of the counter where it meets the wall
  • Fixed the missing wallboard in the middle cupboard space in the basement [There was just a weird hole in the wall in the basement. We figured that the first time the cat got into the basement, she’d go straight for that and get covered in filth and insulation. It had to get covered up.]
  • Replaced the shower head [Water-saving, and it now has a hose/wand!]

I think some other items she forgot include rehanging the fridge/freezer doors so they open the right way around, and also levelling the fridge, updating some of the smoke detectors that appeared to be over 10 years old (and putting in a photoelectric type near the kitchen/bathroom), and the biggest one, actually getting damned electrical service into the garage, with a lightbulb! (It looks like there was a light bulb and electrical in the garage at some point in the past, which had then been torn out… fortunately for us, there was still a hole into the house for the conduit, which I guess is a kill-two-birds-with-one stone solution, as we also plugged that hole in the foundation between the house and the garage :) One that I think may help our health was covering up the hot water pipes with foam pipe insulation. The pipes were wrapped with “some kind” of insulation — it appeared to be old cloths, and they had basically fused to the pipes. We had to wrap the foam over whatever-it-was to seal it in, rather than mess with trying to remove the old stuff from the pipes. That alone made a huge difference to the appearance of the basement, as those ratty cloths hanging from the unfinished ceiling were downright creepy. Who knows what may have been growing in that browned fabric. Oh, and I rewired the phone and cable lines. Much better reception now :)

So you can see that it’s not very hard to make your space your own, even if you rent. You just have to work things out with your landlord. Most small improvements that people would want to make are quite easy to negotiate — indeed, your landlord may be thrilled that you’re helping to make the place better, and may share costs with you. Granted, more major renovations, such as redoing a kitchen or putting an extension on a house are probably nonstarters, but that’s not a big loss as you have the freedom to move as a tenant to find a place that suits you for a medium-term time period. You probably aren’t in the situation where you’ve got a starter home that’s just too small for you after a few years, and find it may be easier to renovate than move. That said, commercial tenants with aims to stay in one spot for a decade or so very often do work out renovation plans for their space, and it’s not like it’s illegal for a residential tenant to do the same: it’s just rare and tricky. But I suppose if you absolutely had to have granite countertops and were willing to pay for them anyway, then the only thing stopping you is your own negotiation skills.

8 Responses to “Home Improvements”

  1. Rachelle Says:

    What a great post Potato, quite frankly most landlords can’t really afford to do the types of improvements you’ve listed here…a contractor will generally charge a service charge of a minimum of $150 just to show up, and add more to go to the store and even a markup on materials. You can just imagine how much it would add up to just to get the work done.

    Those small jobs are the worst, they take a lot of time and don’t really add to the property value, for the landlord who may not even break even after the mortgage, property taxes, it’s a big deal.

    Next time you need a place give me a call :-)

  2. wayfare Says:

    Actually, my need to make our house a home is one of my absolute biggest regrets about renting.

    Over the past year we’ve invested over 250 hours of labour into this house (split between 4 people), and when we move again we lose that investment of time, and the landlord gets to rent the house for more money because it shows much better than when we first moved in. Or another way of thinking about it is that the average hourly wage of those 4 people is around $40/hour, so that’s an additional $10,000 we’ve invested into improving someone else’s house.

    Also, a few additional items since that list was made in the spring:
    – Re-carpeted the landing and stairs to the basement [they were covered in some sort of weird indoor-outdoor plastic runner that was cracked and covered in paint stains]
    – Installed a new laundry tub [the old one was cracked]
    – Added custom blinds to the living room and dining room windows
    – Fixed one of the panels in the lovely drop ceiling in the bathroom and painted the trim
    – Fixed the crumbling drywall around the basement stairs
    – Re-seeded a large part of the backyard
    – Fixed the shelving in the laundry room
    – Added a door to the garage
    – Painted the laundry room (including the ceiling), the storage room, and the stairs

  3. Potato Says:

    Rachelle: That’s a good point: it may not be too hard to get our landlord to knock a few bucks off the rent one month for the costs of some of these (I think Wayfare is still handling some of the negotiations there), especially since the cost of materials was quite low, and we saved him having to send someone in at some point, since some of those items were repairs (or would have been soon).

    Wayfare: You’re killing me here! “and when we move again we lose that investment of time” — that notion was part of what I was trying to dissuade: to a very large extent, we’d lose that investment of time all the same if we owned the house and moved.

    I have to say, if this is what happens when you’re regretting renting and holding back because you’re concerned about investing in someone else’s house… I shudder to think of the orgy of renovation fury you’ll unleash on our future (owned) house…

    Also: forgot the timer switch for the front light.

  4. wayfare Says:

    True, but once we buy a home WE ARE NEVER MOVING AGAIN.

    And there are bigger things that I’m trying my best to ignore about this house that I would fix in a heartbeat if we owned it. Like replacing the ridiculous dead bushes and taking down the dead tree out front.

    I like the haunted and neglected look in October just fine, but it’s darn depressing trying to find a living thing to hang Christmas lights on.

  5. jonathan Says:


    When you use you time and resources to upgrade a rental its lost, when you use it to upgrade a home you own it adds to the value which can be recouped!


  6. Potato Says:

    But… only ever partly. If you’re going to spend $5000 on some upgrades, and they only add $2500 to your property value, then you’re spending $2500 for your own enjoyment of the improved condition. If you spend $5000 on a rental and get the landlord to split the costs with you (either explicitly, or by paying the rent for a poorly-showing dump but then getting to live in a nice clean well-showing charming house for a few years) then how is that different? In the end, you’ve still spent $2500 on your own enjoyment. If the negotiations go poorly, then you’ve spent a bit more… but in this market, we’ll likely save more than that vs owning anyway.

  7. wayfare Says:

    It looks like we’ll be able to get the landlord to cover the $500 or so in costs for the half of the supplies we have receipts for. So, for a cost of $11,000 worth of work we’ve added probably $4,000 to the property value for which we will get $500 back. I’d say the house in its current condition could have been rented for an extra $100/month, which saves us $1,500 (calculated for the 15 month lease we have), so we’ve spent $9,000 on enjoyment for the 15 months we live here.

    If we owned the house, we’d get $4000 worth of it back when we sold, or the $11,000 worth of work would be a much better investment since we could enjoy it for the next 20 years.

  8. Potato Says:

    The question you have to ask yourself though is whether you’re really fairly accounting for the cost of those projects. $40/hour, 250 hours?

    I’m all for trying to fairly value one’s time, but I think there’s a logical leap being taken there. On the one hand, we wouldn’t have done some of that work if we actually had to pay that amount (the electronic timer for the front door is nice, but I don’t think we’d have paid someone $40 to come and put it in, and it did take me the better part of an hour to do). Plus, we’re amateurs and slow (a Bell tech wouldn’t have taken 3 hours to fix the phone lines). And, we don’t value our time that highly anyway (if we did, we’d never cook or clean for ourselves).

    The point I was trying to make was just that, in general, renting is not such a horrible existence. You can make your house a home, and that we shouldn’t begrudge spending some time or money on improving a house owned by another person (since even if we owned the house, some money would be consumed just for the enjoyment of the improvements, and since we’re also saving by renting for a few more years).

    However, I’ll undermine that general point a bit by saying that for our specific case, of the work we did in the laundry room, I think it would be one of the situations where all (or even more) of the money spent for upgrades/repairs may have come back as improved value in the house. With a small materials budget and a lot of elbow grease, we transformed that space from being dark, dingy, and dirty to clean and bright. It would show so much better now because of just those few panels to cover up holes, the general cleanup (including the difficult cleanup like scraping concrete over-spillage and replacing the runner on the stairs), covering the pipes, and a coat of paint.